Wilderness tragedy

A young man dies in the Boundary Waters, leaving family and friends and a sad reminder of what is at stake when we leave civilization’s safety.

Cross-posted on my Star Tribune blog.

BWCAW morningLast Friday, I heard the news that a young man was missing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Ty Sitter had been on a fishing trip to Swan Lake, on the eastern end of the wilderness, with his father and 19-year-old brother. He left camp by himself about 7 p.m. Thursday to do some fishing. The Star Tribune reported:

When he didn’t return to their campsite by 9 p.m., his father and brother began to look for him, finding his canoe upright and unoccupied on the lakeshore. It was filled with 4 inches of water, but had everything Sitter left with — a life jacket, fishing net, tackle box and rock anchor — except his fishing pole. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the two paddled out and alerted authorities at midnight; a search began immediately.

His brother and father had pledged to not come home without finding Sitter. Very sadly, the young man’s body was located Monday with sonar in about 90-100 feet of water. In a Monday interview with North Shore radio station WTIP, Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk reported that searchers located the body within a minute of starting to use a sonar device. They showed the image to Sitter’s family, who also said they were confident it was the young man. Due to equipment malfunctions, rough weather, and the remote location, it took authorities until last night to recover Sitter’s body.

This is a tragedy. An annual vacation ending up with the worst possible scenario. Sitter was fortunate to have a devoted father and brother, and a fiancee back home who had kept up hope. But nothing changes the fact that the full potential of his life was unfulfilled, and his relationships incomplete.

The sad event brought to mind an essay written by Mike Link, published in Backpacker magazine in 1980 and printed in the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’s newsletter a couple years ago. Link, the long-time director of Audubon Center of the Northwoods, made the news last year when he and his wife Kate Crowley marked their retirement by walking the entire way around Lake Superior. Titled “Risk and the Wilderness,” Link’s essay was about a tragedy he had suffered: the death of his son in a kayaking accident in New Zealand. Mike wrote (PDF):

My life has been shaped by risk and the wilderness in ways I never could have predicted.

My son and I used to talk around campfires about grizzly bears, sheer cliffs, storms, distant rivers—the beauty and exhilaration of the outdoors. It was a common love we could share. And we also talked about risk. If a bear kills me, don’t let anyone try to hunt it down, one of us said. If I get lost in the woods, don’t send in the helicopters and search planes, let me find my own way out, the other responded. If I die on a river, don’t let them dam it and steal its life on my account. These were our campfire conversations. More »

My heart goes out to those Sitter left behind. He died in a place he obviously loved, but I’m sure that’s meager consolation: he was simply too young. I know that, on future canoe trips, I’ll tighten the straps on my life jacket and keep the dry clothes handy, and I won’t roll my eyes when my loved ones worry about what I will do if there’s an emergency. And I’ll respect the wilderness not just for its many gifts, but also what it can take away.


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