GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — Four tourists from North Carolina, including two women in their 70s, were rescued by Minnesota conservation officers Sunday night, Jan. 19, when their rented snowmobiles became mired in a swamp deep in the Superior National Forest.
The group from La Grange, N.C. — two sisters, one of their daughters and the daughter’s boyfriend — were in northern Minnesota "to experience real winter," said Lt. Dan Thomasen, Minnesota DNR conservation officer supervisor for the Arrowhead region.
"They went skiing on Saturday. Then on Sunday they rented snowmobiles in Grand Marais and headed up into the woods,’" Thomasen said.
The four were riding on two-person, four-stroke snowmobiles and made it up into the Ball Club Lake area, about 15 miles north of Grand Marais, when they somehow left the main Expressway snowmobile trail.
"They ended up going down an old, abandoned snowmobile trail that was very narrow and not maintained," Thomasen said.
The foursome realized they were lost, but told officers they ran into two other snowmobilers who offered to lead them back to another main trail.
"That's when it got really interesting," Thomasen said. "The other two guys were ahead of them and got stuck in the swamp, got wet and decided they needed to get somewhere to warm up fast … So they got their own machines unstuck and basically said they were out of there, going out the other side. They left the North Carolina family high and dry."
Except the North Carolina family wasn’t dry. They got wet feet when swamp water poured into their boots. Many swamps across northern Minnesota remain unfrozen this winter due to a thick blanket of insulating snow.
"So they have these big, heavy, two-up snowmobiles. The trail is too narrow for them to turn around. And one of the two machines is stuck in the swamp," Thomasen said. "They were absolutely not ready to spend a night in the woods ... but they got lucky. Somehow they got cellphone coverage."
Thomasen happened to be in the Grand Marais area with several other conservation officers as part of a focused patrol for the ice fishing opener for trout lakes. So Thomasen and Conservation Officer Kylan Hill approached the stuck group by snowmobile from the west while conservation officers Tom Wahlstrom and Dave Schottenbauer snowmobiled in from the east, off the Pine Mountain Road.
The original 911 call came in just before 5 p.m. It was dark and after 6 p.m. by the time the officers found the stranded Carolinians in the Pine Lake area.
The area had received more than a foot of new snow in recent days and snow on the ground off any packed trail was soft and waist-deep, Thomasen noted, making it very hard to move the heavy sleds around. Eventually, the officers got the rented snowmobiles unstuck and turned around and ferried the group back to a waiting ambulance on the Ball Club Lake Road at about 7:30 p.m.
"The older women were showing signs of hypothermia. But after they warmed up in the ambulance they were OK," he said. The conservation officers and Cook County sheriff’s deputies drove the group back to their Grand Marais motel.
The wind chill Sunday night dropped to 18 below zero at the nearby Devil Track Airport outside Grand Marais. Officers said the group likely would not have been able to walk miles in the dark to find help in their condition and may not have survived the night in the swamp.
"This could have ended very badly. The temperature was about 10 when we got there. They were wet," Thomasen said. "They had winter clothes on. But, by Minnesota standards, especially their boots, they weren’t up for what they were doing."
Officer Hill said the incident should be a reminder even to Minnesotans "to have survival equipment handy when riding snowmobiles in remote areas of the state. Things can go wrong at any moment, even on shorter rides. These riders were extremely lucky they had cellphone coverage."
Thomasen said the Carolinians went home with a renewed respect for winter and a realization of how remote parts of northern Minnesota are.
"By the time we were driving them back (into Grand Marais), it kind of set in for them how much trouble they were in out there," Thomasen said. "Everyone needs to be prepared when you're in that kind of remote country. They were lucky this worked out OK."