Living to Tell About It

Couple survives scary canoe spill

They couldn’t stop shaking. He went to hug her and she thought the worst. He wants to hold me, one last time, because we’re going to die. They can’t find us and we are going to freeze to death.

By: Mike Creger, Lake County News Chronicle


They couldn’t stop shaking. He went to hug her and she thought the worst.

He wants to hold me, one last time, because we’re going to die. They can’t find us and we are going to freeze to death.

It was the first time she felt real fear. Before this moment, dashed onto rocks on the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior, she’d been feeding on the adrenaline, those survival instincts.

He had gone in quickly. The wave hit the canoe and he was ejected. She remembers things in a sort of slow motion, eventually sliding out of the boat and then bobbing in the lake herself.

Just a day ago, the temperature of the water neared 60 degrees. But the wind shift, the one that created the white caps that aborted their journey, had brought water in that was likely in the 40s. This wasn’t the warm Atlantic Ocean or an inland lake near their home in central Florida. This was Lake Superior. Its changing moods. Its killing cold, even in a mid-July marked by temperatures in the 80s.

All he’d wanted was a picture. It was their first time in a canoe on the lake. It was the third time they’d been up the North Shore, a perk of his annual trek to the Twin Cities area for job-related training.

They weren’t going out far July 17. Maybe a couple hundred yards, point to point from their launch at Cove Point near Beaver Bay.

They knew enough to cut the waves with the canoe when the wind picked up. Life jackets on, wary eyes and paddles on the lake. They were doing OK before he wanted to capture that moment. He relaxed his fight with the waves and went to work the camera. The craft pivoted into a trough and the next wave tossed them.

Our vacation pictures are on the bottom of the lake, she said later.



Survival instinct

He knew they were in serious trouble, thanks to a program on television he instantly recalled when he first hit the icy water. The cold can kill. We have to get out of here quickly.

His ears were plugged from the sudden plunge. He’d lost his prescription glasses.

He banked his fears and worked on remembering the cold water survival tips he saw on the TV show. Use the overturned canoe as a life raft. Take in the surroundings. Get a plan together.

She’s oblivious to the danger of the cold. She’s wearing a skirt. He was in jeans. She remembers almost casually grasping the plastic bag that held their cell phone as she slid into the water.

Now she had to hold on to the canoe with one hand and keep the other, with the phone, high above her head after pressing 911.

Despite the notoriously spotty cell service along the North Shore, she made a connection.

She had to yell above the waves to describe the situation. It didn’t help that they knew little of the shoreline and she was describing their peril in a rapid-fire southern accent.

We left Cove Point, she says, and headed toward Canada. Northeast. We’re in the water. Help.



Location, location

Carmen Norberg has a general rule of thumb for those calling emergency dispatch. Stay calm. “I can’t help if you’re yelling and I can’t understand.”

It was her first water rescue call. And when it rains, it pours. Before the weekend was up, she had two more calls for help on the lake. But with a scorching July on the North Shore, cool play around Lake Superior is increasing.

There had been some confusion because a fishing tournament was going on out of Silver Bay Marina that Saturday morning. Scans were made by responders for an overturned motor boat much farther out.

The woman on the other end of Carmen’s line was calm. The connection was good. She worked on getting her information despite the distance between her mouth and phone. The woman in distress could hear a voice, but not precise words. She kept shouting up clues to their location. She heard the “sireeens.” Her southern dialect was showing.

We can see the shore. Carmen told her to describe what she was seeing to pinpoint the location for first responders coming from Silver Bay.

They were surprised at how much Carmen knew about the shoreline.

They saw eight brown houses. Windsong Cottages, the next resort area up from Cove Point Lodge.

Do you want to abandon and swim for it? she asked.

No, he knew. We’d use up too much energy and lose each other. Stay with the canoe. Keep kicking.

They had given up on being found on the water. They had been paddling with their feet and slowly getting toward shore with the added boost from the waves. They would make it, but then what? That shore looked so isolated. How will they find us?

Did they hear voices on shore? Was that someone waving a shirt, signaling that they could be seen?




To the rescue

“Shivering is good, it means you’re not shutting down,” came the voice of Rod Lampton from the Silver Bay Rescue Squad. He and others had come through the woods and to the rocks about an hour after the capsizing.

They had been in the water for 45 minutes, the couple figured. She laughs later when told of the danger of Lake Superior’s icy grip. I didn’t know, she says, maybe that was a good thing.

The hard part was finding where they were, Lampton said. The rest was rote. Hot packs. Blankets. Don’t move them too quickly. The body needs to adjust.

The manual doesn’t include reassuring hugs, a pat on the foot. Some North Shore compassion.

Is my husband OK? Yes, he’s OK.

The couple is grateful for the small touches of comfort. They will never forget. He chokes up when thinking of the kindness offered. They were more than professionals, they were people who cared, he says.

These are feelings they would later share in an email to the Lake County Ambulance Service. Look us up if you are ever in central Florida. We owe you all a steak dinner.

The appreciation is taken as a badge for a job well done, responder Theresa Judkins said. “You don’t always get follow-up. It’s worth it when you show up on someone’s bad day and can be of help.”

I can’t believe what a strong person she was, the husband later says of his wife’s demeanor on the phone and throughout the struggle.

She marvels at her own ability to stay calm.




Small wonders

They had joked before going out in the canoe that they needed to pray for their safety.

After being released from a short stay at the hospital in Two Harbors Saturday afternoon, they sought a church to give thanks in.

Nestled in their pew at Silver Bay Baptist Sunday morning, Pastor Paul Michalski offered a sermon about being daring but also using common sense, like wearing a life jacket during your water adventures. You never know, he said. Just yesterday a couple overturned their canoe on Lake Superior.

The pastor is also a member of the rescue squad and heard word through the grapevine. He saw a knowing smile come across a couple in the congregation. “It’s not you two, is it?” he asked. They laughed and wore their notoriety sheepishly.

Her arms are tingling from the cold days later. He remains amazed at the adventure and the response, still tearing up in the telling of it.

Charlie and Teresa Evans of St. Cloud, Fla., celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary the following Wednesday. That they were alive to acknowledge it was enough.

We’ll be back, they say in unison. The North Shore is beauty in nature and people after the kindness shown by strangers, they said.

“But we won’t be in Lake Superior,” Charlie says.

“We won’t be canoeing, that’s for sure,” Teresa says.