May–June 2024

Into the Storm

How one Minnesota adventurer survived a historic blowdown in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Cary Griffith

Editor’s Note
On July 4, 1999, a rare confluence of meteorological events resulted in hurricane-force winds that tore through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. In a matter of minutes, the storm left a swath of destruction 30 miles long and up to 10 miles wide in places, toppling nearly 500,000 acres of forest. More than 60 people had to be airlifted to safety that day, but, amazingly, there were no fatalities.

The blowdown changed a large part of the BWCA forever. The storm filled the forest with downed wood that became fuel for a series of massive wildfires in the following decade. And while old-growth trees no longer stand in the affected areas, a new forest has grown up.

To mark the 25th anniversary of this historic weather event, we tapped Minnesota author Cary J. Griffith to tell the story of John Pierce, one of the many people who endured the storm’s wrath. The following article is exclusive to MCV, but you can read more about the blowdown in Griffith’s recent book Gunflint Falling

Early on the morning of July 4, 1999, John Pierce was walking his dog in Ely’s Whiteside Park. It was around 6 a.m., and he and his golden retriever, Kira, were up early to meet two friends at the BWCA entry point on Fall Lake. Their plan was to head into Pipestone Bay on Basswood Lake to do a little fishing. 

The early morning weather was strange, noted Pierce. The temperature was near 80 degrees, unusual for that hour of the day at that latitude. Even more extraordinary was the 94 percent humidity, not to mention the fact that it was perfectly still. Forecasts had predicted clear skies, but with the air almost fully saturated, Pierce was struck by the diminished visibility, almost as though a fog had settled over the region. Still, he was looking forward to a few hours of fishing on one of the Boundary Waters’ premier lakes.

Two hours later, Pierce and his friends were tooling around Pipestone Bay in Pierce’s 14-foot Alumacraft, searching for their first place to wet a line. (This area of the BWCA is one of three that allow the use of motorized boats up to 25 hp.) 

As the morning progressed it began to clear. Unfortunately, the sun only intensified the heat, and the eerie stillness continued. The men fished a part of the lake that gave them an unobstructed view toward the west, down a long stretch of the bay, where they noticed clouds building over the western horizon. As the sky continued to darken, they decided it would be prudent to head over to a nearby island campsite, put up their tarp, and cook lunch. 

The site had an excellent boat landing and an open trail approximately 80 feet long that cut up through a stand of young red pines to a fire grate. 

While the pines were approximately 40 feet tall, in the face of strong winds they were more likely to bend rather than break, providing excellent cover, the men reasoned. Also, the campsite had a good vantage point west, so they could keep an eye on the approaching weather. 

Near the fire grate, the group set up their tarp with its back facing west, into the oncoming breeze. They anchored and staked the sides and back of the tarp so they would be protected from the bad weather, if it came. Next, they kindled a fire and soon had several bratwursts sizzling. 

While the brats cooked, the wind rose, flapping the back sides of their tarp. Pierce looked west and could see what appeared to be rain in the distance. As the weather built, the tarp began to billow like a sail in a gale. The young pines started to sway. The tarp was protecting them from the worst of it, but as the wind came up, Pierce’s friends leaned into their shelter to make sure it didn’t blow away. The air was beginning to fill with debris, and as the wind continued to intensify, the first rain began pelting them. Pierce grabbed his buddy’s arm for support, and they turned to glimpse the oncoming weather. 

John Pierce knew the dangers of a being caught in a windstorm in the wilderness. Four years earlier, he had helped evacuate a group of campers on Nina Moose Lake, also in the BWCA. Like Pierce and his friends, the group had been caught in a storm after setting up camp. The winds were so intense that they felled several trees, including a large cedar that flew 30 feet through the air before landing on a tent and knocking one of the campers unconscious. 

When word of the incident at the site reached the nearby YMCA camp where Pierce was an administrator at the time, he and a group of first responders beelined it to Nina Moose Lake. Luckily no one was seriously injured. But for Pierce, an experienced outdoorsman who had led wilderness trips as far away as Siberia, the windstorm was a stark reminder that there were always new lessons to learn in the outdoors. 

Pierce knew that during summers in the BWCA, serious weather mostly came out of the west. Seeing the destruction at the Nina Moose campsite, he realized that if the wind became extreme enough to knock over trees, they would topple from west to east. Therefore, he reasoned, if you wanted to avoid being struck by eastern falling trees, you should camp on eastern campsites that faced west, as close to the water as possible. Pierce’s rationale: When bad weather approached over the lake, you might be facing the worst of the blow, but the onslaught would be from water and not towering trees. It was a lesson he had no idea he would use four years later. 

At the Basswood campsite, the air was in full fury. Rain and debris pelted Pierce and his friends. The wind accelerated to a deafening roar. The red pines bent over double, their tops angling over the tarp, and in that moment the three men realized that to remain at the campsite would be lunacy. 

“Run!” Pierce screamed, the word torn out of his mouth by the wind. 

Instantly, Pierce recalled his Nina Moose lesson. He put his head down and ran for the lakeshore, directly into the blast. Pierce estimated it was about 80 feet to the water’s edge. He could not see the shoreline, but he could place one faltering step in front of the other, following the path through the trees.

A nearby pine began to fall, and as its roots were torn out of the earth, Pierce was tossed backward. He managed to keep his footing, struggling around the wall of soil and roots that until seconds earlier had been firmly planted into bedrock. He skirted the falling tree as its entire bulk crashed behind him. 

He then remembered Kira. Amazingly, she was beside him. Now man and dog continued toward the lake. Pierce had no idea where his two fishing friends had run, only that they had all burst out of the threatened tarp at the same moment, like men fleeing a foxhole threatened by a bomb. 

When the pair finally reached the shore, Pierce could not tell where the sky ended and the lake began. He searched for cover and noticed a giant white pine that had snapped off six feet above ground. Pierce and Kira hunkered behind what was left of the sentinel, which provided scant protection against the rage. 

The storm’s fury was so intense that all they could do was huddle and hope they could outlast it. Approximately 25 agonizing minutes later, the wind stopped and the weather cleared. Shaken but alive, man and dog made their way back along the path in search of the rest of their group.  

By the time they all found each other, they were shocked that they were uninjured, and elated to be alive. Pierce learned that when the storm blew them out from under their tarp, his buddies—as many might do—tried to outrun the storm. As the trees began toppling around them, they managed to find shelter on the back sides of massive root balls that were torn out of the ground by falling trees. 

The men returned to the shoreline in search of their boat. They found it still moored, but completely submerged and missing much of the equipment they’d brought with them. Over the next hour they were able to bail it out, and to their surprise, the boat’s motor started. 

The first thing they did was check for survivors on the portages in the area. Many of the trails were nearly impassable, and on one they found a camper with a broken leg and helped her to safety. After a long slog out of the wilderness, everyone managed to return home by around 6 p.m.

After dark, fireworks began going off, as though it was just another Ely Fourth of July. Later that evening, Pierce switched on the local radio station WELY. He knew the DJ working that night and called in to thank him for the tunes, and to tell him he was having trouble decompressing from the storm. The DJ sounded surprised. It was only then that Pierce realized everyone who had not been a direct witness to the storm had no idea that 48 million trees in the BWCA had blown down earlier that day.