A beautiful July evening on the pristine waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness suddenly became a “war zone” early Tuesday as fierce winds dropped trees on tents in the dark of night, pinning campers and causing severe injuries.
Hours later, at least nine people were evacuated by emergency crews as others in canoes, planes and a helicopter scoured the western edge of the northern Minnesota wilderness area for others who might have been hurt in the storm.
The storm struck swiftly. About 1 a.m., a light rain gave way to flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. Then came a roar. “I thought it was a tornado,” said Richard Dugas, 70, of West Baton Rouge Parish, La. It was the second day of a weeklong canoe trip for him and 13 members of his family and three friends. They were camped on Lady Boot Bay on Lac La Croix, on the U.S.-Canada border.
“It was so loud, I couldn’t hear what was happening. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing,” Dugas said. “I knew something bad was going on, but I didn’t know what it was until my grandson started screaming.”
A tree fell on the edge of Dugas’ tent, where his 13-year-old grandson, Hayden Toups, was sleeping. A larger tree fell next to that. “He’s screaming and I’m hollering for help but nobody could hear me,” Dugas said.
A father in another tent threw himself on two teenage children to protect them as the wind roared and campers screamed.
Dugas isn’t sure how long the storm ravaged their campsite — maybe five or 10 minutes. “I just don’t know. It’s a blur,” he said.
He also doesn’t know how he got the tree off his grandson. “Hayden just missed a big spike of wood going right through him,” he said.
Over in another tent, another grandson and Dugas’ son-in-law, Kirk Sanchez, 47, of Port Allen, La., narrowly missed being crushed by a large pine tree. The tree’s roots kept it from falling flat, Dugas said.
As the campers crawled out or were pulled to safety, they huddled under a makeshift tarp, using a satellite phone to call for help. They tried to stay warm. They waited for daylight. They hoped for help.
Call to fishing camp for help
“The transmission was garbled and broken, so it added to the confusion,” Lt. Curt Erickson of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office rescue squad said Tuesday night. “Eventually it became clear that trees had fallen on some of the tents and people were hurt.”
Erickson said they knew that one man had a broken arm, possibly a broken shoulder, was having difficulty breathing and felt some chest pain. The 13-year-old boy appeared to be bleeding internally and possibly had a broken hip or pelvis, he said.
Erickson said planes couldn’t be sent to rescue them because of the darkness and poor weather conditions, and rescuers were 2½ hours away by boat. So officials enlisted Mark Zup, whose family operates a fishing camp on Lac La Croix, about 25 miles from the campers on Lady Boot Bay.
By the time Zup and an employee, who is an emergency first responder, headed out across the lake, “it was about 4:20 a.m. and still dark, but I could start to make out the shoreline,” Zup said. With 2 miles yet to go, the storm’s destruction became obvious. Large branches and treetops littered the lake, and the smell of pine that made it feel like the area had just been logged, Zup said. Large pine trees crisscrossed the campsite, with trees on top of some of the tents.
It looked like a war zone, he said.
Zup took the two injured campers to Beatty Portage, where they were met by a rescue crew. The two were then taken by boat to Crane Lake and eventually by ambulance to hospitals in the region, Erickson said.
2 women pinned under tree
By afternoon, campers on nearby Loon Lake also sent out a call for help. Two women were pinned under a tree, Erickson said. The campers on Loon Lake apparently didn’t have a communication device and had to wait until daylight before campers in their group could paddle to other campsites in search of help.
Rescue teams freed the two women and they were flown out of the BWCA, Erickson said. Three other campers had less serious injuries and were evacuated by boat.
Erickson didn’t know the condition of the two women or the other injured campers.
By Tuesday evening, search crews believed there were no other injured BWCA campers needing to be rescued, Erickson said. “We checked everything,” he said.
Becca Manlove, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, said crews had not yet assessed the damage from the storm.
“It’s more extensive than we originally thought,” she said.
But it’s not as extensive as the historic blowdown that occurred on July 4, 1999, she said. That storm knocked over millions of trees in an area 30 miles long and 4 to 12 miles wide.
Scanning their campsite as they waited to be rescued, Dugas and his family were stunned by the devastation, surprised they escaped death.
“The key thing is that we are alive,” he said. “We realized how close it came. We’re Christian people, and we feel tremendously blessed to be alive.”