Erik Grams saw he was at a point of no return. Then, in an instant, he was swept past it.

His canoe pulled into the mouth of a 30-foot waterfall, he was tossed into boulders and cascading current, on a knife's edge between life and death.

In seconds, Grams was thrown underwater at the base of the falls. Struggling and clawing to the surface in the current, he caught a glimpse of the sky. Then, after a gasp for air, he was thrust downward again, and a third time.

Grams had gone to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — and remote Curtain Falls on the Canadian border — in mid-May, along with his younger brother Reis and three companions. The brothers, sometimes with others, had taken many trips into the wilderness, and expected this one to be no different: walleyes on a stringer, campfires at night, stars bright in the sky.

Reis and Erik were in one canoe, and friends Jesse Haugen and Kyle Sellers were nearby in another. They were fishing on Crooked Lake's pool above Curtain Falls, where it dumps into Iron Lake.

Then, the lake's calm water turned the tables on their canoes. They went over the falls.

Struggling in the current, Erik fractured his pelvis. Briefly, he caught a glimpse of Haugen — but never saw his brother again.

"I was grieving while I was underwater," he said. "It was so bad and unbelievable.''

Now, more than three weeks later and more than a week after the bodies of Haugen, 41, and Reis Grams, 40, were recovered from the wilderness, their kin and friends continue to grieve. Services for Grams were Tuesday in Blaine. Haugen's life was celebrated June 6. Erik Grams, 43, meanwhile, and Sellers, 47, who broke a leg, continue to heal from their injuries.

For nearly 24 hours — from the early light of May 18 into the overnight hours of May 19 — a fishing trip with a long family history and so much promise had descended into an epic BWCAW rescue-and-search operation.

A beautiful day was breaking, and by about 6:30 a.m. May 18, the Grams brothers, Sellers, Haugen and a fifth friend, Jared Lohse, were on the water. Destination: Iron Lake, west of Crooked Lake and their connector: picturesque Curtain Falls. The group had spent the previous night camping on Nina Moose Lake after entering the BWCAW late in the afternoon at the Moose/Portage River north entry off the Echo Trail and northwest of Ely, Minn.

Good fishing was on the minds of the five friends. Erik and Reis Grams co-own Touchdown Tile in Blaine, where Sellers is employed. They've worked construction projects with Haugen and Lohse of Rock Solid Plumbing in Cambridge, Minn., which Haugen owned.

The Grams brothers had made near-annual trips to the Curtain Falls area for the past 17 years. Erik had even proposed to his wife, Laura, at the spot. Haugen had made five or six trips with the Gramses, and safety was always a priority. If the wind was up, they steered clear of the pool on Crooked Lake above the falls.

The group reached their Iron Lake campsite about noon on the southeast corner of Three Island, west and south of the falls. They ate lunch. Then the Grams brothers prepared their fishing gear and set off ahead of their companions for the moving water below the falls. Reis caught a few walleyes before he and Erik portaged around the falls on the U.S. side onto Crooked Lake. Haugen and Sellers showed up soon after, while Lohse, 33, of Cambridge, decided to hang back at camp.

A light, favorable wind blew out of the west as the men fished. Erik Grams said they always kept a distance from the edge of the falls, and this day was no different. "We were constantly communicating."

At one point each of the brothers had on big walleyes, but worked together to safely control their canoe while landing the fish. Haugen and Sellers were catching walleyes, too, when the Grams brothers took a short break on shore. With plans of a walleye dinner soon back at camp, they went back on the water for a few last casts.

"Twenty seconds later, hell broke loose," Erik recalled.

The brothers were positioned about 40 to 50 feet from the falls. Haugen and Seller's canoe was closer — and then got too close and was parallel to the falls. Attempting to move away from the edge, Haugen and Seller's canoe began to tip and then suddenly flipped before landing upright. Holding onto the craft's gunwales, Sellers disappeared down the falls. Haugen, meanwhile, managed to right himself and, chest-deep in water, appeared to have perched on a rock in the current at the middle of the falls, outstretching an arm toward the Grams brothers.

Slowly, Erik and Reis Grams inched toward their friend, closing the distance to 2 to 3 feet. Erik suspected their tumble was next. "I thought, we are not going to be able to pull off this impossible save." In that instant, Haugen moved toward their canoe.

In seconds, they were all sucked into the falls. The canoe ruptured, and the next thing he knew, Erik was submerged in 10 feet of water and trying to swim to the surface.

"I have revisited this so many times," he added. "Was there something we could have done?"

Grams has acknowledged none of the four was wearing life vests. "That's the one thing," he said.

