Jason Zabokrtsky was guiding a trip along the North Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Water's Canoe Area Wilderness last month when he noticed a guy in his group was Googling riddles on his iPhone.
"He was trying to entertain his grandson," Zabokrtsky said. "I thought, 'This is a first.'"
The riddles came to Zabokrtsky's group via a massive 450-foot AT&T cell tower which was built along the edge of the wilderness last year. Now many of the lakes and trails near Ely that were miles from the nearest cell signal come equipped with 4G connections.
Zabokrtsky owns Boundary Waters Guide Service in Ely and has been guiding in the wilderness area for nearly 20 years. He said the new reception is just the latest expansion of a communications safety net that's been spreading across the 2.5 million acre wilderness for a decade. That net is enabling more rescues but officials warn it should not give people false confidence they can explore the wilderness area without proper preparation.
Early last week a powerful storm ripped through the Boundary Waters. Winds snapped off trees and sent them toppling into camp sites in the small hours of Tuesday morning. One pine fell right through an occupied tent on Lady Boot Bay on Lac La Croix Lake, pinning a boy and injuring others.
Two hours later Mark Zup, owner of Zup's Fishing Resort and Canoe Outfitters was skipping toward them across 25 miles of churning water in a speed boat.
"It was just black," he said, "It was so dark I couldn't see the shoreline."
Decades ago, when Zup took over the resort from his father, he said such a fast rescue would not have been possible. Even 15 years ago, he said he just wouldn't have known anyone was hurt.
Lady Boot Bay is beyond the growing cell service, but the injured campers had a satellite phone. They were able to make a call, which was eventually channeled through a guide service and 911 dispatch to Zup.
Without that phone, he said a few of the uninjured campers would have had to paddle for help when the weather cleared. It could have taken days.
Satellite phones, he said, were the first drastic improvements in wilderness communication. Ten years ago, Zup invested in a pair of satellite phones to rent to paddlers. At the time reception came in fits and starts with the rotation of actual satellites.
"There just weren't that many of them up there," he said.
Now there are more satellites, so the phones work better. Paddlers can also rent Spot locators, which work like an emergency beacon, sending distress signals, or pre-written emails to family members at the press of a button. They're about the size of an Altoids tin, and less expensive than bulky satellite phones.
Cell phones are starting to work too. Cell companies can't put towers in the BWCA, it's a national wilderness area. As time goes on, however, they are ringing the multi-million acre dead zone with towers.
A line of towers is springing up along the Canadian wilderness border. While the Lady Boot Bay campers needed their satellite phone, Zup and Zabokrtsky said much of the fringe wilderness areas, and even some of the deeper regions have cell coverage.
As far as Zup is concerned, that's a good thing. Once authorities know someone is in deep trouble in the Boundary Waters, things usually move pretty fast. In an hour or two, he said Forest Service or county rescue sea planes can be overhead. The trick is really getting the word out.
Zabokrtsky wasn't so sure. He worries paddlers might not prepare as well, or be as cautious if they think rescue is just a 911 call away. Often times, he said, it's not that easy.
The Forest Service runs the U.S. portion of the Boundary Waters, and often coordinates and assists in county rescue efforts. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest couldn't say how much of the wilderness area is currently within cell range, but urged caution.
"We really encourage people not to count on technology," she said. "You can't just make a call and expect someone to drop out of the sky to help."