Minnesota News

Heavy rain hampering rescue efforts for missing canoeists in Boundary Waters

A waterfall
Curtain Falls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Rescue Squad Team Leader Ben Hartley via St Louis County Rescue Squad Facebook

Heavy rainfall is hampering ongoing rescue and recovery efforts for two canoeists who have been missing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness since Saturday evening, after two canoes carrying four people went over Curtain Falls.

Rescue crews evacuated the two other canoeists, including one who was injured after being swept down the waterfall, which tumbles thirty feet over a long cascade between Crooked and Iron Lakes along the Canadian border.

A fifth party member who was on shore at the time of the incident has also been flown out of the wilderness.

Three rescue workers remain camped at the scene — one with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, and two Superior National Forest law enforcement officers. But heavy rain that has swollen the already turbulent water below the falls has slowed their efforts.

“Right now we’re pretty much at a standstill,” said Nate Skelton, division commander with the St. Louis County sheriff’s office.

Skelton said they’re concentrating their search at the base of the falls, where it flows into Iron Lake. If they don’t find anything there, they’d gradually move into Iron Lake. The two canoeists who survived the plunge over the waterfall were rescued just downstream on a small island. They were airlifted out just after midnight early Sunday morning in a Minnesota DNR helicopter.

“It’s one of those things that you hope for the best,” Skelton said. “But at some point, you have to transition from rescue operations to recovery. And I think we’re definitely trending in that direction,” he said.

The missing canoeists have been identified as Jesse Haugen, 41, of Cambridge, Minn., and Reis Grams, 40, of Lino Lakes.

The other canoeists in the party were from Ham Lake and Cambridge.

Two rescue squad personnel are waiting to get flown to the scene when there’s a break in the weather and it’s safe for aircraft to fly in. It’s about a 10 to 12-hour paddle to the area from the closest entry points to the wilderness, according to Skelton.

When the additional rescue crews arrive, Skelton said they will resume using remote operated vehicles, or ROVs — essentially mini-submarines that are used to search underwater in lieu of dive teams.

The devices are able to get a clear view underwater using sonar and high-resolution cameras.

Skelton said the canoeists were fishing above the falls when “something happened, one of them got in distress, the other one tried to give some assistance, and they both ended up going over the falls.”

Skelton, who’s been working with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad for the past decade, doesn’t recall any prior rescues from the area around Curtain Falls. But he said he’s been told there have been previous instances of canoeists getting into trouble, especially when conditions are similar to what they are now, with high volumes of frigid water.

Skelton said there is no timeframe on how long the search will last.

“We go as long as we can with the personnel we have and do what we can to try to bring them back,” he said.

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