Lake of the Woods fishing trip turns into survival test
Bob Brott and his cousin, Gary Soucie, had just wrapped up a great day of walleye fishing on Lake of the Woods near Garden Island on Monday afternoon, July 31, when their day took a big turn for the worse.
Fortunately, they lived to tell about it.
As Brott recalls, they'd caught a limit of 17- to 19-inch walleyes, and he was steering his 1974 Glasspar powered by an 88-horse Evinrude outboard into a stiff southwest wind for the 15-mile trip back across Big Traverse Bay to Long Point, where they'd launched.
Rough waves, to be sure, but better than the previous night, the first of their trip, when Brott opted to stay on Garden Island rather than risk venturing back to Long Point in rough water.
He figures the waves that Monday afternoon were 3- to 4-footers.
"I've had it in rougher water than that with no problem," Brott, 55, said. "I knew it was going to take a couple of hours."
They were 1½ to 2 miles south of Garden Island, when Soucie, 58, went to the back of the 17-foot boat to switch gas tanks and discovered the boat was taking on water.
"I was in disbelief," Brott said.
He went back for a look and saw the bilge pump was running but had gotten plugged and wasn't pumping; the boat was filling up fast.
Brott, a home improvement contractor from Eden Prairie, Minn., said he was trying to figure out how to remedy the problem when a large wave washed over the stern and turned the problem into a disaster.
"I grabbed a 5-gallon bucket, and I was bailing trying to get that back up a little bit more," Brott said. "I just couldn't keep up with it."
They had just enough time to put their life jackets on before the boat capsized. Soucie, of Fairfield, Neb., tried calling 911 but couldn't get his cellphone to work, and Brott had lost his phone in the mayhem that ensued.
Charter boats that make daily treks north by that time had returned to resorts along the south shore, and there wasn't another boat in sight.
So there they were, Brott and Soucie, straddling an overturned boat as it drifted northeast along the south side of Garden Island toward the Ontario border.
No phone. No marine band radio.
They thought about trying to swim to Garden Island, knowing charter boats would stop there for shore lunches the next day, but decided that was too risky, Brott says.
"We stayed with the boat and drifted 5 to 6 hours," he said. "Waves were crashing over the top of the boat, and we managed to hang on without the waves sweeping us off."
More than once, Brott says, he thought about the three young men who drowned in October 2015 when their boat capsized near Oak Island, several miles north of where he and Soucie now were floating.
"I was very thankful and grateful to God we were with that boat and had lifejackets on," Brott said. "You're thinking of your family, about your loved ones and the people that are close to you."
Sometime around midnight, they washed up on the sandy beach of an island. At Brott's request, the name of the island, which is in Ontario waters, won't be disclosed until he's figured out how to retrieve the boat and salvage any belongings that survived the mishap.
They were cold, Brott says, but the wind kept the worst of the mosquitoes at bay. With only the moon for light, they scrounged enough branches for a makeshift windbreak.
They also managed to light a fire during the night after Brott's lighter dried off. They huddled by the fire for warmth.
The next morning, Tuesday, Aug. 1, charter boats again headed north along the U.S. side of the border but didn't notice the fire or realize their predicament, Brott says.
He took a walk along the shore, but saw no signs of life other than bear tracks and wolf tracks. He found a pop can to boil water for drinking, but later that day stepped on a hot coal buried in the sand and flinched, spilling boiling water on his left foot.
Dipping his foot in the lake kept the pain in check, but the burn definitely slowed him down, Brott says.
They caught and boiled crayfish to eat, Brott says, along with wild berries and pods of what looked like wild peas.
"So we had a few things to eat," he said. "Not much, but we drank a lot of water."
After spending a second night on the island, Brott on Wednesday morning, Aug. 2, set off to build a signal fire on a higher rocky point, but his injured foot slowed him down, and he missed the parade of charter boats heading north.
They began to explore other options for getting off the island, Brott says, including building a raft from pieces of a dock they found and lighting a massive signal fire the next morning that would be big enough to get the attention of any passing boat.
"We also built a lean-to in case it rained on the island to stay dry and to keep our firewood dry," Brott said. "We were making these plans for Thursday morning to make sure that someone would see us, somehow get the attention of a boat on the U.S. side.
"We had seen absolutely no boat traffic on the Canadian side."
They had been working on the raft throughout the afternoon, trying without success to flag down boats they saw passing along the U.S. side of the border, when they spotted what looked like a Coast Guard boat, Brott said.
The boat was a long ways off, but it was closer than the others they'd seen, he says.
Then it happened, something they'd been waiting nearly two days to see; the boat saw them and turned toward the island.
Onboard were Constable Jeff Prevett and Cpl. Stacy Morton of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Thunder Bay, Ont., who were patrolling the Minnesota-Ontario border. It was late afternoon, and they were just about to head back to Kenora, Ont., nearly two hours away by boat, when Prevett saw something on shore more than half a mile away that piqued their curiosity.
A closer look revealed two bedraggled men and an overturned boat.
"It really was kind of a needle in a haystack," Morton said in a phone interview. "We had to get in a lot closer and get the binoculars out because from where we were, it was just a tiny little speck on shore, so it was really just curiosity that brought us in. And then, through the binoculars, we saw the two gentlemen frantically waving away."
Brott said he assumed the officers were on a search-and-rescue mission but that wasn't the case. The two men hadn't even been reported as missing.
The island rescue was a first for both officers, Morton and Prevett said.
"The stars aligned for those men that day," Morton said. "Search and rescue isn't what we're doing out there. We're doing enforcement out there. We're generally talking to people on the water—not going to shore and looking."
Brott said he'd never been happier to see police officers, who then took the two men back across the lake to Long Point before returning to Kenora.
"They were very, very nice people," Brott said. "(Morton) made us sandwiches and gave us water and was just a sweetheart."
Morton said the men likely would have shortened their time stranded on the island if they'd let someone know their plans and whereabouts before venturing across the lake.
"We're really glad they didn't decide to leave that boat," she said. " Because the boat is what we saw—not them on shore, not their fire, not their little 'Help' sign or anything.
"It was the reflection of their boat."
Given how tiny the boat appeared on the horizon, Prevett said he's not surprised other boaters didn't spot the men or the fire they had built.
"It's not uncommon for boats in the area to go to shore and have a fire and have lunch, so other boaters going by would just kind of brush it off—other than their boat was upside down," Prevett said. "But it was not easy to see."
Brott says the brush with disaster won't deter him from fishing Lake of the Woods, but he'll be more diligent the next time he sets out on a long boat ride.
He reached out to share the story in hopes other people can learn from the misadventure. His advice: Check the bilge pump before the water gets rough. Let someone know your whereabouts and when you plan to return. Wear a lifejacket.
And if something goes wrong, stay cool. That definitely helped him and his cousin, Brott says.
"I would be lying if I told you I wasn't a bit embarrassed by the whole thing, as well," Brott said. "The best part of it is it does have a happy ending."