Every year during Fall Break, Macalester’s Outing Club organizes several free backpacking trips through the wilds of the Great Lakes region. Last weekend, one of the expeditions was forced to call rescue by boat as a result of a combination of challenging trail conditions and dangerous weather.
The group consisted of co-leaders Shay Gingras ’17 and Riley Menagh ’17, along with Robin Webb ’18, Eliza Pessereau ’19, Nolan Wages ’20 and Liam Magistad ’20. They left campus early on Thursday morning and headed north to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota where they planned to hike a 24-mile loop around Snowbank Lake and return to Macalester on Sunday.
Although the group met their mileage goals for Thursday and Friday, they quickly realized that the trail was much more difficult than they had expected. “There had been a storm in July with severe winds that had caused a lot of trees to fall and pretty much obliterated the trail, and so it made it really difficult to stay on and just a lot slower than we anticipated,” Gingras explained.
Saturday was designated as the longest leg of the trip, with the group initially hoping to cover nine miles over the course of the day.
“We were really behind schedule, and by about halfway through the trip I turned on my phone for the first time and I had texts from another Outing Club trip that had done the same trail as us but in the opposite direction,” Gingras continued. “They had turned back and advised that we should turn back too, but at that point we were too far in to turn back, and we knew it wasn’t an option.”
Due to the impassable nature of the trail, the group had tackled increasingly dangerous routes in their quest to push forwards. “At one point, we had to scale a cliff to get to a certain point in the trail, and it was just really dangerous, and there was no way we could go back down through the terrain that we had come from,” Gingras added.
By Saturday afternoon, they had also been forced away from the lake, which had served as their point of reference throughout the trip.
As darkness fell on Saturday night, the group came to a consensus: there was no way they would be able to finish the hike by Sunday afternoon. “It had been something we were considering throughout the day on Saturday but didn’t really think we would ultimately need,” Gingras said. “But by the end of the day on Saturday we were really cold and wet and had done a lot of really dangerous climbing and knew that it was really unsafe for us to be there and that we couldn’t finish the trail in the amount of time that we had or in a safe manner.”
Two weeks before the trip, Gingras and co-leader Menagh had been briefed on what to do in the case of an emergency, along with the rest of the Outing Club trip leaders. “The way we talked about it was that it was really unlikely that any of these scenarios would happen, and it wasn’t too in-depth, but we knew what to do if it happened,” Gingras said.
Backpackers have two options when it comes to being rescued. Rapid evacuation by helicopter is the last resort for when someone is critically ill or injured. Given that the group was as healthy and unhurt as the circumstances allowed, they elected to do a slow evacuation, by boat, which meant that they needed to find the lake again.
Come Sunday morning, the group spent two hours searching for the lake and eventually succeeded.
“It was really lucky that we found the lake, but it was cold and raining so we had concerns about hypothermia. From there we used the GPS spot device to call the evacuation,” Gingras said. The group also called 9-1-1 and spoke with Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, Assistant Dean of Students, who was helping to coordinate different parts of the rescue.
Looking back on the experience, trip member Nolan Wages ’20 said, “I think one way to sum it all up is that I would not recommend the trail and the situation, but I would strongly recommend the people and the experience. We said ‘would not recommend’ a lot when we were climbing through the trees that were blocking the trail and trying to find the best route through them. The best part of the whole thing was the people that I got to know very well through the intense situation that we were in and solving problems with them, from ‘where is the trail?’ to ‘how do we get out of here?’”
In the end, the group waited five hours for their rescuers, but by 3 p.m. on Sunday, they were on their way home. “We were all really cold and trying to stay warm, but everyone was in good spirits and we just played games to try and pass the time by,” Gingras said, emphasizing, like Wages, that this had been true throughout the trip.
“Everyone was a good sport and was able to maintain those good spirits because of each other,” Gingras said. “The whole experience was incredibly challenging and very physically and emotionally taxing. We were really lucky to have the group that we did.”