July 4th, 2011 11:30 PM, Cozy in my sleeping bag I read a Star Wars novel. I had been reading for hours and was almost finished with it. I stopped to rest my eyes for a short time. I was beginning to glaze over reading the pages in full light. I clicked the headlamp off and closed my eyes, giving them a gentle rub. With the light off, it was very dark. Tonight, deep in the wilderness of Boundary Waters Camping, there was no moon to light anything, just the stars. I opened my eyes, expecting to see nothing, but on the walls of my tent, lights were flashing. I thought to myself, why the hell are the kids up? Is something wrong? Thinking someone was up with their flashlights, I listened. Nothing. No footsteps, no sound of someone relieving themselves, not a squirrel. The flashing continued. I sat up and looked around. The flashes only came from one side of the tent. I threw my pants and shoes on before zipping the tent open to investigate. I opened the flap, stood up out of the tent, and turned around and saw the flashing through the trees way off in the distance. Then I heard it—the unmistakable sound of thunder in the distance.
If you ask, most of my guide friends can tell you at least one crazy story about a storm that happened around the 4th of July in the Boundary Waters. Storms are prevalent in July. Sometimes fast full of wind, rain, and lighting, others calm with mild rain and slow, gentle rumbles, but stories around the 4th are usually nuts. This is mine.
Basswood Lake To Crooked Lake
The day began on Basswood before Horse Portage. This portage is a mile long and well made. One of the 13-year-olds carried an aluminum canoe over the whole thing, but that’s another story. The next lake we traveled to was Crooked Lake, aptly named. Through twists and turns, the sky moved in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds. Bands of clouds, thick and dark, moved overhead. The air was warm but still. We had a big day ahead of us—lots of miles to cover and a prized lake at the end. We were headed for Argo. Said to be crystal clear to the bottom, an unusual occurrence in the North Woods. I looked forward to filling my Nalgene and drinking straight from the lake.
Beavers Change Plans For Best Places to Camp in Boundary Waters
It never happened. A beaver dam had flooded the portage we were looking for. We spend hours looking for a way through, and the answer just never materialized. So finally, with the kids being all young 13-year-olds starting to run on fumes and my two adult leaders in their mid-sixties feeling a bit tapped themselves, we would turn back and camp on Crooked Lake. The sky appeared to be clearing, though. That afternoon was sunny and breezy, nothing out of the ordinary. Except the wind was still blowing in the opposite direction, the prevailing wind yet to return.
That night it got calm. It was after dinner and getting late—the sunsets late in the summer. A couple of the boys were looking bummed at missing big firework displays at home. Luckily I had hidden a few treats just for this evening. I bought some s’mores fixings that I picked up at the grocery in town, Zups, and some contraband! The contraband being fireworks. Now I questioned this decision during Boundary Waters camping seeing that the illegality of it was pretty clear. However, one small ground sparkler done right with precautions wouldn’t hurt. So with smores in hand, a bucket of water, and a quick oath of silence about the illicit sparkler, I placed the D battery-sized thing at the edge of the water on a slab of granite and lit it. It was a fun 20 seconds of light and color. The adult leader, “Famous Al,” told me that it was something special to an old Texan like him.
When he introduced himself as Famous Al, I asked him how he was famous. He immediately replied, “I’m not, but you won’t forget me” a decade later, he seems to have been right. That evening, we went to bed thinking that our fireworks were done and over with, but mother nature had other plans.
Lighting Show Begins at BWCA
Fast forward into the late evening. I had just gotten out of my tent to inspect all the unexplained flashing and subsequently given extra instructions to the crew before returning to my tent. They were to be ready with their raingear, a buddy, and their life jackets in case a storm blew in. I tied a couple of guy lines to the rainfly, re-secured some lazily placed stakes on the tent, and crawled back in. I was on top of my sleeping bag, headlamp on low to keep reading and conserve the battery. The flashing grew brighter and rumbles more prevalent.
The soft pitter-patter of rain signaled the start of what was to come. I closed my book and turned my light off. Then, still fully clothed, I sat up again. The rain picked up in volume, coming down now in a steady shower. In the dark, the flashes now seemed to be on all sides of the tent. Crack! The first strike real close by made me jump. In the pitch dark now, all of my senses were being strained. Listening to the rain and the continuous thunder now growing in volume all the time, the light strobed into my tent. I could hear the wind picking up. I decided that I needed to get out of my tent.
This July Storm Was Looking Different
For most storms, I would stay in my tent and just let it rollover. This was different. The cracking branches and sound of a freight train in the distance had me spooked. No sooner had I zipped up my rain fly and secured the hood of my jacket, headlamp poking out, had it happened.
The freight train was barreling right for us. The wind began ripping through the trees, leaves flailing, trees bent over, some branches being broken and tossed all about in the rain. The pitch black of the forest now seemed lit by constant lightning. The thunder! A ceaseless cascade of overbearing roar broken up with sharp claps drowned out the sound of my footfalls as I ran to the other tents. “Get out, I’m calling it! Out now!” You had to shout to be heard. I ran down to the canoes pulling them further up into the campsite, wedging them into the trees. Being pelted by rain pouring in sheets, I shielded my face as I double-checked our gear and bear bag placement.
Running back up into the camp, I checked that everyone was out of the tents spread out and had a buddy. Everyone was accounted for. Not just branches now but trees, trees were starting to fall and snap, adding to the decibel level. I found my spot and crouched down in a squatting position looking to the island across the lake. No more than 300 feet away, a blinding bolt of lightning struck a red pine and, with an ear-splitting crash, exploded! I fell over and thought to myself. Nature had its own fourth of July display planned. Due to some diligent camp discipline, we were all OK, save for a lone pair of socks on a clothesline.
Surveying The Storms Wrath
The next morning we surveyed the damage. Only a pair of socks was lost. However, numerous trees were down, and the place looked like a mess. The remainder of the trip went smoothly. Upon return, it sounded like everyone on base had a story from this storm. One of the most noted is a crew with a kevlar canoe swept up in the wind and carried off. The canoe was found days or a week later on another lake. The crew had brought an emergency canoe, and the base quickly assembled a crew to get it to them. Thus was born the gold bond challenge, again, another story.
Lessons Learned About Boundary Waters Camping During Thunderstorm Season
- Luck favors the prepared, because of the spotless way we prepared camp that evening almost nothing was lost.
- Awareness is key. There was a clear point when it was time to get out of the tents. Famous Al told me after the fact, “If there was ever a time to pull the trigger, you knew then to do it.”
- Feeling prepared for such a storm was confidence-building and being in one was humbling.
- When planning the timing of your Boundary Waters adventure make sure you understand the differences of Spring, Summer and Fall trips. Each require there own special considerations.