Perilous trip ends safely, thanks to Packsack’s Gene Ott

Note: Taking a trip into the Boundary Waters recently were: the writer’s son Jason and his wife, a nephew and his fiance’, and in the third canoe - Judy and her brother, Randy.

Dear Editor:
I would like to share my story, hoping I might help someone else facing severe weather during a wilderness experience.
Weigh all factors and know that weather is not to be trifled with.
Gene Ott from Packsack Canoe Trips & Log Cabins went above and beyond to help our canoe trip end with a safe landing. Even when we almost tipped his boat while he was trying to save us.
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We enjoyed a beautiful short weekend trip from Fall Lake to Basswood Falls so my nephew could paddle to Canada and we could have a marvelous fish dinner around the campfire and connect with each other in the wilderness.
Ironically, as we paddled up Fall Lake and into Newton, my son Jason and I reminisced about another trip years before when we paddled all day, struggling against the wind to get home.
We marveled at how sunny and calm it was this day as we paddled to the campsite.
After a marvelous day on Sunday, paddling, fishing, swimming and stuffing ourselves with fish we listened to the wind blowing as we slept and hoped by morning it would slow down.
We awoke to constant wind and waves, so we packed as quickly as we could and took off. We figured it would take longer today than the three hours it took us to paddle into the campsite.
Down Basswood and into Newton we struggled as we paddled so we pulled over to rest on the calm shore and a couple of fishermen motored by saying the wind will be gusting to 35 MPH within the hour. We decided we better get going so we all paddled as hard as we could and just kept moving forward.
Suddenly I was terrified as I watched a gust of wind take my son’s canoe and they went over. We were still a ways back but thankfully my nephew was pretty close and hitched a rope to their canoe and dragged them in. We got them dried off somewhat, shared some dry clothes and were on our way.
My brand new daughter-in-law was not happy with her new husband and his mother. This was her first trip and she wanted to know if either of us had ever swamped our canoe like that? We hadn’t.
We rested at the portage after about six hours of hard paddling. Then started again hugging the shore as much as possible with the gusts getting stronger. We paddled onto Fall Lake and besides the wind gusts, the water itself was moving even faster because of the flow from the power dam.
We paddled close to shore until we got directly across from the landing and pulled into some weeds where it was very calm. I paddled up and suggested we keep paddling along shore until we get to someone’s house to give us a ride around to get our cars.
I had several near misses getting to this point fighting 2’ – 4’ waves coming at us with gusts adding to the instability and I did not relish going parallel with the waves to get across to the landing.
We had already talked about keeping the paddle in the water as much as possible for stability and tightening life vests but I was not liking the idea of that crossing.
As we sat there it seemed like it was calmer and we all agreed to paddle downwind at a diagonal above the landing then when we would get to the other side, paddle back along shore to the landing.
We talked ourselves into it, thinking it is not that far, we can do this. We all took off and got about halfway when a gust grabbed my canoe’s stern and swung us around so we were on top of the wave and parallel with it.
I had to get my paddle to the other side to try to swing the stern around and as I lifted my paddle, the wind took it. I warned my brother about my paddle and we went over.
We both flew out of the canoe and I tried to grab it but instantly it was several yards away. I started paddling with my arms toward shore telling my brother to do the same. I remember thinking this is what it’s like……
I have often wondered when hearing stories like this. What do you do and how do you survive? I thought it’s not so bad, I’m cold, but it’s sunny and not cold enough for hypothermia. I’m floating and I can paddle myself to shore. By then I couldn’t see my brother anymore. I was concerned but I had to keep paddling as the waves continued to wash over my face.
Suddenly a boat was coming at me with Jason in the bow telling me to get in. I told him, “Get Randy, I’m fine; I can make it to shore.”
Randy, on the other hand, was far away, closer to the other shore and didn’t seem to be moving much. They insisted I get in because they were there, next to me. They got me in and we spotted Randy bobbing in the waves across the lake. We motored over and they were able to drag him into the boat. He didn’t move for the longest time but he was ok, just too exhausted to move.
We were able to get the canoe and both packs on board as well. While trying to grab a pack our sudden movement almost tipped the already overburdened boat.
Gene calmly but firmly took the lead and told us to chill and move slowly while the rest of us lean on the opposite side.
We thanked Gene profusely as he motored us to shore and he confided he would not have been out here today except he had a couple of customers that wanted to be dropped off. Thankfully for us he was there!
The next day as I dropped off the borrowed canoes my friend said it is days like yesterday that you stay at your campsite and paddle out another day. That option just hadn’t been on our radar but it will be next time.
Again thanks to Gene Ott, he gave us a safe and happy ending to a very seriously demanding trip.
Judy Fredrickson
Ely