Monday, August 07, 2006

Storm stories

The big storm of July 17, recounted earlier in this blog, swept a tragic and destructive path across Algonquin Park. Just now, stories are emerging of close calls and near misses. The story below, and one I'll post later, come from regular outfitting customers of ours who were camping in the north part of Algonquin Park on that fateful evening. Thankfully they emeged unhurt but both stories illustrate just how close they came to disaster.

In the world of adventure activities, flatwater canoe tripping, such as we promote in Algonquin Park, is generally considered fairly low risk. While there are many potential hazards, such as wind, cold water, rugged trails and the like, these are easily manged by being careful, having good equipment, staying within your own confort zone of skill and experience, planning ahead and watching the weather. No amount of care and planning can prepare you for the moment when Mother Nature rears up and takes a swipe at you, such as what happened on July 17. Experience and skill can help you deal with the aftermath, as we'll see here.

Two or three times aseason, we are visited by a group of friends from the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Over their years of canoeing together these fellows always refer to themselves as the King and his Court, and so each season, we look forward to visits by Baron, Jester, King, Czar and the occasional new recruit. Here is their story, as told by Baron:

Thank you for your help in making our trip this year another good one. While it was very eventful, the results were great and we all had a good time.

The first few days through North Tea (west), Biggar, Three Mile and Manitou went as planned. But, as we started in to Fassett Lake on Monday, it was clear that we were probably the first people in from Manitou Lake this year. The trail was overgrown and most portage signs were pulled from the trees. We said to ourselves that there must be some reason that no one takes this route -- like the campsites are bad? The water levels were good. In any case, we decided to turn around and head back to Manitou.

We settled into the high campsite on the south side at the end of the peninsula north of the trail into Fassett. A stiff wind blew all afternoon so we delayed putting up the tents. About dinner time we put up one tent and the Buckley Dry Fly to provide shelter for cooking. Shortly after that the storm came through.

After putting gear under the Dry Fly, two of the group ducked into the tent and two got under the dry fly. A tree over a foot in diameter broke off about 25 feet up and came down on the tent, just missing the guys in the tent. With a bit of panic, they ran over to the Dry Fly to tell us they were just missed. In the middle of this a tree about 8 inches in diameter came down on the Dry Fly. It came from behind the Dry Fly, just missing my head by a couple of feet. Interestingly, the climbing line I use to support the fly held the tree from completely hitting the ground! The storm didn't last long, and we got out to assess the damage. There were about 10 trees down around the campsite. All three poles on the tent were bent, and its' rain fly was badly torn. The holes in the tent itself were able to be covered with duct tape. Duct tape also covered the holes in the Dry Fly, which will be salvaged. Later, we combined the 3 poles to make 2 good ones so that we could use the tent by placing it under the Dry Fly. The key thing is that we were all fine.

As we were assessing the damage, we checked on the canoes which were turned over, well up on the beach. To our surprise, one was missing. We looked up and down the beach with no success. After the wind settled a bit and the water calmed, two of us went searching on the lake. We had the direction, but nothing more to go by for searching. As we went out, we spotted it upside down nearly a half-mile off shore. It was flooded with only a couple inches visible above water. The Bell canoes are so light that we didn't feel we had the stability to clear it in the middle of the lake, so we towed this giant sea anchor to shore to empty it and return to camp. Amazingly, there was not a bit of damage to the canoe! We felt very fortunate to find it in good shape. You might want to advise people to tie down the Bells as they are so light.

Tuesday we stayed put to dry out the gear, and then Wednesday we headed down to North Tea (east). The portage had several large trees down across it. We also hiked the trail from North Tea to Lorne. That told us that we had made a good decision to avoid Fassett. The trail was blocked in many spots with downed trees. We also talked with a ranger on the lake who told us of the widespread damage, injuries, and the death on Three Mile.

Thursday we headed to North Tea (west) planning to camp there Thursday night prior to heading out Friday morning. The weather looked very much like rain, so we decided to head out with the gear dry rather than packing wet on Friday morning. It proved to be a good decision. After a battle crossing the lake to the access, it started to rain as we were tying down the canoes on the car. As we were making our way across the lake we talked with the couple who first came to help the group on Three Mile where the fellow was killed, and then went to get the ranger's help. A very sad and challenging situation. They had about a three hour trip to get help, making it back about 1am. The evacuation flight made it in early in the morning. The fellow who was killed and the fellow in the tent with him (apparently with a serious spinal injury) were the counselors for a group of 16 year olds. One of the kids was related to the fellow killed. They got some other campers to stay with the kids before going for help.

It was a trip with a lot of memories, but all-in-all a very good time. We will be back.

Again, thanks for your help, and I'm sorry we didn't get to see you and others at Oxtongue Lake.

When I wrote and asked permission to post his story, Baron replied:

You are welcome to post the story I sent you on the net. I would suggest that you do a little editing. Attached are photos of the damage. Select those that will work for you.

That was quite a storm, and I'm sure most people in the park have some stories to tell. It is very interesting how people react, and the strength that comes out in tough circumstances. We thank God for keeping us safe.
Photos of the campsite after the storm can be seen on Jester's post on the Canadian Canoe Routes site.

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