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Longest Portage In Alliance With The Laker Online - OutdoorPlaces.Com

 The Longest Portage - A Survival Story


On July 4th, 1999, a massive thunderstorm system passed through Minnesota and cut through the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  The National Weather Service has since judged that there was not a tornado, but a weather phenomenon known as a microburst.  It is estimated that 2.5 million trees were blown down in winds that exceeded 100 MPH.  This is just one of many stories of survival that fateful afternoon.


The last time I had paddled Knife lake, I faced the wind for what seemed like an eternity. Little did I know what waited ahead as I crossed the portage on my return.

We stood ankle deep in the Knife's cold water near our loaded canoes and looked across at the horizon. There, heavy thunderclouds rolled over the tree-tops and lightning danced.  From the confines of our protected bay, we could see beyond a peninsula where the lake's calm surface began to roll. Again, I thought, against the wind.

As we made our way toward the rocky point that jutted into the main body of Knife Lake, we could see that there, the waves grew larger with every gust of wind. Paddling to our campsite, only two miles down the shore line, meant facing the breath of the impending storm.

We rounded the point with relative ease and headed directly into the waves which by now, were beginning to curl and break. Thunder boomed and lightning crackled a mile ahead, and we knew we were losing the race to our camp.

We had been traveling as close to the shoreline as possible, without risking the wind dashing us against the rocks, so beaching the canoe didn't take much time. After a quick check of our maps, we determined that the campsite was a mile away, and hoped that our calculations of the storm's distance was much farther.

A day earlier we had made a portage of over a mile. We were hot, sweaty and tired at the trail's end, but we made it non-stop. This time though, there was no trail. Knowing that we had little time to waste, we shouldered our packs and the canoe and marched into the woods, racing Mother Nature.

By now, the towering pines were whistling and beginning to lean, giving in to the gale. From the shoreline twenty yards off our right shoulders, the crashing of water against the sharp rocks rumbled through the forest. As we picked our way along, branches scraped the canoe and our packs, and thick underbrush tangled our feet.  Three times we stopped to rest. Each time we paused, the storm grew more bold, and branches and tree-tops snapped.

Without speaking the truth, we all knew we were facing no ordinary storm.  The rain started as a few drops that made their way through the thick canopy overhead and plinked against the bottom of the overturned canoe. Just then, our haven appeared. the ground rose suddenly to our left; a massive formation of ancient granite. Ten yards ahead was a recess in the rock, not quite a cave, but a shelter large enough to house three men.

We wedged one end of the canoe between the face of the rock and a tree, tied a line to the other end of the vessel, passed it around another tree, then scrambled under our shelter. When we pulled the rope taut, we drew the canoe in close so that when we sat cross-legged, we could peer at the raging storm through a 3 inch gap!

It is yet to be determined if a tornado or straight line winds caused the damage, but some officials have estimated that over a million trees in the BWCAW and Quetico were felled during the July 4th storm. The following day, park officials and volunteers manned with chainsaws, began the task of clearing portages, campsites and searching for injured canoers. For the three of us under the rock, it was a long night, but we had plenty of bread, peanut butter and full canteens.

By daylight the next morning, our canoe was floating with us riding comfortably on the smooth lake. After only three minutes on the water we passed the campsite we had tried to reach, but we all agreed that "the rock" had proven to be a better shelter than any tent might have been.