BRAINERD, Minn. — What began as a fun paddle down a river for a Brainerd family turned into quite a bit more of an adventure than they planned.
A trip to northeast Minnesota to enjoy the wilderness and get some exercise was a welcome prospect as Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order drew to a close in mid-May, said Abigail Faas. The morning of May 17, Abigail and her children — along with her mother, boyfriend, his son and his son’s girlfriend — pushed off from the shore of the Cloquet River in three kayaks and an aluminum canoe. It was a chilly, windy day, but the group enjoyed the wild scenery during the first few uneventful hours.
Things took a turn when the icy waters began moving more swiftly, giving way to river rapids. The change was unexpected for the group, Abigail said, and no one had experience navigating rapids while paddling. As the kayaks lurched in the shallow, swirling waters, Abigail turned to see her 18-year-old daughter Isabella Faas, her boyfriend’s son Craig Fawver and his girlfriend Emily suddenly swimming in the water.
“My 18-year-old climbed up and stood on a rock in the middle of the rapids, and the canoe emerged and wrapped around the rock in front of her,” Abigail said. “ … I didn’t know aluminum canoes are not good for rapids. They stick to rocks, instead of bouncing off.”
In those harrowing moments as the canoe thrashed against the rocks and its contents floated away, Craig and Emily made it to shore while Isabella remained marooned on the large rock in the middle of the river.
“I started realizing that we were in a bad situation when I saw the canoe bend while I was on the rock,” Isabella said.
Expecting the kayaks were more likely to tip or take on water, the group’s dry gear, food and water were stored in the canoe. Patty Warner, Abigail’s mother, along with Faas’ 7-year-old son Malachi, continued downriver to retrieve the food, drinks and towels, secured in plastic bags.
“Our apples and oranges were floating down the river,” Warner said. “Malachi would say, ‘Left, Grandma,’ ‘Right, Grandma.’ … We only lost one thing, which was pretty good.”
Patty noted before rescuers arrived, Malachi was ready to help the group live off the land for the night.
“He said, ‘If we’re going to be out here, we’re going to need this food,’” she said. “He wanted to make me a fort so we would be warm if we had to spend the night.”
Patty said she paddled back up the river as far as she could before the rapids became too difficult, and then she and Malachi walked along the banks until the group was reunited. Meanwhile, Isabella made it to shore on one side of the river with the other canoe occupants while Abigail and boyfriend Ross Fawver, on the other side, tried to determine whether they could walk to a nearby road to get help. A look at online maps showed they were deep in the forest, too far away from civilization to venture out.
“We only have three kayaks (for all of us) and I didn’t know what to do with the canoe,” Abigail said. “I didn’t want to just leave it, it was registered to me.”
A call to 911 came next, and the volunteer St. Louis County Rescue Squad determined from GPS coordinates what the stranded group already knew — they should stay put. In the late afternoon, about an hour after the canoe capsized, a man on a four-wheeler suddenly appeared.
“I screamed for him across the river,” Abigail said. “I told him we were stranded and we had called 911. He was like, ‘That’s why the sheriffs are down at Highway 8 bridge.’ So he went down and got the rescue people and the Marsh Master and led them to us.”
The Marsh Master — an amphibious vehicle resembling a tank, capable of carrying personnel and equipment through stump filled swamps, bogs and other water crossings — carved an 8-foot wide trail through the marshy terrain to make its way to the group. The massive machine and its awesome capabilities were a welcome sight to the chilled paddlers, bringing with it the rescue squad and accompanied by rescue boats.
“They covered all the kids and wrapped them in towels,” Abigail said. “It was almost 7:30 before everybody got on the Marsh Master — five of them did — and rode the Marsh Master to the end of the river while my boyfriend and I and his son kayaked the rest of it.”
Faas said she was grateful her younger children seemed relatively unfazed by the ordeal. She didn’t want them to experience a traumatic event on the water, since enjoying its recreational opportunities was something the family did often.
Ten-year-old Elizabeth Faas said while it was kind of scary once the rapids came, the wait to be rescued felt long and uneventful. But the Marsh Master was the star of the show.
“When we got a ride back, it ran over big trees and knocked them over,” Elizabeth said.
By 9:30 p.m., everyone was safe and warm, together again. Abigail, Patty and Isabella said they were thankful for the rescue squad — not only their efforts to bring the group back to safety, but their professionalism and ability to keep everyone calm.
“I honestly would’ve rather had that experience and get to experience what we did, than just going down the river and having nothing happen,” Isabella said.
Patty, a lifelong paddler, said she’d been to the Boundary Waters and forged streams and rivers, and had never once had any problems until their Cloquet River adventure.
“It was a bad experience, turned good,” she said. “Nobody died. … I was just so relieved that everyone was OK and walking, and we could handle a little cold.”
The canoe wasn’t quite so lucky, Abigail said, left dented, punctured and torn.
“They say it’s fixable,” she said. “But I don’t know if my kids will ever go in a canoe again.”