Boundary Waters mishap offers lessons
BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS, Minn. — The two canoeists knew they were in trouble when they had to start bushwhacking and carrying their canoe through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
They had already missed their portage on the way out of the backcountry and decided to continue down a river they were hoping would lead them to another, the Nina Moose River, that would lead them back to the Echo Trail northwest of Ely. Glimpses of open water in the distance kept them hopeful, so they kept pushing.
It wasn't until 8 p.m. on May 26, the seventh day of their trip, when the two confirmed they were lost.
Pamela Scaia, 65, of New Hope, Minn., and Charles Kelley, 66, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., were determined to complete a well-prepared canoe trip in no longer than nine days, but that goal was looking bleak considering they no longer knew where they were.
They set up camp and decided to try again in the morning, only to find themselves so deep in swampland that it was best to stay put and wait for help.
Scaia, who is nurse- and wilderness-certified in medicine, started rationing their food. For the next six days they lived on water and 250 to 300 calories a day, alternating between a single packet of oatmeal and a packet of vegetarian Indian food as their lone daily meal.
"You lose energy fast," Scaia said. "You're not feeling real energetic on that few calories. We were a great team and didn't complain or blame. We kept up our spirits."
For three days they endured wind, rain and low temperatures that left Scaia bundled in five layers of clothing as they patiently awaited help.
When they weren't collecting wet, rotten firewood to create a visible smoke, the friends kept dry in the tent and played games of cribbage and cards to pass the time. Kelley said they always knew they were going to make it out eventually; that wasn't a question. But he didn't know if it would be a week or a month before help arrived.
"In the back of my mind, at least it wasn't in the late fall," Kelley said. "I figured maybe about a week and everybody would start worrying and start calling wondering where we were. That was about the correct timing."
On June 1, the day before help found them, a float plane passed near their campsite as the two flashed mirrors in a failed attempt to catch the pilot's attention. It was one of the lowest points of the entire ordeal, Scaia said — but whether or not the plane was part of a search crew, they thought, at least people were in the area.
Early the next morning, around 1 a.m., the sounds of a nearby plane shook Kelley from sleep. The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office had started a search around noon the previous day after Scaia's daughter reported that the canoeists were overdue in returning from their trip.
"I ran out there like crazy with the flashlight," Kelley said. "... And I put my emergency beacon out there and was flashing SOS."
The crew aboard a Minnesota State Patrol plane — a Cirrus aircraft built specifically for the State Patrol — spotted them and reported the location.
Meanwhile, four Minnesota Air National Guard members based out of St. Cloud were on the ground in Ely and preparing their Black Hawk helicopter to begin assisting in the search. The helicopter — also carrying members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad — arrived to the campsite eight minutes after they took off, said pilot Nathaniel Anderson. The two canoeists were airlifted to Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital for precautionary measures. Both were uninjured.
Scaia and Kelley said they want others to know what they learned from their experience, and how they could have prevented it.
Leave a detailed map with someone that outlines the planned route, Kelley said, and don't panic. Try and stay put. He said they made their campsite visible to search crews because it sat in a couple acres of clearing. Scaia agreed — know when to stop pushing on, she said, while also noting that she is lucky to live in a place that has the resources to rescue those in need.
"If you're not sure where you're going, don't keep going," Scaia said. "Know when to go back instead of pushing on forward."