Nighttime rescue a success

Victim’s husband uses ingenuity to send message for help

Alex Messenger
Members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad help position a U.S. Forest Service Beaver on Agnes Lake. The flight was the culmination of an overnight rescue of an injured woman.
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL-Members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad and the U.S. Forest Service pulled off a harrowing early morning rescue of an injured woman from a wilderness lake north of Ely early on Tuesday.

Vicki Sue Gray, a resident of Florida, who was canoeing with her family and a friend on Agnes Lake in the Boundary Waters, broke her leg in a fall on Monday and was in severe pain as a result of a compound fracture.

Authorities first got word of a possible injury about 8 p.m. on Monday evening, when a member of a party camping nearby, who was assisting Gray’s group, set off a “Spot” GPS emergency beacon. The signal let authorities know that someone was possibly in distress on the east side of Agnes Lake, but it provided no information to determine whether a dangerous nighttime trek several miles into the wilderness was necessary. St. Louis County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Tomsich, who was on duty at the time of the call, said his office receives two or three emergency beacon calls a summer, and most often they prove to be accidental.

But about an hour later, Gray’s husband, a photographer who had brought a small radio-controlled, helicopter-like device along to do aerial photographs of their trip was able to send a text message by attaching a cell phone to the device and flying it up to about 1,000 feet, where it found a sufficient signal to alert their outfitter, Canoe Country Outfitters, that his wife’s injury was serious and they needed assistance.

“It was rather MacGyverish of him,” said Kurt Erickson, area coordinator for the St. Louis County Rescue Squad.

By the time the message got through, the volunteers of the rescue squad were already mobilizing for a rescue— but now they had confirmation of what they were likely to find.

Rescue squad responder Jon Olson, a retired firefighter and paramedic, said the team of four rescuers initially considered waiting until morning light to begin their several mile trek into the wilderness, but decided in the end that they needed to get there as quickly as possible.

“We knew she was almost certainly in distress and they had no way of knowing whether they had actually gotten their text message out. We didn’t want them trying to move her and making the situation worse, so we made the decision to go.”

By the time the team assembled at the Moose River entry point just off the Echo Trail, it was 1 a.m., pitch black, and pouring rain off and on.

The experienced team, which included Olson, Alex Messenger, Arden LaBonte, and Jake Stachovich, immediately headed north, traversing ten miles of winding rivers, lakes, and beaver dams, not to mention more than a dozen portages, some of them turned to deep mud in the heavy rain.

“We were up to our knees in mud in some places,” said Olson.

Despite the horrendous conditions, the team found the campsite, on the east side of Agnes Lake, about 4:30 a.m., just as dawn was breaking.

“There were some relieved people there when we showed up,” said Olson.

At the site, the team found the victim lying in place where she had fallen many hours earlier. Olson described the victim as a large woman and said her family had been unable to move her. They had covered her with a tent to protect her from the rain, but Olson said her vital signs were elevated, she was in tremendous pain, and her right leg was swollen so badly they had to carefully cut off her boot to relieve the pressure.

“I don’t think she had any circulation down there by that time,” said Olson. “It’s a good thing we got there when we did.”

With her boot removed, the team then made up a splint using a foldable canoe seat, some branches, and nylon webbing to hold it all together. Olson said splinting Gray’s leg provided her substantial relief. He said her vitals quickly returned to normal and she fell asleep within five minutes.

At that point, the team monitored her condition until Forest Service pilot Pat Loe landed his Beaver nearby, about 7:15 Tuesday morning. Ely EMTs Andy Gruis and Erik Thorpe were also on board to assist.

Fortunately for the team, Gray had fallen right next to the water, so the men were able to position the plane’s floats right up next to her. After strapping her to a backboard, it took everyone to move her into the plane. From there, she was flown out to the Forest Service seaplane base and transported by ambulance to the Ely Bloomenson Hospital. Gray was released later that day.

“It was quite an experience,” said Olson. “We were lucky we had the team that we did. Alex is really good with navigation and for a young kid he’s got tremendous experience,” he added. “All of the crew was very experienced, so we were able to power through despite the conditions.”

Rescue squad coordinator Erickson said the situation had the potential to go awry, particularly with the poor travel conditions and nighttime entry into the wilderness. “We had no communications up there. We sent two canoes so they had some backup, but they were traveling in the dark, without any way to get in touch with the outside.”

Erickson noted that rescue squad members, who are all volunteers, put themselves in such situations regularly. “This is the kind of stuff we do,” he said.


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Oh my goodness, a float plane in the wilderness. Tsk, tsk. I thought float planes were banned in border country because they ruin the wilderness experience. Now how many people had their wilderness experience ruined forever, as we are frequently told, by the sound and sight of this Beaver?

Friday, June 14, 2013 | Report this

orrcountry is correct that the noise of float planes is disruptive to the tranquility that people seek in wilderness, but mistaken about aircraft are banned in the border lakes area. Float planes are common in the border lakes area, but operate under special conditions in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which is a portion of the border lakes area.

Public Law 95-495, Section 4(i) explicitly allows the use of aircraft, motorboats, and snowmobiles for rescues (see page 4 at Aircraft may fly over the BWCAW if above 4,000 feet and assist in rescues per 36 CFR 294.2 (see

It's also interesting to remember that until the settlement of a lawsuit in November 1989, the Minnesota National Guard flew training flights over the BWCAW that caused sonic booms.

Sunday, June 16, 2013 | Report this
hard rock miner

Would have saved the woman a lot of pain and suffering had there been a good cell phone signal from the ground. Without the creative solution her husband came up this accident may not have had such a happy ending.

Sunday, June 16, 2013 | Report this

Steven: Thanks for responding. I think you may be mistaken about aircraft being banned on border lakes. Time was, we had Bill Magie from Ely and others from Crane Lake dropping people into lakes in what is now the BWCA. Perko's had a resort on Crooked Lake, base camps were on Basswood, LaCroix, Knife, Fourtown and other lakes. They brought tourists into these resorts and camps, plus supplies to keep the camps operating. They have been banned from landing and taking off on lakes now withing the BWCA. Question is...why is the government allowed to ruin people's wilderness experiences, while outfitters using float planes cannot? Double standard and hypocrisy?

Sunday, June 16, 2013 | Report this