A FATHER’S ARMS by mia hinkle

If we only knew the dangers we brush up against every day, the near misses, the close calls. If we could only see the protective force field around us, we would probably reel in shock and awe. Or we would never leave the house. Or we might take even more risks.

The international derecho, commonly known as the Boundary Waters Blowdown swept across northern Minnesota with wild vengeance on July 4, 1999. With winds in excess of 90 miles an hour, an estimated 25 million trees across nearly half a million acres were snapped off like toothpicks 10 to12 feet off the ground within Superior National Forest, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Quetico Provincial Park.

The convectively induced windstorm began in North Dakota in the pre-dawn hours of July 4 and roared along for 1,300 miles, until it finally gave up in Maine over 22 hours later. Locals call it the Storm of the Century. With destruction equal to a hurricane or tornado, a derecho (from the Spanish meaning “direct or straight ahead”) is characterized by straight line winds over a prolonged bow echo path.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a paddler’s paradise. Some 1,200 miles of motor-free water trails span the lakes and rivers of this million-acre wilderness. Campers and hikers and paddlers were out in force that day because of the long holiday weekend. Miraculously, only one person was killed and 60 were injured. There were probably 2,500 campers in the area that weekend, most of them in the path of the storm. Campers were capsized, hurled through the air, crushed under trees and pinned under canoes. A long dark corridor of power outages could be observed from space for days afterward from North Dakota to Maine.

I find myself amused being so interested in this weather story, not only because my family and I were on the scene the next day, but because as kids we would listen to my Dad tell and retell his weather stories in excruciating detail.

“Did you know that the Red River near Fargo is the only river in the northern hemisphere that flows north? All around the world, rivers and streams flow toward the equator.”

“Did you know that toilet water flushes counterclockwise north of the equator and clockwise south of the equator?”

“Did you know that the aurora borealis can scramble the Russians spy intelligence?”

As a little girl, lying in my daddy’s arms at the end of the day, I would marvel at how just how much my father knew about the great big world out there, “Really? What else? Tell me more!” As a teenager I’d roll my eyes having heard it all a thousand times, “Yes Dad, I think you may have mentioned that before.” But now I find myself repeating these same amazing weather facts fully expecting the listener to be as equally amazed. But, I digress.

I remember July 4, 1999 clearly. My husband, Karl, two sons, Walker and Jackson, and I, had traveled to Minnesota for a family reunion at my Cousin Linda’s farm in Belle Plaine, and then on up to the North Shore for the rest of the week.

Some long lost relatives were visiting from Norway. It was my Uncle Whit and Aunt Evy’s 50th wedding anniversary. Karl sang, “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder” for them. My mom had passed away the year before and she would have loved that we all got together for this giant reunion picnic.

Jackson and Walker were among the youngest ones at the reunion at 6 and 9 years old. They played with the kittens and puppies and horses until their eyes began to swell and they were covered with straw dust. A colt had been born that very morning and was just beginning to try to stand up when we arrived. As they struggled to get a better look, Karl lifted the boys up high to stand on the gate so they could see the colt better as he wobbled on spindly legs and nosed around his mother’s belly for his first nourishment.

Someone took a family picture of my dad, my brothers and sisters, and me that day. It was so hot and windy; little did we know the devastation developing just 5 hours north of us. In that picture, our faces are beet red and our hair is sticking straight out to the east and we are all squinting. Wind filled our clothing. We resemble an alien family of puffy, red-faced, tow heads with big bellies and no eyes. I usually toss out photos of me that are not flattering, but this one is so laughable I just have to keep it around.

After a big lunch and a little beer and too much visiting with people they didn’t know, my two brothers-in-law disappeared and took the boys with them to a neighbor’s place where they swam in the pool and played in piles of sand AND got to drive Larry’s pick-up all by themselves … I found out later. What a relief it was to escape the heat by jumping into the cool pool water. Between cannon balls, Walker and Jackson learned the fine art of floating on their backs resting on the strong arms of their dad.

