Headed to her dream wilderness lake on the first leg of a three-week canoe trip, Elaine and Dick Barber paddled into the Basswood River rapids just as they had done a decade ago.
On that July day, the Minnetonka couple had easily navigated the canoe through the rippling rapids in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. But on Sunday, the water was high and fast. So rather than hug the left side of the rapids as they had done before, they went right, where Dick Barber, 78, thought the water looked calmer.
“But it dropped, like a waterfall, and it took us down,” Elaine Barber, 75, said Thursday evening. The canoe capsized; the packs and the Barbers spilled out into the frigid water. Elaine Barber, her life jacket zipped on, grabbed one of the rubberized packs and swam to shore.
“I kept thinking, ‘I have to make it,’ ” Elaine Barber said. “The water is cold enough it’s not going to be good if you stay in it very long. I just assumed my husband would follow right behind me.”
In the midst of the scramble to safety, the couple, who had been together for 31 years, married for 19, called out to one another.
She yelled for him to come in her direction. He yelled, “I can’t move.”
Standing on shore, she continued to scream: “Come here. Come here.”
She thought about swimming out to him but “I thought it might take both of us down.” So she called out again. “Come this direction. Swim. Swim.”
She heard only the wind and water.
“I was pretty sure he went down,” she said.“Everything is such a blur.”
But she knows she soon spotted the canoe, swam to it and gathered the packs. She dug out the emergency locator that her four sons insisted she and her husband carry on their wilderness trips. She sent out a distress signal, changed into dry clothes, set up her tent and waited.
Dusk fell and the roar of a plane came overhead. Barber grabbed “two red things,” and waved. And waved. “But they couldn’t see me.”
Wrestling with questions
She climbed into her sleeping bag and spent a restless night.
“The big question that will always haunt you is should I have taken the risk to get out there to him without the canoe,” she said Thursday night. “But we both probably would have been dead. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t second-guess myself over and over.”
Finally, morning broke. She waited for a heavy fog to lift, then sent another distress signal. Within 20 minutes, Barber heard a helicopter overhead and within moments a rescue team had landed on the island. Loading her and the gear into the helicopter, they rose above Basswood and began the journey to a hospital in Atikokan, Ontario.
“As we left, an eagle flew under us,” she said. “I told the pilot, he was wishing us well.”
Back home in Minnetonka Thursday, the Episcopal minister who also works as a substitute teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, remembered her husband, a retired advertising executive.
“He’s a wonderful man,” she said. “Charming, fun, creative. Just a wonderful man.”
She also had words of advice for adventurers headed north: Be prepared. Take emergency devices. Praise your rescuers.
Body found Thursday
Divers recovered her husband’s body Thursday afternoon and reassured her that she had been wise not to swim back into the river’s fast, cold currents. It’s probably why her husband, whose life jacket was found floating in the water, succumbed to the river.
Just hours before reaching the rapids, the Barbers had stopped for a shoreline lunch. Elaine Barber dug out an anniversary card for her husband. “June 2 was our anniversary,” she said. “He told me we would celebrate back in Ely when we finished the trip. We would get a bottle of champagne.”
Instead Elaine will try to make one more trip into canoe country to spread her husband’s ashes in McKenzie Bay on Kawnipi Lake as he once requested.
But her long canoe adventures are done. “My best canoeing buddy is gone,” she said. “It was our time together.”