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Surviving Disaster in Boundary Waters


(Editor's note: Shilo Anders is a
recent graduate of Seeley Swan High School
and the daughter of John & Shauna Anders)

reprinted in the
Aug. 19, 1999 issue
Seeley Swan Pathfinder

 

by Andrew Miller, Staff Intern
The Daily Tribune, Hibbing, Minnesota, July 26, 1999


When five college-aged women left the Northern Lakes Girl Scout Canoe Base outside of Ely in early July, they thought they were beginning a week of skill building.

Skill building is what the group of highly-trained canoe trip guides got, but the skills exercised were far from the standard portaging and paddling.

On July 4 the group stopped for lunch on Kekekabic Lake and later that afternoon found themselves in the middle of the most devastating storm to hit the Boundary Waters in recorded history.

To survive the storm and get out of the wilderness, the women needed to put to use skills they had before only practiced.

The practice, especially training on staying calm in stressful situations, though, came through for the group when the trees around them began to fall.

Group member Ann McNally said she was never specifically taught what to do if trees all around her were falling. Yet, by staying calm through the ordeal, she said, surviving was much easier than it would have been had the group panicked.

"We stood in a circle with our backs to each other, so we could see all directions and look out for each other," McNally said. "I was standing there and saw this tree coming towards us.

"I grabbed Sara [Woodworth], and I pulled her towards me. It's kind of weird, because they come fast, but look in slow motion, and you have time to react."

No one had time enough to react and grab Shilo Anders when a tree began falling towards her, but a yell prevented her from serious injury.

"Someone called my name, and I looked, and a tree was coming down on me," Anders said. "I stuck my hands out to protect my face, but it hit me and knocked me on the ground.

"It bounced up and landed about three inches above my body, so I could get out."

Anders managed to get out from under the tree, and before long other trees were protecting her and her partners from the storm.

"Once a tree fell down behind us, Shilo and I dove under that tree. We just crouched for maybe half an hour," McNally said. "[The other three in the group] went to the root system of a big tree and stayed under there."

"We all got out once, and we were looking around in awe at all the trees down, because there weren't any standing," Anders said. "We went from the shortest things in the forest to the tallest. In the lightning we decided we better stay down."

Finally the storm ended, and the women got out from under the trees for good.

Since the storm had come quickly and while the woman were eating lunch, food and dishes had been left out. Most gear and personal belongings, however, had never been removed from the packs in the canoes. The women split into two groups to recover gear on land and in the water.

"Ann and Paisley [Nash-Dooley] went down to the water. They were walking in the water, because it was the easiest way to get around," Anders said. "They found one canoe, and it was swamped, but there was a tree on it, so it couldn't blow away.

"The rest of us were up where we had set our lunch site, and we were trying to find food we had left out. We were also trying to salvage our rain fly, because for all we knew we only had that."

The women in the water quickly found a canoe paddle and four life jackets. With the paddle, they were able to take the canoe along the shore and see what had blown further.

"The other canoe was probably down 100 meters," Anders said. "There had been four packs in the canoe. When we got down to it, there was nothing."

Amazingly the women managed to recover nearly everything, and many of the supplies were dry. Unfortunately, the second canoe was in terrible shape.

"It had a big gash in the middle near the stern, and all the ribs that hold it together were coming out," Woodworth said.

Instead of repairing the canoe immediately, the group decided it could be paddled to the next campsite and be fixed there, after it dried.

"We decided we would ride the canoes near shore and when the one was just about to swamp we would get on shore and flip it over," Anders said.

The campsite the women paddled to was filled with downed trees, including one on the fire grate, but all campsites were in similar shape, and the one canoe could not go much further. Once at the campsite they made repairs on the canoe and decided they should return to their entry point as quickly as possible.

"We used bubble gum and duck tape and medical tape to hold the canoe together," Woodworth said. "We used the gum for the huge gash in the stern. We filled it up with gum and put duck tape over it.

"It still leaked, but we were fine."

That night everyone went to bed early, but around midnight another storm hit and kept everyone awake for the rest of the night.

The night's storm caused the group to get off to a late start the following day, when they made their first attempts at portaging.

Taking the first portage, Woodworth said, was an adventure only second to the storm itself.

"It's normally an eighty rod really easy portage. Normally it should take, with unloading and reloading, like fifteen minutes to cross," Woodworth said. "It ended up taking us three hours.

"We had five packs, so we all took a pack. It took us an hour to get across."

Woodworth said they brought the packs to where they could see the water. From there, four people went back for the canoes, and one person guarded the packs and brought them nearer to shore.

"We had two people with each canoe," Woodworth said. "We'd have to sometimes go over trees and under trees. Most of them were probably chest high. It took two hours to get the canoes across."

All the while the woman were portaging, they were alone and did not see any other victims of the storm. They did, however, see an occasional airplane fly over assessing damage and looking for people who were injured.

"It was comforting hearing the planes cross on top of us," Woodworth said. "We could have easily flagged one down if we badly needed help."

After the initial portage, travel went better for the group. The lakes were small and the portages were short.

By late afternoon the women were looking for a place to spend the night, but they could not find any designated campsites that were not destroyed. Eventually the group found a clearing by the shore and set up camp there illegally.

"The forest service guy came up and saw where we were and said he was glad we were camping there, because none of the campsites were safe," Beth Walsh said.

By the time the group set out the next morning the forest service was well on its way to cleaning up portages and campsites, and the women were begin ning to come into contact with other campers.

"There would be like three down trees on the entire portage, and we saw people and they'd be like `wow, there's a tree down,'" Walsh said. "We didn't think that was anything big."

"A lot of people were starting to ask us, `were you out in it?'"

By the second night after the storm, the group was close enough to home that they could relax and enjoy the night.

"That night was really fun," Walsh said. "We were thinking about going in that night, but I'm glad we didn't."

The next morning the group got off to an early start and ended up making it back to the base four hours earlier than they were scheduled. Nash-Dooley said the people at the camp knew the women had been in the hardest hit area and were excited to see them again.

"One of the assistant directors came running down to the landing and gave us big hugs," Nash-Dooley said. "Everyone else came out and crowded around to see what happened."

Most of the women's parents had heard about the storm, and they all got phone calls shortly after the trip from their daughters saying they were all right.

The rest of the day, Nash-Dooley said, the group rested up and ate a lot, but it was not long before the women were back out on the lakes serving as guides to girl scouts.

"The girls have been wanting to hear about it," Nash-Dooley said. "They don't seem worried about going up there at all."

Canoe base director Doris Kolodji, Hibbing, said the women's' story was remarkable in that no one got hurt and few supplies were lost. The one canoe, though, is unrepairable.

"People came in stunned, but not them," Kolodji said. "Part of it was luck that they made it, but a good part of it was skill. They kept their heads.

"A lot of the time in training there's arguing about who's going to lead for the day and that sort of thing, but this time they all worked together."

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