Scouts survive near-disastrous adventure expedition

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A local Boy Scout leader credits calm thinking and advance preparation for being alive today following a harrowing boating ordeal.


“I was praying and also thinking … we’re prepared for this, we’ve been trained for this and we have the equipment to get through this,” said Howard Hudson, a scoutmaster for West Chester Troop 990, which embarked June 9 on a Northern Tier High Adventure Program in the Boundary Waters on the border of Canada and northeastern Minnesota.


They ended up rescued three days later on Basswood Lake, north of Ely, Minn.


Hudson, 55, said the West Chester Twp. scouts trained for a year to prepare for the camp, which tests wilderness and survival skills with 10 to 15 miles of canoeing a day, as well as hiking between 200 yards to one mile at a time while carrying 85-pound canoes and 80-pound backpacks.


Last Thursday, the group was coming from the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters into the United States when they “got caught in some quick-changing weather” around noon, Hudson said.


“It started like a little drizzle, like the rest of them, and then all at once the rain kicked in and it became a heavy downpour, followed by the wind and the waves,” Hudson said.


The scouts realized they needed to exit the cold quickly to avoid hypothermia before the expedition became a survival situation.


A guide, 23-year-old Cody Loucks of Springfield, Mo., pointed the group toward an island around 200 yards away, telling them to paddle as hard as they could.


Tyler Kreig and Jordan Cline, two 17-year-old scouts, made it to the island, but Hudson’s canoe capsized, dumping him, 14-year-old stepson Jake Lemen and 50-year-old assistant scoutmaster Mike Hall into the lake.


Loucks steered his canoe to the island, dropping off scouts Sam Iles, 16, and Hudson’s other stepson Grant Lemen, 14, on the island. He then recruited Kreig to help rescue the trio in the water.


Loucks threw a rope, which Hall tied to the capsized craft. But instead of navigating back to the island, Loucks directed the boat and sinking canoe with the current and headed toward another island, Canadian Point, nearly a mile away.


“When they pulled us with the line the front of our submerged canoe lifted up and the back end went down,” Hudson said. “I was holding onto the back end and it pulled me under water and I had to let go.”


He eventually popped up but soon realized the wind had blown him away from his rescuers.


“The first thing I did was to turn around and try and look at that closest island and the waves were coming so strong I knew that there was no way (I could reach it),” he said.


Turning back the other way, he realized Canadian Point was the only choice.


“All the stuff goes through your head like … ‘I might not make it,’” he said. “But then I would calm myself down and tell myself ‘Hey, the waves are going to take you there. Just rest and swim when you can, don’t overexert yourself’ because so many people drown because they panic and flail around.”


Hudson said he focused on two white trees on the island, and it took him an hour to make it there, but relief from avoiding drowning was replaced by fear of hypothermia.


“I got hit with that cold and that’s the second time I got closest to panicking,” he said. “I thought ‘I gotta get out of this wind’ and my instinct was to run up into the woods … so the trees would be between me and the wind.”


But he remembered the canoes he spotted and reversed his tracks, blowing an emergency whistle every 20 feet until he heard Loucks and Hall answer back.


“It was total elation and relief,” Hudson said. “We embraced and we were all crying and thanking God.”


Meanwhile, scouts Iles, Cline and Grant Lemen assembled a radio on the other island and called for help.


“They did such a good job,” Hudson said. “They used the map and they knew the exact point they were at.”


Hudson’s group waited for two hours in a two-person tent until a rescue plane arrived, followed shortly thereafter by a helicopter and boat.


The group reunited around 11 p.m. at the Boy Scout base camp. Hudson’s stepson, Jake, was taken to a nearby hospital to be treated for hypothermia, from which he has since recovered.


Hudson said he is thankful to not only his own scouts, but to the Northern Tier High Adventure Program, as well.


“They just did everything as good as anybody could possibly expect,” Hudson said.


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