It was a perfect late-summer week in the woods Up North. Even the mosquitoes were quiet.
“No rain, little wind, gorgeous and peaceful,” Peter Paine recalled. “We watched bull moose running after females. Geese flew overhead. All the gorgeous things of a coming fall in the north country.”
An international lawyer and bank chairman from upstate New York, Paine and his wife, Patty, had staged a 10-day canoe trip out of Ely at their favorite longtime outfitter, Piragis Northwoods Co.
Gear packed, a floatplane strapped with their canoe sputtered into the air and dropped them off on Lac la Croix — a meandering, rocky-cliff waterway that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border.
It was Monday, Sept. 10, 2001. The Paines were 1,500 miles and light years away from the chaos about to explode in lower Manhattan.
“With one paddle stroke, we were in Minnesota, and the next stroke put us in Canada,” Peter said. “There’s not much difference. It’s all so gorgeous.”
A couple of days of crackling camp fires and blazing sunsets later, gently steering their canoe along a 70-mile circle deeper into the lake-dotted woods, the Paines stopped for lunch on a rocky point.
That’s when Patty asked: “Where are the planes?”
“Well, darling,” her husband recalled saying, “we’re deep in the interior of the Quetico [Provincial Park], they’re not allowed to land here.”
“No,” Patty said. “Where are the jets higher up that leave contrails at 35,000 feet?”
“I told her it must be a change in the jet stream or something, forcing them further north or south,” said Peter, who was 65 at the time and soon will turn 81. “Obviously, it never occurred to us what was happening.”
They’d crossed paths with only one other person so far, a Manhattan architect of all things who was fishing solo that Wednesday. They visited briefly, but “we didn’t ask him anything because we didn’t know anything was wrong.”
On Thursday — two days after terrorists smashed jets into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon before crashing a fourth plane in Pennsylvania — the Pines spotted a Piragis-stamped canoe with another solo fisherman. It was lunchtime, so they all broke out sandwiches.
“We are on a typical rock in the wilderness and were ready to leave when the guy said, ‘By the way, have you heard about the World Trade Center? Both towers were hit and collapsed. Five thousand are dead.’ ”
The real death toll neared 3,000, but the first reports varied. The time of the attacks, Peter soon learned, was earlier than he’d been told. When news spreads by mouth and canoe, details can get foggy.
That’s how word traveled 15 years ago in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico, its sister wilderness refuge. One campfire to the next. One canoeist to another. So different from the incessant barrage of TV images most people confronted on 9/11.
“It was obviously quite a shock,” Peter said, “but also less traumatizing, I suppose.”
Patty broke into tears. Their daughter and son-in-law lived in Midtown Manhattan. Was that far enough from the inferno? Peter thought of his colleagues; his firm was on the 38th floor of One Liberty Plaza.
“The south tower was 200 yards out my window,” he said. “I thought, good God, my partners, my secretary, they must all be dead.”
They decided there was only one thing they could do: keep paddling. “Except for some guy in the Kalahari Desert, we must have been about the last two people on the planet to realize what had happened,” he said.
They ran into another floatplane pilot, who told them the terrorists had crashed into the towers around 9 a.m. New York time, not 10 a.m. as the fisherman had said. “Our office didn’t even open until 9:30 a.m. and lawyers work late and don’t start back at it too soon, so fewer people should have been around,” Peter said.
They asked the pilot to relay word to the flier who had dropped them off that they would be at their rendezvous spot as planned. Told he couldn’t fly into U.S. airspace, they were dropped off at the Sand Point Lake border crossing on the Ontario side. Piragis arranged for a boat and van ride from Crane Lake.
They quickly learned their daughter was fine in Midtown. Countless clients from one of Peter’s top legal accounts, Fiduciary Trust, died on the 97th floor of the south tower. No one at his law firm was hurt. Windows were blown out of the first 27 floors of his building, but his firm was 10 floors higher.
When the Paines returned months later, they looked down into the pile of rubble at ground zero, where they watched the solemn ritual followed when remains were found. Everything would stop and a casket would be brought in, wrapped in an American flag.
The Paines were able to fly from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Montreal and drive the remaining 90 miles to their home in Willsboro, N.Y. They’re back in Ely on this grim 15th anniversary, staying at the historic Burntside Lodge because some friends didn’t want to camp.
Around the lodge fireplace, they’ll no doubt retell their story — a quintessential North Woods tale of a sunny week Up North when world-rattling events seemed so far away from the moose, geese and clear blue lakes and skies.
“It was sobering,” Peter Paine said, “to be in the middle of all that beauty while horror was wreaked upon the country and the world.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks/.