The two Boy Scout leaders stood under the shade of towering trees near the shore, soaking wet and forced to abandoned their canoe in a Boundary Waters lake. Their strobe light flashed in hopes of catching someone’s attention.
Minutes later, a State Patrol helicopter whirred above with rope dangling, then lifted the men — and their spirits — to safety and a reunion with the six other Ohio adventurers whose canoes were overwhelmed Thursday afternoon on a windswept and misty Basswood Lake.
“They were happy to see us,” said St. Paul Fire Capt. Alan Gabriele, who is part of the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Air Rescue Team (MART), which since 2012 has pulled off four airborne rescues around the state.
The drama unfolded on an open expanse of the lake, north of Ely and within shouting distance of the Canadian border, and left five Scouts, their two leaders from back home and a locally based Scout leader soggy but relieved to be alive and shaking off mild hypothermia.
Justin Mayne, a captain with the Lake County Rescue Squad, said all eight were in the water at some point and had on life jackets, and “without those, we probably would’ve had a very different outcome.”
Mayne added that “it was getting pretty dark out there,” but he and the others were ready to work through the darkness if there were still lives to be saved.
The Scouts, ages 15 to 17, and their two leaders were from a troop based in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester. They brought a satellite phone with them into the rugged wilderness, which is famous for being unkind to cellphone reception. That phone was how the group got word out that there was trouble.
“The last thing I said before he left was, ‘Keep my boys safe,’ ” said Diana Hudson, whose husband, Howard, was on the adventure with her twin 15-year-old sons, Jake and Grant Lemen.
Hudson, who spoke with her 55-year-old husband once he had dried off, said her family members were in the canoe that capsized when “a big storm came up,” while the other canoe was pushed to a shoreline by relentless winds and waves.
“My husband was in the water for about an hour before someone [in the group] grabbed him and pulled him to shore,” she said, adding that his rescue did not require a ride on the helicopter rope.
“He’s a survivalist,” she said. “He knows what he’s doing up there.”
Safe by 7 p.m.
Mayne said the first call that the canoes were in trouble and missing came about 4:20 p.m. Within 30 minutes the searchers, using LaTourell’s Resort on Moose Lake as a base, found three of the missing canoeists near Canadian Point.
Barely a half-hour later, according to Mayne, the other five were spotted on land just north of Washington Island.
Gabriele, who coordinated the operation while aboard the helicopter, said the two adults were spotted through the dense and tall tree canopy thanks to a strobe light they had along on their adventure. “It can be nearly impossible to find them without a strobe,” Gabriele said.
The float plane on the scene couldn’t get to the two because the waves were so high, and the state Department of Natural Resources “tried to land a boat [but was stymied] because of the rocky shoreline and the wave conditions,” said Dave Willar, a State Patrol pilot who kept the helicopter steady during the airlift mission.
So they tried “shore hauling,” in which the helicopter hovered over the targeted area. The two Scout leaders swung at the end of the rope for a quarter-mile, strapped in and staring at the face of a rescuer and then delivered to a float plane that took them to safety, said one of the chopper’s crew members.
“Everyone was accounted for and safe” before 7 p.m., said State Patrol Lt. Matt Nelson, who heads MART. Soon after, they were checked out at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital.
“They were doing fairly well,” said Mayne, adding that both canoes were recovered from the lake, which measures up to 110 feet deep in spots. “They were in good spirits. Obviously, a little wet.”
Mayne said the weather was far from ideal for canoeing, with rough waters making it crucial to keep the bow pointed straight ahead.
“The wind was really kicking up,” said Mayne, a county forester by day who’s been embarking on rescue missions for about five years in his volunteer role. “In certain areas, it was 25 to 30 miles per hour with major gusts up to 40.”
Complicating matters, he said, was that “the rain was pretty constant throughout it all, pushing that mist around. And there was a pretty good chop, too.”
Willar, the pilot, said that “if weather conditions were any worse and we couldn’t get in, they probably would have had to spend the night there.”
The boys and their leaders were participating in a Northern Tier High Adventure Program, based in Ely and operated by the Boy Scouts of America.
Kevin Dowling, Northern Tier’s general manager, said the Scouts were nearing the end of their five-day adventure when the weather kicked up.
“We can’t thank the rescuers’ efforts enough,” he added, “for all they did last night for a wonderful outcome.”