ALBERT LEA, Minn. - Fifteen miles from Ely and more than a hundred miles from Duluth, Scott Pirsig pushed his canoe away from the shore of South Hegman Lake in the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area. He had just left his buddy Bob Sturtz behind in the tent at their wilderness camp.
He wasn't quite sure what happened to Bob, but he knew medical help was needed. To make matters worse, fog engulfed the lake. Could he find the portage on the other shore without getting lost?
It was March 31, a Saturday. Moments earlier, the two Albert Lea friends in their early 50s had been telling stories around the fire. Actually, Bob had been telling stories to Scott over cappuccino. They were stories about college, golf, vacation, children and his "lobster," an endearing term for his wife, Lisa. Lobsters mate for life.
"I got a million more stories. Do you want me to go on?" he asked Scott.
The two had planned a canoe trip to the Canadian border but after learning that some lakes still were frozen, they minimized their plans to visit the two Hegman lakes. On Friday, they parked their automobile and portaged the canoe to South Hegman Lake, crossed it and made their camp on an opposite shore.
On Saturday, they paddled to see American Indian pictographs on North Hegman Lake, then went for a hike. Bob complained of a "sinus-type headache" but dismissed it. They returned to their camp, and he took some Advil. They gathered wood, made supper and began telling stories. They were in a good mood when they hit the sack near 11 p.m.
Bob complained about being cold, which was common for him.
"I noticed him reaching for the zipper on his bag, and he wasn't able to pull it," Scott said when recounting the story. "I asked him what was the matter, and he looked over at me, stared blankly at me and didn't say a word and then looked back down at his sleeping bag."
Scott repeated his name and tried to get Bob to talk, but he wouldn't.
"How can this wonderful, boisterous friend, who, just moments ago, was laughing and joking with me not be able to talk? What was wrong?" Scott said.
Hypothermia? Scott got the first aid kit and asked Bob if he was cold. Bob shook his head. Questions raced through Scott's mind: Will he snap out of it? How long should I wait? Should I leave him here alone?
He decided Bob needed more help than an experienced wilderness explorer with a first aid kit could provide, but the situation prompted more questions: Can he get Bob into the canoe? If he leaves solo, what if Bob gets up and wanders away?
Scott made Bob promise three times he would not leave the tent. He nodded his head. Scott grabbed a life jacket, the map, two flashlights and a paddle, then shoved off.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but I felt I had no choice," he said.
Scott began taking trips through the Boundary Waters in 1978. He estimated he has made 60 to 70 trips there. Over the years, he had played out in his mind several times what he would do in an emergency.
All of them involved apparent injuries: a hatchet to the foot, a broken bone, things like that.
"I never played in mind something I wouldn't know or that I would have to leave someone," he said.
Bob was suffering a stroke, Scott realized as he paddled across the foggy lake. With a stroke, the sooner a person gets help, the better. He could not afford to get lost.