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Couple survives capsized canoe on Lake Superior

Teresa and Charlie Evans on the North Shore in 2009. This year's trip included an ill-fated canoe trip on Lake Superior they won't soon forget. (Submitted photo)

TWO HARBORS, Minn. - They couldn't stop shaking. He went to hug her and she thought the worst.

He wants to hold me, one last time, because we're going to die. They can't find us and we are going to freeze to death.

It was the first time Teresa Evans felt real fear.

Charlie Evans had gone in quickly. The wave hit the canoe and he was ejected. Teresa remembers things in a sort of slow motion, eventually sliding out of the boat and then bobbing in the lake herself.

Just the day before, the temperature of the water neared 60 degrees. But the wind shift, the one that created the white caps that aborted their journey, had brought water in that was probably in the 40s. This wasn't the warm Atlantic Ocean or an inland lake near their home in St. Cloud, Fla. This was Lake Superior.

All Charlie had wanted was a picture. It was their first time in a canoe on the lake. It was the third time they'd been up the North Shore, a perk of his annual trek to the Twin Cities area for job-related training.

They weren't going out far from their launch at Cove Point near Beaver Bay on July 17. The Evanses knew enough to cut the waves with the canoe when the wind picked up. They were doing OK before Charlie wanted to capture that moment. The craft pivoted into a trough and the next wave tossed them.

Our vacation pictures are on the bottom of the lake, Teresa said later.

Survival instinct

Charlie knew they were in serious trouble.

He banked his fears and worked on remembering the cold water survival tips he saw on a TV show. Use the overturned canoe as a life raft. Take in the surroundings. Get a plan together.

Teresa was oblivious to the danger of the cold. She remembers almost casually grasping the plastic bag that held their cell phone as she slid into the water.

Now she had to hold on to the canoe with one hand and keep the other, with the phone, high above her head after pressing 911.

Despite the notoriously spotty cell service along the North Shore, she made a connection.

She had to yell above the waves to describe the situation. It didn't help that they knew little of the shoreline and she was describing their peril in a rapid-fire southern accent.

We left Cove Point, she said, and headed toward Canada. Northeast. We're in the water. Help.

Location, location

Carmen Norberg has a general rule for those calling emergency dispatch. Stay calm. "I can't help if you're yelling and I can't understand."

It was Norberg's first water rescue call. Before the weekend was up, she had two more calls for help on the lake.

There had been some confusion because a fishing tournament was going on out of Silver Bay Marina that Saturday morning. Scans were made by responders for an overturned motor boat much farther out.

The woman on the other end of Norberg's line was calm. The connection was good. The woman in distress could hear a voice, but not precise words. She kept shouting up clues to their location.

Norberg told her to describe what she was seeing on shore to pinpoint the location for first responders coming from Silver Bay.

They saw eight brown houses -- Windsong Cottages, the next resort area up from Cove Point Lodge.

Teresa asked Charlie if he wanted to abandon the canoe and swim for it.

Charlie knew they would use up too much energy and lose each other.

They had given up on being found on the water. They had been paddling with their feet and slowly getting toward shore with the added boost from the waves. They would make it, but then what?

To the rescue

"Shivering is good, it means you're not shutting down," came the voice of Rod Lampton from the Silver Bay Rescue Squad. He and others had come through the woods and to the rocks about an hour after the capsizing.

They had been in the water for 45 minutes, the couple figured. Teresa laughs later when told of the danger of Lake Superior's icy grip

The hard part was finding where they were, Lampton said. The rest was rote. Hot packs. Blankets. Don't move them too quickly. The body needs to adjust.

The manual doesn't include reassuring hugs, a pat on the foot. Some North Shore compassion.

The couple is grateful for the small touches of comfort. They will never forget. Charlie chokes up when thinking of the kindness offered. He said the first responders were more than professionals, they were people who cared.

These are feelings they would later share in an e-mail to the Lake County Ambulance Service.

The appreciation is taken as a badge for a job well done, responder Theresa Judkins said. "You don't always get follow-up. It's worth it when you show up on someone's bad day and can be of help."

Small wonders

The Evanses had joked before going out in the canoe that they needed to pray for their safety.

After being released from a short stay at the hospital in Two Harbors on Saturday afternoon, Charlie and Teresa Evans sought a church to give thanks in.

At Silver Bay Baptist on Sunday morning, the Rev. Paul Michalski offered a sermon about being daring but also using common sense, like wearing a life jacket during your water adventures. You never know, he said. Just yesterday a couple overturned their canoe on Lake Superior.

The pastor is a member of the rescue squad and heard word through the grapevine. He saw a knowing smile on the faces of a couple in the congregation. "It's not you two, is it?" he asked. They laughed and wore their notoriety sheepishly.

Teresa's arms are tingling from the cold days later. Charlie remains amazed at the adventure and the response, still tearing up in the telling of it.

The Evanses celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary the following Wednesday. That they were alive to acknowledge it was enough.

They say they'll be back to appreciate the North Shore's beauty in nature and people after the kindness shown by strangers.

"But we won't be in Lake Superior," Charlie said.

"We won't be canoeing, that's for sure," Teresa said.