Just over three days after Dan Stephens disappeared into the wilds of the Quetico Provincial Park in August 1998, my family and I reached Bell Lake, where the Ontario Provincial Police had set up a base camp.
The searchers had just received word that the 22-year-old guide had been found.
Stephens had fallen and knocked himself unconscious while looking for a portage. Eventually, he began a three-day trek to help, bushwacking his way south into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness until he reached a surprised group of Boy Scouts and leaders, just like the group he had been guiding.
The Ontario Provincial Police searchers asked us to paddle over and retrieve his tent, which had been left at camp just in case he found his way back.
It’s as close as I ever came to someone lost in the wilderness, until just a few weeks ago.
This time, I became the “reporting party.”
Friend Bob Pruchnofski, 63, a retired educator, and I have done many challenging trips in the BWCAW, but we had not done so together for over a decade. In those years he has had three heart attacks and has three stents in place. But it was his knees, in particular one that needs to be replaced, that troubled him as we made our way over portages from Burntside Lake near Ely to Crab Lake and to the campsite on Clark Lake.
Once the site of a logging camp and cabins, the area south of the lake still has the vestiges of old roads and trails. We were exploring the trails around 1:30 p.m. on our second day in the BWCAW when Bob said his knee was bothering him. He’d wait for me while I explored a trail that spurred south. We were about a 10- to 15-minute walk from our campsite. Bob said he might return to it.
When I returned to where we had separated about 30 to 45 minutes earlier, Bob was not there. I hiked back to camp. He was not there, either. I retraced my steps, this time yelling his name. Strong winds shook the canopy and banged branches together, making it hard for my voice to carry.
I walked the trail west and east still yelling his name, and returned to camp. Perhaps this was all a comedy of errors, I thought, and he will be there waiting. He wasn’t. Nor was the hand saw he had been carrying.
I returned to the trail and filled the woods with my shouts and now, the shrieks of a whistle I had grabbed at camp.
After a few hours of fruitless searching, I became convinced that he’d had a heart attack and that timing mattered. I knew he was carrying nitroglycerin in his pocket just in case. And he couldn't have wandered off, I thought. We had just recently talked about Dan Stephens' misfortune in the Quetico and both agreed he should have stayed put when he knew he was lost.
A conversation I had just weeks earlier with Dallas Ross, of the Upper Sioux Community, kept playing in my mind as well. Ross had spent five years with the United States Forest Service in Ely and served on its search and rescue team. “Search and retrieve,” he had said, explaining that in most cases, the searchers were called too late and their job became that of retrieving bodies.
Also going through my mind was this: If I did not have cell service here, I would start paddling and portaging back to Burntside Lake to find service. I calculated that I could not get there until hours after sunset.
I returned with my cell phone to where Bob and I had separated — a high point — and saw that I had a bar of service.
I swallowed the emotions welling inside me and punched 911 and reached the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.
Assured that help was coming, I resumed my searching. On my final walk back to camp, I stopped. Did I just hear Bob yell “Tom?” I thought I heard it again, but my return calls and blasts on the whistle went unanswered. With all of the noise caused by the winds, did I really hear something or was my mind playing tricks on me?
The USFS float plane arrived as I was on the water paddling back from a portage leaving Clark Lake. I had gone to the portage to yell one more time on the chance that Bob had gone this way to explore a nearby lake.
The plane dropped off volunteers John and Scott, both with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office Rescue Squad.
The pilot began making circles of the camp looking for Bob, but the sun soon slipped below the tree line and he was forced to return to Ely.
Matt and Ami were the next volunteers with the squad to reach the camp. They had used a boat to motor up the Tamarack River and start a long hike over a burned area to reach camp.
Ami focused on finding footprints from Bob’s boots in camp, intending to find and follow them in the woods. She carried what looked like a hiking pole. It is used to measure a person’s stride to follow their tracks in the woods. She had no luck finding prints.
Matt and I returned to where I thought I might have heard my name yelled. I pointed out the direction to the west where I believed the sound had come. Matt used a compass and map to mark it. He and Ami immediately began bushwhacking to the west. I repeatedly told them Bob and I had separated at a location southeast of camp. His painful knee would not have allowed him to go far, I insisted.
All this while, a squad of volunteers from locations throughout St. Louis County was scrambling to meet up at Burntside Lake. Another squad also was preparing to arrive at daybreak with expectations that shifts of searchers would continue to look for Bob well into the next day.
I was instructed to keep a fire going so the campsite would be visible as John and Scott made their way south on the trails to rendezvous with the first squad of volunteers now making their way to the lake.
I saw the lights of the arriving volunteers, and John and Scott had encouraging news. There were no civil disturbances in Minneapolis that night. A State Patrol helicopter equipped with infrared imaging was on its way. It could detect the heat of a body even if recently deceased, but the thick canopy of this area meant there were no guarantees.
Surreal is the only way I can describe the arrival of the chopper. It made ever widening circles of the area, its powerful search light probing the dark woods. Via radio, the volunteer searchers made arrangements to refuel the helicopter at the Ely Airport so that the chopper might spend more time above us.
Sometime after 1 a.m. the pilot informed us that he spotted someone. There was a man without a canoe or tent but with a campfire on a point on Battle Lake, a mile and a half west of us. He was waving frantically, the pilot said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Bob told me around a campfire a couple of nights later.
He had intended to return to camp after we separated, but had followed an overgrown path to our lake in the mistaken belief that it was the one we had walked. He lost the trail at the lake, but said he was convinced if he kept going west toward the sun that he would cross our trail and reach camp.
He crossed the trail, but didn’t recognize it. He crossed the portage I had searched for him on as well, but again, just didn’t recognize it.
“I should have recognized I was too far,” Bob said. He explained that he continued walking expecting to find something familiar. He climbed ridges and made his way through cedar swamps, always seeing water to his side that he mistakenly believed was our shoreline.
He guessed that he bushwhacked for a couple of hours or more, his sore knee slowing him down. “I would be picking up my leg with my arm to get it over logs,” he said.
Going into 'survival mode'
When he realized that daylight was fast fading, he made his way through one more swamp to reach a point on a lake he did not recognize. He wanted to be near the water and visible. To his good fortune, he carried a small, butane lighter in his pocket. Soon, he had a fire going to warm him as the temperatures dipped into the 40s. He was wearing a T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, long pants and a hat.
“All I knew is I was in survival mode. I knew what I had to do,” he said. He never panicked. “I felt calm, at peace really,” he told me. He said he told himself: “You got yourself into this, this is all you can do.”
Bob said that when he saw the plane circling, he knew he would be all right, even if the pilot did not spot him. A search was underway.
He was not expecting to hear the thump, thump, thump of a helicopter’s blades in the dark of night a few hours later, but he knew then that his rescue was imminent. The helicopter pilot relayed his GPS coordinates to searchers Ami and Matt. Their westerly trek had brought them in the vicinity of the missing camper. It wasn't long before they had Bob wrapped in an emergency warming bag and helped him quench his thirst.
The next morning, the USFS pilot and float plane returned to bring Bob back to our campsite and the searchers back to their boats on Burntside.
He knew they were sick of hearing it, but Bob said he could not stop saying “thank you” over and over again to all of the searchers.
“I don’t know what else to say. You guys are my heroes. I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
Since his heart had stayed strong, we continued our BWCAW trip. Days later when we started our drive home, I purchased one of those cheap butane lighters to keep in my pocket on my next trip to the wilderness.