The snow was falling fast — and so was the temperature — when a lone adventurer from Indiana realized his newly purchased gloves were failing him deep in the northern Minnesota wilderness.
Chori Rummel, his wet hands growing increasingly frigid, sent an SOS distress message on his handheld satellite device Saturday evening as snow pounded his tent and the lake where he was camping started freezing over. He waited for hours in the dark and cold before rescuers reached him during his first foray into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
Crews from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the St. Louis County Rescue Squad arrived as temperatures sank into the teens. “It was still snowing heavily when they initially found his campsite” at Nina Moose Lake, roughly 20 miles north of Ely, said DNR spokesman Joe Albert. “Most of the clothes the man had were wet. There was a light down jacket hanging in the tree that was frozen solid.”
The rescue squad said Rummel, 34, of Elkhart, Ind., was suffering from hypothermia when he sent an emergency message shortly before 5 p.m. from a Garmin inReach — a device he had rented for $10 a day.
Rummel said he sent his distress message once his hands became stiff from the wet and cold.
“I made a poor choice of gloves” at the outfitter before setting out, said Rummel, who lives more than 700 miles mostly to the south and a touch east of his BWCA destination. “They said waterproof on the packaging, but they weren’t.
“If it wouldn’t have been for my hands, I would have stayed out there longer, but you can’t work very good if you can’t use your hands. It got so cold, my cellphone shut down on me.”
Rummel said he knew he faced a daunting journey during his maiden trip to the million-acre wilderness area in the Superior National Forest because “my tent was getting lambasted with snow. ... There was 5-6 inches that evening.”
Sean Williams, a DNR conservation officer on the rescue mission, said, “It was as dark as I’ve ever seen it out there. You couldn’t see anything. It was snowing heavily, fog was moving in, and there was ice on the lake.
“We had to break through ice to get to the middle of the lake, and when we made it to the middle, it was so dark we had to use a GPS to find the shore and his campsite.”
Rummel was only one day in to what he intended to be a weeklong visit when rescuers arrived.
Rescue squad Capt. Rick Slatten said Rummel is fortunate to be alive given the combination of the backwoods visitor being alone, the lake starting to ice over and him having lightweight clothing, tent and sleeping bag in wintry conditions.
Even if he were strong enough to make it out on his own, Slatten said, Rummel would have had to carry out his canoe and gear, rather than make his escape on the water.
“The ice is now too thick for canoeing,” the captain said.
Conservation officer Williams and three members of the volunteer rescue squad broke through the thin layer of ice by canoe to the campsite shortly after 8 p.m., well after dark.
“He was a little bit slurred in speech on first contact,” Slaten said. “When you have hypothermia, you start to lose fine motor skills. ... He was a little sluggish in performance before we got some heat in him.”
The rescue team began treating his symptoms before plotting their return.
“Rescue personnel began warming him with heat pads and then got a fire going,” Albert said. “He sat near the fire, wrapped in a wool blanket, for about 90 minutes before rescuers brought him out of the wilderness.”
Williams said that had the rescue team “not gotten there when we did, I don’t know that he would have made it through the night. Luckily, he had the communications equipment and wasn’t afraid to use it once he knew he was in trouble.”
Rummel said his experience has not dissuaded him from returning to the BWCA.
“I’m planning another trip to the Boundary Waters,” he said, “but not until June.”
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482