Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.


In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.

Aftermath

The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.

References

Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.

13 thoughts on “Quetico, August 1963

  1. Chip,

    I was bored today and fooling around on the Internet,
    when I found your story. I was a “Charlie Guide” out of Sommers from
    1980 until 1987 (including a winter guiding for Okpik). I had some of
    the greatest adventures of my life in the Bounday Waters and Quetico. I know the spot where this unfortunate incident happened,
    probably paddled past it a dozen times. Of course the story is legendary and all the guides knew it as it was covered in staff training.

    There was another guide, Gary Garlitz, also killed by lightning, but he was killed in the tent around 4:00 AM at (if memory severs Basswood Falls – Lower falls unless I misremember.) I was camping with a crew at those very falls when – at 4:00AM – lightning hit a tree on a small rocky island just yards from the camsite. The next morning the single pine tree had a split billowing white smoke and then bust into flames. I was yelling and making the rounds when it happened, thinking of Garlitz and wondering if anyone in the crew was hit. I could tell many lightning stories – one in which I was sure the whole crew would be killed. It is beautiful country (nothing else in the world holds a candle to it, in my opinion) but it can turn deadly in moments. Close calls and actual tragedies are still few and far between, and I can heartily recommend that everyone who hears “the call of the North” should embrace the adventure and go forth.

    Thanks for the story and best wishes.

    Kevin

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  2. Pingback: Quetico again – Chip's journey

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  5. Thanks for the comment. My first thought was “How could you have seen it? You weren’t there!” But of course that special night was visible over much of the Norther Hemisphere. It’s neat to see how the seemingly ephemeral aurora helps us connect across space and time.

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  6. Before I reached the end of the story I was thinking what a dangerous situation you all were in. I’m very sorry you lost your friend that day. I’ve always had a great respect for lightning due to a close call when I was young. Not anything like you experienced though, thank goodness!
    I found your notes accidentally while researching the great aurora of 1963. I witnessed the same one from Pawtucket, RI.
    Spectacular indeed, especially to a budding 13-year-old astronomer!
    Thanks for helping in my research!

    Bill

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  7. Before you retire and the website is retired you should know Fred Moyer’s last name was Moyer, not Moyers. He was my friend, was surprised to see his story on this site as I accidentally ran across it. Congratulations on your upcoming retirement. (Linda Mann)

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  8. Chip,

    My own story of the lightning strike is posted in the photo gallery section of Troop 52’s web site. It is attached to the black and white group photo — the same you have displayed here.

    I had not heard your perspective before and was unaware of the close call you described here. Ben Hulsey wrote me after I sent him my recollection of the events to ask how I could remember so many details of that day. I see now that I was not the only one.

    Bob (Bobby) Coalson
    Indianapolis

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  9. Chip —

    Thanks for pointing this entry out to me. What a gripping story! It brought back memories.

    I survived a storm in the Boundary Waters many years ago. Four of us (all middle-aged women) had paddled in to a remote lake and made camp. The next day we went out mid-morning for a day paddle. Julie noted that the wind had shifted, but there was no other sign of the bad weather that would soon overtake us.

    When we were an hour away from the island where we’d camped, a huge rainstorm came up. Fortunately there was no lightening, since we had two metal canoes. It took us four hours to retrace our path, all the time paddling furiously through whitecaps against the raging wind. There was no place to find shelter. It was Memorial Day weekend, and the water was still icy cold. One of the canoes capsized, but close enough to a very small island that my friends waded to shore. We managed to wedge their canoe between two trees, squeeze all four of us into the other canoe, and somehow made it back to the campsite. We were exhausted!

    None of us died or were injured, but we learned later that someone did die in that storm when a tree crashed down on their tent. I came face to face with my own mortality as I battled the storm; I truly did not know if we would make it back to camp or not. I can hardly imagine what impression that experience would have made had I been the age you were when the lightening struck on Basswood.

    Thanks for sharing such a powerful story.

    Sue

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