Elaine Barber didn't expect her paddling trip to turn out the way it did. But she said she could only wait helplessly beside the churning Basswood River on Sunday, hoping her husband would make it out after their canoe capsized in the Canadian wilderness.
"Dick really, from his vantage point, thought it was calm. But all it takes is two seconds and you're caught by the current," Barber said about her late husband, from back home in Minnetonka. She says she's still wearing the clothes rescuers gave her when they found her, still waiting for a sign of her husband. "We came to the edge, there was a drop, and the canoe capsized."
He died in the river, and authorities in Canada recovered his body this week, Barber said. He was a 78-year-old retired marketing executive and outdoorsman.
It was a tragic end to what Barber said they'd planned to be their "last big trip," after decades of paddling the Boundary Waters wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park. For years, they'd spent as much as a month at a time canoeing through the wild lands north of Ely. After this final paddle, they had plans for more conventional travel, like camping in Europe and touring national parks in the United States.
"I had been begging for our last big trip to go through the Basswood chain," said Barber, a former Breck school teacher, Episcopal priest and substitute teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret's.
She'd started her career as a science teacher and loved the outdoors. She and Dick had been together for 31 years and shared a love for the wilderness and paddling. Years before they'd been to what she described as one of the most isolated places in Quetico, Sarah Lake, and wanted to return this year.
But rain and snowmelt had turned the Basswood river into a torrent. When they went over an unseen dropoff, the canoe tipped over, and Barber says all she could do was swim for shore. She says she shouted for Dick, but didn't dare venture back into the water.
"I couldn't find the canoe, and things just kept getting worse and worse," she said. "The rescue people said even with a boat, the water was swirling them around... It gives me some comfort that it was wise to stay on land."
She eventually activated an emergency satellite beacon that the couple had carried for years. It usually let them send a signal that they were okay, a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tracked their journey. "Usually the last OK message was from the balcony at Vermillion," she said, speaking of the community college in Ely where they often stayed.
This time, the beacon summoned a rescue helicopter and a search team to look for Dick's body. He died as he and his wife were marking their 19th wedding anniversary on Sunday.
She said the beacon and support help from Rainy River District Victims Services Program helped her survive the tragedy, and she hopes to return to Quetico and Kawnipi Lake to leave Dick's remains in McKenzie Bay, which they both loved.
"If I don't get to paddle my canoe up to McKenzie, we'll hire a plane to drop his ashes," she said. "His ashes are eventually going to get there."