DULUTH – As more first-time wilderness trekkers explore the untamed wilds of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, many are recording another first: needing rescue.
On Saturday morning the St. Louis County Rescue Squad extracted a group of nine stranded adults and teenagers from their campsite on Fourtown Lake, about 15 miles northeast of Ely.
“They attempted to stretch the abilities of their first-time crew,” said conservation officer Sean Williams, who helped bring life jackets to the campers and ferried out some of them.
Williams said the group had some experienced members, but they were unfamiliar with the low water conditions when they left their site on a day trip and ultimately had to abandon their canoes. They ran into problems after realizing they’d ventured too far, Williams said. They lacked the right equipment and thought they could navigate Moose Camp Creek back to Fourtown Lake. But the stream is largely dried up this year and proved impassable.
The group tried to portage before needing to leave four canoes in muck, Williams said, and outfitters later retrieved them. The group bushwhacked back to the campsite, aided by other visitors who heard their calls for help.
“Luckily it had a happy ending,” Williams said. “The weather conditions were in their favor.”
Several days after his crew came to the rescue of the stranded campers, Kristian Jankofsky said outcomes like theirs need to be anticipated.
“There’s a level of knowledge that isn’t there for these newcomers,” said the longtime St. Louis County Rescue Squad volunteer. “They don’t quite know what they’re getting into with these trips.”
More people are heading into the Boundary Waters this summer as developed campgrounds fill up or remain closed and the pandemic diverts more summer vacations into the woods, he said.
The allure of the wilderness has grown as increased cellphone service makes it easier to get out of a sticky situation — a panic button increasingly being deployed as a Plan B as opposed to a last-resort option.
“Instead of people working that stuff out, there is this reliance on: ‘Oh I won’t need to be prepared, I have a cellphone and someone will come in and help me,’ ” Jankofsky said. “The big thing to realize is these are wilderness areas, they are remote, the people going in to get you are volunteers with limited resources.”
He said the relaxing of the requirement to view introductory videos on backcountry safety may be leaving visitors less prepared for potential problems than in years past.
Still, he’s glad to see the increase in newcomers.
“People make mistakes; you gain experience having lived through it,” he said. “I think it’s important to pass that experience on to other people.”