Morning Edition

How do you stay safe in remote areas like BWCA during severe weather?

Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the BWCA.
Morning fog lifts from Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Aug. 24, 2019.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The official start of summer is a week away — which means more time outside for many Minnesotans.

After a multi-year drought, the weather has turned wetter and Meteorologist Sven Sundgaard says that pattern is more conducive to bouts of severe storms. So how do you stay safe in remote, outdoor, water-filled, even woodsy areas of Minnesota like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when severe weather strikes?

Tim Engrav, district recreation wilderness trails manager for the Superior National Forest, says swift action is key. If you’re on the water, that means getting close to or onto shore as quickly as possible.

“We even recommend that you would be paddling closer to shore so that if there is a change in the weather, you can get onto land and off the water,” Engrav said on Morning Edition.

A rainbow rises over a lake.
A rainbow rises over the South Arm of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in July 2021.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Two storms in the BWCA are stuck in many Minnesotans’ memories: the 2016 storm that killed Gov. Tim Walz’ brother Craig and the 1999 BWCA blowdown, which claimed no lives but injured many visitors. And just this Wednesday, the National Weather Service Duluth issued a striking warning for campers in the BWCA: hunker down under a well-tied-down canoe for shelter amid the threat of baseball-sized hailstones.

But it’s not rain, flooding or hail that concerns Engrav the most. It’s straight-line, high-speed winds coupled with lightning that does.

“Those are typically the two most dangerous and most frequent weather events that you can experience in the Boundary Waters,” he said.

In addition to being aware of escape routes off the water, carefully choosing a campsite to pitch a tent can help keep you safe. Engrav warned to steer clear of locations with dead or damaged trees that could become a hazard in stormy conditions. He said wilderness crews routinely maintain designated campsites in the region to remove those trees.

“But there’s over 2,000 campsites and only so many crews. So it’s still important,” he said.

Gunflint Lake BWCA 1999 blowdown
In this July 6, 1999 photo, a home on the south shore of Gunflint Lake in northeastern Minnesota is framed by the devastation caused by a storm that passed through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area over the Fourth of July weekend.
Brian Peterson | AP

The recent disappearance and subsequent deaths of two canoeists in the BWCA also brings to light the dangers of rough or frigid water.

“Especially this year, the water has remained on the colder side, as we haven’t had a lot of warm days leading up through the spring,” Engrav said. “It’s really important to wear your lifejacket when you’re out on the water. That’s kind of first and foremost the best way to protect yourself.”

Engrav also said to avoid swift water rapids, adding that crews maintain the portages around rapids so visitors need not canoe or wade through those areas.

And be prepared and informed for any conditions — Engrav said they’re always changing.

“The atmosphere is different each day or each summer,” Engrav said. “This past March we were really concerned about drought and dry conditions and wildfire potential and now here the last couple of months that’s changed 180 degrees and we're really wet and green.”

The Pagami Creek Fire continues to burn across the BWCA
The Pagami Creek Fire continues to burn across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness about 10 miles north of Isabella.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The Forest Service has a complete list of resources and preparedness tips for BWCA visitors and warns not to rely on search and rescue if something goes wrong. They also recommend you check the Department of Natural Resources fishing and hunting regulations and comply with “leave no trace” principles to keep the park wilderness so everyone can have a good experience in Minnesota’s great outdoors.