Their last night in the boundary waters, while fixing dinner at a campsite strewn with downed trees, seven paddlers heard a sound overhead, a helicopter.
Hovering the craft a short distance above them, its lights flashing, the chopper’s pilot seemed to be asking whether everyone was OK.
“We all gave a thumbs-up,’’ Joe Wente said. “And the chopper flew away.’’
Others weren’t as fortunate. This was Thursday, July 21, and early that morning, about 2 a.m., a fierce wind and rainstorm had swept through a large swath of northeast Minnesota, snapping off trees and wiping out power.
Not far, by the crow, from where Wente, his dad, Thomas; brothers Will and Tim; Mitch Frederick and his son, Hans; and Dan Charlesworth, all of Rochester, were camped on Ima Lake, a Boy Scout and adult scout leader suffered the worst of it.
The two, both from Texas, were killed by toppling trees while camped on the Canadian side of Basswood Lake. Two other scouts were injured.
“We didn’t know about the Scout deaths at the time,’’ Joe Wente said. “But we suspected there had been injuries and perhaps even some deaths in the BWCA. The storm was really something.’’
This was Wente’s 19th consecutive trip into the boundary waters. By tradition, his annual weeklong journeys begin the third week of July.
“This year we put in at Lake One, which we hadn’t done before,’’ he said. “It’s sort of a busy entry point, so we wanted to get off by ourselves as quickly as possible. We camped on Insula Lake the second night, and on Thomas [Lake] the third night.’’
Warm and at times even sweltering weather greeted the paddlers. But soon everyone was happy to be on the trail, and by the fourth night, when the group camped on Ima, they had settled comfortably into rhythms familiar to BWCA visitors: breaking camp in the morning, paddling and portaging throughout the day, and setting up camp again in the evening.
Wednesday evening, Wente and his crew turned in about 10:30, pulling their three canoes a good distance from the lake before they did.
“The next thing I knew I woke up to thunder and lightning, but I didn’t think too much of it at first,’’ Wente said. “I thought it would be a normal storm.
“Then, all of a sudden, we heard torrential rains on the lake, and the wind picked up intensely. When it finally hit our tent it felt like a wall of wind and water. Dan and I were in a tent together, and we grabbed the tent poles to hold the tent in place and keep it from ripping to pieces.’’
Winds throughout the Arrowhead Region were clocked at more than 60 miles per hour that night, strong enough to upend age-old white pines or snap their tops off and propel them through the air like murderous lances.
The storm raged for as long as 30 minutes.
“I only heard one sound during that time that wasn’t wind or thunder, and that was the sound of a tree cracking directly behind our tent,’’ Wente said.
When the gale subsided, the campsite was under water. Everyone in the group was OK. But their canoes were gone.
One of the craft they found about 50 yards inland from where they left it. The other two were in the lake, in a small bay, one upright, the other upside down.
“We were kind of shaken by the storm,’’ Wente said. “We talked about it and decided to cut our trip short. We didn’t know what else might be coming, or what problems we might have getting out. A lot of trees were down.’’
Reams of duct tape were applied to the capsized canoe to make it seaworthy.
Then the group plotted a course for Snowbank Lake, which lay a half-dozen or so lakes and a similar number of portages distant.
“We thought we might be able to make it in a day,’’ Wente said.
They learned otherwise at their first portage, where they were greeted by a wasteland of downed and splintered trees.
“What should have been a 15-minute crossing took us an hour and a half,’’ Wente said. “Big trees were lying perpendicular to the portage. We had to form an assembly line to pass our gear hand-over-hand over some of the trees. Others trees we had to saw.’’
En route from Ima Lake to Disappointment Lake, where the group was camped when the helicopter hovered above them, the wilderness at times seemed pockmarked by explosions, Wente said.
A campsite where they ate lunch was littered with at least 20 downed trees taller than 50 feet, he said.
“There was so much damage we could only speculate about how many canoeists might have been killed,’’ Wente said. “We thought the number might be in the double digits.’’
The Boy Scout who died was 13-year-old Christian James Sanchez of Lewisville, Texas. The adult volunteer was Rorth Lac, 39, of Carrollton, Texas.
Wente and the others wouldn’t learn the victims’ names until they reached Snowbank Lake on Friday, and from there hitched a ride to Lake One.
It was at Lake One that their two vehicles were parked, including Thomas Wente’s 2016 Chevy Tahoe. . .
Which had a tree lying on top of it.