GRAND MARAIS, Minn. - Billy Cameron’s favorite thing on Thanksgiving was sweet potato casserole.
“It was the marshmallows that really did it for him,” said Nataly Yokhanis, Cameron’s longtime girlfriend.
The gooey side dish was on the table this year as Yokhanis gathered with a select few from her immediate family to celebrate the holiday season. The classic casserole was a certainty — so, too, was that Cameron wasn’t there to partake.
Cameron, 29, of Noblesville, Ind., was an avid outdoorsman and had enjoyed visiting Minnesota’s North Woods and border lakes. But an outing last May proved tragic: Cameron drowned during a canoe trip with friends on Tuscarora Lake, about 50 miles up the Gunflint Trail, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The details surrounding his death might give pause to even the most avid paddlers who visit the iconic canoe country.
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A trip to the BWCA was becoming an annual tradition for Cameron. In May he traveled with two friends, Curtis Weeks and Taylor Johnson, to spend time on Tuscarora Lake. With more than 13 miles of shoreline and 10 campsites spread across 800 acres, Tuscarora is a popular destination throughout the year. It holds lake trout that grow large in its deep waters, which bottom out at 130 feet.
Tuscarora was familiar territory for the trio from Indiana. The trip was Cameron’s third to the BWCA in recent years. An island campsite in the middle of the lake was Cameron’s favorite. It’s where the group set up its base of operations this time, too, said Yokhanis, who recounted details of the trip from conversations with Weeks and Johnson. Both men declined to comment for this story.
May 19 was an unpleasantly windy day. It was cold the previous night, with temps dipping to the mid-30s. The day slowly warmed, with strong gusts from the south and east. Though it was the third week of the month, the ice had only recently come off some of the larger lakes in the wilderness. It’s typical for a lake the size of Tuscarora to maintain a surface temperature of about 47 degrees well into May.
In early evening, Cameron, who had celebrated his 29th birthday May 18, was fishing from shore when his line tangled in the rocky depths. The group had rented a three-person Kevlar canoe known as a Minnesota 3 from nearby Tuscarora Lodge & Canoe Outfitters. Not wanting to snap his line to free the snag, Cameron and his friends put on their life jackets and hopped in the canoe. After freeing the line, they continued fishing near the island. Moments later, hit by an easterly gust, the canoe capsized. The three men spent nearly 15 minutes trying to right the watercraft to no avail. Cameron, the leader and most experienced of the group, decided they should swim toward land.
The young men were in peril. Weeks and Johnson were able to reach land safely, though not easily in their heavy boots and clothing. Weeks made it back to the island, haggard and freezing after barreling through waves for nearly 400 yards. Meanwhile, Johnson ended up on the lake’s north shore after he realized he couldn’t move through the waves but only with them. After reaching land, both Johnson and Weeks started to holler. They barely heard one another in the wind. At the very least, they knew each had survived. Meanwhile, Cameron wasn’t seen or heard.
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Ben Aldritt of Minneapolis planned to travel many miles each day during his own May canoe trip. He planned to visit nearly a dozen lakes, starting and ending at Round Lake and Tuscarora Outfitters.
“I love the pre-trip planning and thinking about what campsite we’ll get,” said Aldritt, 31.
No amount of planning could prepare Aldritt and his companions, Tony Porter and Dan Fuller, for what they would find May 20, their first morning out. After starting early from Round Lake, they completed the 1⅓-mile portage from Missing Link Lake into Tuscarora. The winds from the day before still blew, and the sun was out. About 10 minutes after reaching the lake and on its south shore, they heard shouts in their direction, Aldritt said. It was Weeks. As they neared the island campsite, Aldritt could tell the person in distress was waving an object. It was a large stick with a white T-shirt on the end. This was an emergency.
After assisting Weeks on the island and confirming that he was not injured, the group paddled to help Johnson back to the island. Cameron still was missing.
“They kept telling us that if anyone could survive this it was Billy,” Aldritt said. “They were convinced he was hiking out to get help or that he was just out there in the woods somewhere.”
Hours later, after Aldritt and his friends were able to use the satellite phone of another canoe camper on nearby Missing Link Lake, a search and rescue team was alerted. A floatplane arrived just after 1 p.m. to join the search of Cameron. The pilot spotted Cameron and the canoe floating in a remote bay in the northwest corner of the lake. Cameron was dead when the pilot pulled him into the plane.
Aldritt and his friends decided not to travel beyond Tuscarora Lake that afternoon. They set up camp on a site within eyesight of the island. That afternoon they watched as a rescue squad arrived in canoes and assisted Weeks and Johnson. After their campsite was cleared, the squad led the two men out of the wilderness.
Kylan Hill, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, does routine patrols year-round in the BWCA. He sounded a note of caution for visitors. Hill said that though the air temperature may be comfortable and relatively warm in spring, the water temperature hasn’t had time to acclimate.
“It’s possible that the water temperature is 10, 20 or even 30 degrees colder than the air temperature,” Hill said.
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Yokhanis said the coroner listed hypothermia and drowning as the causes of Cameron’s death. It’s believed Cameron went into shock and was unable to breathe — a state called “dry drowning.” It’s a reality she’s had to live with since Cameron’s mother called her May 20 to deliver the tragic news.
“She told me Billy was dead,” she said, “and my world came crashing down around me.
Now, six months later, the seasons in the North Woods are in their natural transformation. The holidays have begun, and canoes along the Gunflint Trail are stored. Many of the lakes in the BWCA are well into their freeze-up. Transitions are an opportunity to pause and reflect, but for Yokhanis, a physician at the Dayton (Ohio) VA Medical Center, pausing only brings pain. So she keeps going forward, knowing that a flood of emotion is always looming.
“I have bad days,” she said. “Everyone does, particularly this year.”
Balancing joy and sadness, Yokhanis discovered Cameron, whom she dated for nearly nine years, had bought a ring and planned to propose. In a tribute to him, she recently got a tattoo of a mountain lion that covers most of the upper half of her left leg. Cameron was intrigued by the giant cats and their quest for solitude.
“Billy used to tell me if he ever got a tattoo, he’d get a mountain lion,” Yokhanis said.
If there is any reason to find hope beyond Cameron’s death, she said, it’s knowing that he lived a good life and that his death will serve as a reminder about keeping safety at the forefront of any trip to the BWCA.
“Safety first, safety second, and maybe coolness third,” Yokhanis said. “Accidents are real. That water is cold. Think ahead about if something happens what you are going to do. I can’t stress enough to everyone to be as safe as they can.”
Joe Friedrichs of Grand Marais is co-host of WTIP Radio’s Boundary Waters Podcast. He is the author of a new biography about Janice Matichuk, the longest-serving ranger in the history of Quetico Provincial Park. “Her Island” is available from 10,000 Lakes Publishing.