It remained too hot into the night and the wind blew so relentlessly we got the ominous feeling we were on the edge of something big. But we were busy and tired and didn’t watch the news before bed. The next morning we packed up the kids and headed north on Interstate 35 and then Hwy 61 along Lake Superior’s North Shore.

For months I had been telling Karl and the boys stories of my canoe trips north of Grand Marais at the very end of the Gunflint Trail. A few of us girls in our twenties would take an annual pilgrimage to paradise, paddling and portaging for miles, locating invisible campsites in a “Where is Waldo” shoreline, setting up our tent, building a fire, and rustling up freeze-dried meals fit for a king. We fended off wildlife (raccoons and chipmunks mostly), and we didn’t lay eyes on another human being for days at a time. I tried to explain to my non-camping family just how quiet and just how dark it got when the sun went down. That you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face and the silence was broken only by the sound of loons on the lake and the occasional splash of an otter. And if we were really lucky, we would see the northern lights fire up (confounding the Communists) and blaze across the sky in colors found nowhere else in nature. I couldn’t wait to show my family this magical place of my memories.

The morning after the reunion, it was 97 degrees and muggy in the Twin Cities when we set out for the North Shore. Five hours later we arrived at Tofte and it was 47 degrees and misting. The further north we drove, the more evidence we saw of yesterday’s storm. Giant swirls of caramel-colored muddy water in Lake Superior where creeks and rivers had overflowed their banks carrying anything in its path into the steel blue water. A culvert so big you could drive a car through it was washed out into the Lake. Washboard where there used to be blacktop. Trees snapped off and all bowing in the direction the storm had headed. Hwy 61 down to one lane in places, vacationers and repair trucks considerately taking turns.

We stopped at the grocery store in Grand Marais to buy groceries and sweatshirts, and cheerfully told the clerk about our plans for the Gunflint Trail the next morning. She stared at us blankly and said, “Not tomorrow you’re not. That road will be closed for weeks. Emergency vehicles only allowed up there now with chainsaws, bringing people out.”

We still didn’t get it. We’d been listening to Lyle Lovett CDs all the way up and had no idea what had happened. We didn’t know that the day before a swath of trees 12 miles wide by 30 miles long had been completely leveled, every tree uprooted or blown down. We didn’t know that they got eight inches of rain in two hours, or that the wind gusted up to 105 miles per hour. We didn’t know that there had been 6,000 lightning strikes per hour as the storm raced across the region. And no one knew yet that well over 100 million dollars in damage had been done in this wilderness paradise.

All of this had blown in from North Dakota right through the Boundary Waters, across Lake Superior, into Wisconsin and off to the east. It would be months before some remote areas got power back and fallen trees were cleared from roads, homes, businesses, and railroad tracks.

We stopped at the launder mat and ran into a group of Boy Scouts who had been completely taken by surprise by the derecho the day before. They were working on their Eagle Scout badges and were from Wisconsin. And they were never coming back. They recounted the wind that came out of nowhere about lunchtime and trees falling all around them and tents flying like witches through the air. They teared up a little when they spoke of missing boys and smashed canoes. Some were on the lake and some were on a hike when the furrow of black clouds rolled in and within seconds they were all scrambling for cover. They had formed human chains by locking arms with one another around the trunk of a tree and had held on for dear life, the smaller boys being lifted off the ground with each gust.

As they spoke, it was beginning to sink in just how close they had brushed up to death itself. It was beginning to dawn on them that there is really no way to prepare for something like this, even if you are a Boy Scout Leader. As their mouths formed the words, their eyes had the look of shell shock, the grown up leaders as well as the Jr. High boys.

In the end, they had all found each other and were rescued. They were now drying their clothes before heading home in their banged up van to their worried parents and their safe beds, but they had been through something together that had changed them. This was more than a near miss. They had seen the fury of nature. They had seen destruction unleashed. They had seen an act of God. And yet they had somehow been miraculously spared.

I couldn’t help think that Someone had held them in His arms and shielded them from falling trees and flying canoes. Someone had kept them and the nearly 2,500 other campers in the path of the storm, safe and pretty much out of harms way.

