Nine wilderness campers from St. Paul are happy to be alive and healthy after a storm’s swirling winds uprooted trees all around them in their Boundary Waters campsite Wednesday evening.
The group of four dads and five sons ages 16 to 20 had just finished a burrito dinner around 7 p.m. on Trout Lake north of Tower when they saw rain and storm clouds at the south end of the lake.
With limited cellphone service, they couldn’t get good radar images, but it looked like a small storm that was going to miss them.
“The sun was out behind us. It was hitting the shore on the other side,” said David Bell, who talked with his son about taking their small fishing boat out for the evening.
It had been hot, Bell said, and they knew thunderstorms were possible. Nobody was alarmed when it started raining — something the experienced group had weathered plenty of times before.
Then it rained harder. Then it poured. Then the wind picked up.
“All of a sudden ... there was this screaming wall of white coming at us,” said Jason Busch, another of the dads. “It felt like getting sprayed with a fire hose from the east, which was weird because [the storm] was coming from the west.”
Lightning struck all around the campsite, and loud cracks of thunder mixed with the sounds of snapping branches and ripping tree trunks.
“All these trees started to topple around us,” Bell said. “It was literally pandemonium.”
One of the dads yelled for everyone to get out of their tents, out from under tarps, and run down to a large, bare rock on the shoreline — as far as they could get from trees and flying debris.
Several trees uprooted directly under Busch’s tent, sending it flipping.
Some in the group believed a funnel cloud had descended on them.
And just as soon as it came in, Bell and Busch said, it was over.
Afterward, the group found that branches and pine cones and other objects had ripped through rainflies on tents, but no trees had fallen directly on them. Two tarps were torn to shreds. Their small fishing boats that had been pulled up on the shore were filled with water and sand.
Between 15 and 20 mature trees toppled, Bell said, several with wide but shallow root systems taller than a person. Some trees were snapped off halfway up their trunks.
“We couldn’t believe that nobody was injured,” Bell said.
The group knew they wouldn’t make it back that night to a motorized portage, where they could put their fishing boats and small motors on a trailer to be pulled across by an ATV to Lake Vermilion. So after bailing out the boats, they moved the salvageable tents and tarps and decided to try to take turns sleeping while some kept watch for more bad weather.
Around 4 a.m., one of the dads blew a whistle as a signal to come back to the rock as another storm with lightning blew through, although not as severe this time.
By morning, the group packed up their belongings and bailed water from their boats a second time before setting out to leave, a five-day plan cut short to one night.
After they reached safety Thursday, the group of longtime friends said they have a new appreciation for how vulnerable it can feel to be out in the wilderness without any shelter to flee to.
The speed and intensity of it was mind boggling to me. ... We’re very thankful,” Bell said.