The turbulence sucked Erik's running shoes from his feet. Struggling to stay afloat in the rapids, he grabbed hold of a flat rock on the Canadian side of the lower falls. His hip aching, he moved barefoot through brush down the shoreline for the next 15 minutes, yelling and searching for his buddies. He saw the stern of one canoe on an island and shouted. He heard a voice but didn't know who it was. He was prepared to make a 50-foot swim across the current when a solo paddler named Nick appeared as if from nowhere.

Erik climbed into the man's canoe, and they went to the island, where Sellers was wet, cold and suffering. Erik's own pain intensified — he learned later that he had multiple pelvic fractures. A friend of Nick's also appeared in a solo canoe. (Both men requested not to be fully identified and, through Erik, declined to comment.)

Using a satellite device, one of the good Samaritans reported the emergency, while they cared for the two injured paddlers. The St. Louis County Sheriff's office said it received the distress call at 7:20 p.m.

Meanwhile, below the rapids, Reis Grams and Haugen remained missing. The two rescuers were searching for the missing pair when Erik saw a return message on the satellite device screen. Could the paddlers make it out under their own power? He managed to type back: "Two missing."

When the St. Louis County Rescue Squad and its captain, Rick Slatten, had a sense of the predicament, they scrambled to get Grams and Sellers airlifted out. The two paddlers were on a small island about an acre in size and about a third of a mile west of the falls, on Iron Lake.

Around 10:30 p.m., Grams saw the lights of a rescue aircraft. By about 12:30 a.m. May 19, pilot Grace Zeller landed a Department of Natural Resources helicopter on the small island and plucked Sellers for transport to Ely, and later to a Duluth hospital. One of the rescuers hung back with Grams, and the DNR pilot returned for them around 2 a.m. Grams was taken to Ely for treatment, before being taken by ambulance May 20 for care in Duluth. Lohse was extracted, too.

Haugen's body was recovered May 31; Reis Grams' on June 2. Causes of their deaths are being determined.

The incident and the rescue and search that ensued spanned 17 days. Slatten and his squad were familiar with the area. Yet, he said, this mission posed unique challenges. At one point, the crew used chain saws and other cutting tools to clear a landing zone to accommodate a CH-47 Chinook state National Guard helicopter to bring in the squad's swift boat and other gear. Poor weather also delayed and challenged the rescuers, who worked at times in and around Class V rapids where the falls descend into Iron Lake.

All told, 59 personnel were involved in the operation, whose cost hasn't been determined.

"This will rank among the top three rescue squad calls in terms of challenge and complexity," Slatten said.

Slatten said he and his team had to consider multiple possibilities while searching for Reis Grams and Haugen. The rescuers' focus was 1½ miles of water and shoreline. Searchers also got more details from Erik Grams to inform their strategy. The team used its swift boat — an inflatable-type vessel — drones, special remote-controlled mini-submarine devices, and even a K-9 unit.

Angie Grams said her husband, Reis, was where he was meant to be before their lives changed forever. Reis made his first trip to the BWCAW when he was 7 and more followed with his father, Bart, and other family members.

"He was instantly addicted," she recalled.

There were multiple trips most years. During their courtship, Angie got her first experience on the big water of Brule Lake. Now their boys, August, 10, and Teddy, 8, are veterans, too, and, she added, already determined to continue their dad's legacy by taking a planned trip in August.

The Lino Lakes family is always on the move, from outdoors endeavors to youth sports to family trips to state parks. Angie said they had visited 27, with a goal of visiting every one and of heading down along the Mississippi River later this summer. "We were always doing something," she said.

Perhaps Reis Grams' most meaningful trips were in a different direction, in service to low-income people in Mexican villages near Ensenada, south of Tijuana. There he and his family have helped build homes through Walk the Talk Missions. He and Angie made several trips since 2018, and the family was together there last October.

"In the 17 years I knew Reis, I only saw him cry when he talked about Mexico," she said. "It brought him so much joy."

The tragedy is especially painful because Reis Grams and Haugen had been friends since they were kids. A father and husband, Haugen was an Army veteran, an angler and hunter, and a BMX racer. He was known for his "profound integrity and his patriotic heart," according to his obituary.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to support the families of Reis Grams and Haugen.

After the tragic event May 18, Erik Grams received an arresting photo in a text from Nick, who came to his aid. Taken at 3 a.m., just after Grams was airlifted, the moon's glow radiates over Three Island and Iron Lake — a moment of transcendent beauty that belies the harrowing day. Grams has made several wall prints to share. He said the image has given him peace.

Like Angie Grams, he sounded undeterred about his commitment to a region that until May 18 had brought them so much joy. He plans to fix his shattered canoe and to stand in for his brother when Reis' family, including August and Teddy, takes their BWCAW trip in August.

"I feel like I am close to God in God's country," he said. "It's what we lived for, and we did it for that reason."