We wished them well, gathered our groceries, and rented some movies. It was too chilly and muddy to enjoy the great outdoors, so we settled in for the night at our cozy Chateau LeVeaux condo overlooking Lake Superior. We grazed on junk food, popped in a movie, and the boys snuggled into the arms of their dad on the fold out couch. Soon we all dozed off.

One day that week we headed to Lutsen Ski Resort for some hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains, sightseeing from the funicular, and a ride on the Alpine Slide. What the heck is an Alpine Slide you ask, and how do you take a ride in the summer? Well … this is what the ad said:

Everybody likes a little thrill every now and then, and the Alpine Slide is ready to oblige. Getting there is half the fun with a leisurely chairlift ride to the summit of Lutsen’s Eagle Mountain. Then hop on a sled and cruise down an exhilarating half mile of twisting, turning track back to the base. Riders control the speed from top to bottom. Take it slow, and soak in the sights – colorful displays of mountain and meadow flowers, stands of maple and aspen, patches of strawberries and raspberries – all at eye level. Let it rrrippp – and the hill’s a blur of fun roaring down the summer luge run. Its amusement park fun the whole family will enjoy – done up in classic North Shore ambiance.

So let me paint the real picture for you. A cement trough twisting and turning at breakneck speeds down the side of a mountain – I use the term “mountain” loosely for anyone reading this who might be from Colorado – but still a very steep incline. In the winter it is packed with ice and snow for maximum speed, after all the Luge is an Olympic event. In the summertime however, you climb into a fiberglass sled resembling a plastic dog dish big enough for a tiny teenage person (still in the invincible stage of their cognitive development). A little plastic handle is between your feet allegedly designed to slow you down when you pull up on it.

Karl took one look at the Alpine Slide and said, “Come on boys, let’s go!”

Walker, the voice of reason, took one look at it and said, “No thanks, I’ll wait here.”

“Oh, too bad,” I happily lied, “I guess I better stay here with Walker.”

So up they went, Jackson, a tiny six-year old, and Karl, a not-so-tiny 46 year old. They disappeared up the slope and Walker and I positioned ourselves at the end of the track to see them finish.

It turned out Jackson was too short to ride alone so he climbed on with his dad. All went well for the first couple of turns. They were letting it “rrrippp” alright; all was a blur as they picked up speed holding on tight. 15, 20, 25 miles an hour. Up on the right bank, down to the center, and then up on the left bank, down to the center, faster and faster. Another hair-pin turn and up another curve. A little too far to the top of the bank and bam! The sled slammed down on its side at a 45 degree angle to the track. The little handle was of no use now even if it had been reachable, and they just kept gaining speed under the weight of the two of them.

Karl grabbed Jackson’s precious little face with one hand and pulled him close to his chest, gripping his tiny body between his thighs. He put his other elbow out to keep from completely tipping over.

The tender baby skin on the inside of Karl’s elbow and forearm made contact with the concrete at about 30 miles an hour and the friction began to do its work. By the time they reached the bottom, it looked like someone had tried to peel the skin from his arm with an open flame and a piece of sandpaper, leaving only meat and blood vessels and little tiny gray pebbles visible.

Jackson was completely unharmed.

When they slowed down enough, Jackson gingerly leaped off the sled and ran alongside until it came to a grinding stop. Karl struggled to his feet and hobbled his way to the car.

To this day, if you ask Jackson whether he knew the kind of danger he was in; if he knew how close he was to having his face skinned away or his head cracked open, or that his dad was leaving his own flesh and blood and DNA along the cement track to keep these things from happening, he will tell you he had no idea. All he remembers is that he was having a barrel of fun in the arms of his dad and he knew he was protected no matter how close to the ground he was flying. Someone had held that little boy in his arms and shielded him from destruction. Someone had kept him safe and out harms way that day.

If we only knew the dangers we brush up against every day, the near misses, the close calls. If we could only see the protective force field around us.

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