Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

How to stay safe during a canoe trip

Canoes on the shore of a lake as the sun rises.
Canoes sit on the shore while the sun rises in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on Sept. 22.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The St. Louis County Rescue Squad is continuing to search for two missing canoeists who went over Curtain Falls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Saturday. Crews evacuated two other people who were in the canoes and another member of their party who was on shore. Search teams are working non-stop, though they had to take cover from heavy rain and winds last night, according to the rescue squad’s Facebook page. And they expect the water volume in the falls to double due to the rain.

Jason Zabokrtsky is familiar with this area and its risks as a wilderness guide and founder of Ely Outfitting Company. He joined MPR News guest host Nina Moini to describe the area of Curtain Falls and what you can do to stay safe.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: Good afternoon. I'm Nina Moini in for Cathy Wurzer. You are listening to Minnesota Now. I'm glad to be with you. Our top story this afternoon, the St. Louis County rescue squad is continuing to search for two missing canoeists who went over Curtain Falls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness Saturday.

Crews evacuated two other people who were in the canoes and another member of their party who was on shore. Search teams are working nonstop, though they had to take cover from heavy rain and winds last night, according to the rescue squad's Facebook page. And they expect the water volume in the Falls to double due to the rain.

The news makes you uneasy about getting in a canoe in the BWCA. So we want to talk to a pro. Jason Zabokrtsky is a wilderness guide and the founder of Ely Outfitting Company. He's on the line. Jason, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon.

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Absolutely. Hi, Nina.

NINA MOINI: This is so important to talk about. I want to start by familiarizing people with the area where this accident happened. Can you describe Curtain Falls and the surrounding water?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Sure. So Curtain Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in the Boundary Waters, if not the largest. It's a really remote spot. It's right on the Canadian border, as in I think the border goes actually right down the middle of the falls. So south side's the US, and the north side's Canada.

NINA MOINI: And is this a common place for people to portage? Is it considered sort of a trickier area to navigate?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Well, it's a common canoe route. It's an advanced canoe route that goes through there. It's actually probably my favorite route in the entire wilderness. But it is a rugged portage that goes around a really big falls. And so sometimes people-- they actually rerouted the portage below the falls to make it easier to access without dealing with current below the falls not too long ago.

NINA MOINI: Sure. And we don't want to give the impression that it's completely unsafe. We know that tons and tons of people enjoy the Boundary Waters area, of different skill levels, I'm sure. Had you heard, though, of people going over this particular waterfall or other ones? Is that something you commonly hear about?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Definitely not commonly, no, thankfully. And while we're on the topic, our hearts just go out to the family and the friends of those involved in that incident at Curtain Falls.

NINA MOINI: Of course.

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Yes, it has happened before. And for some time, there was a kind of a small monument actually at the falls, kind of in the rock, to somebody who, sadly, perished there in the past, but definitely not common at all-- extremely unusual.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And we had heard from the sheriff's office in that area that these were really an experienced group of people that were there. They had been there before. But we do know that accidents happen. How frequently do you hear about people going missing due to accidents on the water?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Oh, extraordinarily infrequently. It's very rare. The Boundary Waters is one of the safest vacations you can do, which seems like kind of an odd thing to say at this time.

But 150,000 people visit the Boundary Waters every year, and there are definitely some areas, like this one at Curtain Falls, that are hazards because of moving water and waterfalls that can be a really serious hazard.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And I'm sure that in your line of work, you really stress safety, safety, safety. What advice do you give people to make sure that they are safe while navigating, particularly, areas with rapids?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Sure. Well, we tend to tell people, I tell them every day, that the most dangerous thing in the woods is yourselves. It's poor judgment. However, it's good to know that even people with very good judgment can have the unexpected happen.

And oftentimes, the unexpected happens at the just worst possible, least opportune time. And accidents just happen. This time of year, we're talking a lot about the threat of cold water immersion.

So if you have a windy day, and you have big waves on the lake, and your canoe flips over, and you end up in the middle of the lake, that is a really dangerous situation, because hypothermia will set in about immediately. And you might have 10 minutes or so to rescue yourself before you don't have the muscle movement to continue attempting to rescue yourself from very cold water.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. We know that the water temperature is very different than the temperature outside the water, of course. And I know that we had heavy rains across the state yesterday. What are the conditions that worry you the most as an outfitter?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Sure. Well, this time of year, it's cold water immersion-- people flipping over in the middle of the lake. The water levels are kind of jumping up. It rained all day yesterday, and our swamps were already pretty full. So a lot of that rain we received yesterday probably just dumped into the lakes and kind of raised the water level in the rapids and around the falls.

And so it's just good for everybody to know-- always use the portage-- the portages or the hiking trails that go around the rapids. And we just say 100% of the time, don't even think about it.

The reason that portage is there is because there's a hazard that you're going to walk around rather than get into that rapid. And that's just even more important when we have higher water levels like we're seeing today.

NINA MOINI: And wind is also a concern?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Yeah. So windy days are the days when my gut is just tied in knots, because I know people are struggling in the wilderness. And they're struggling with being able to steer that canoe across a big lake.

And so if it's August, and the water's really warm, and you happen to flip over in the middle of the lake, and you've got your life jacket on, then you're going to kind of bob around, and you're going to swim to shore, and you'll have a story to tell.

If the same thing were to happen right now-- and our water temperatures are fairly close to 50 degrees, maybe 55 degrees-- it's kind of a life and death issue. You just want to make sure you don't get in a situation where you've flipped your canoe in the waves in the middle of the lake.

NINA MOINI: And what about beginners? What about people who want to give it a shot in the Boundary Waters, but maybe they are a little bit intimidated? Is it a place where beginners can have a good experience? And what do you suggest?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: One of the amazing things about the Boundary Waters is there are routes for people of all sorts of different experience levels and all sorts of different interests. So you can pick a route that's kind of right on the edge of the wilderness, and go in not very far, and also stay on smaller or medium-sized lakes where the threat of big waves that are generated by wind is less. And so you just take it a little easier, kind of ramp up your skills on a little easier route, and then work your way up to bigger lakes and longer routes.

NINA MOINI: So for people who have their own canoes and aren't using a guide, you're saying map it out in a way that's going to be easier-- do you recommend that people, maybe first timers, go with a guide?

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: About 95% of folks who go to the Boundary Waters go self-guided. So it's that's far and away the most typical. We do a lot of professionally-guided trips, and it's really close to my heart because people learn so much when they go with a professional guide. And also, typically, sort of really tragic sort of things can be avoided with a certain level of skill in the wilderness.

And so a guide just helps things go more smoothly. And you learn a ton. And you'll have a safer time as well with a professional guide along.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And, again, just our thoughts are with everybody involved in that accident and their families.


NINA MOINI: We really appreciate you coming on to share your knowledge with us, because it's such a beautiful area of our state. We're so lucky to have it and lucky to have you on this afternoon as well. Thank you, Jason.

JASON ZABOKRTSKY: Thank you, Nina. Have a good day.

NINA MOINI: That's Jason Zabokrtsky, the founder of Ely Outfitting Company.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News