About that iPhone satellite thing

I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area the first week September on a solo trip. It was my third trip of the year. I was hoping to get 300 miles of paddling in for the summer. I have paddled thousands of miles over the years, all across the BWCA.

I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area the first week September on a solo trip. It was my third trip of the year. I was hoping to get 300 miles of paddling in for the summer. I have paddled thousands of miles over the years, all across the BWCA. It was Tuesday, my last day before I had to get back to the real world, and I was pretty sore. I decided on a day trip: I got up before the moon set, and I was hoping to be out until it rose again.

On this loop, I took a less-traveled route on what would be my return-half. There are many of these less-traveled routes, just as there are few people in the BWCA — that’s part of the reason why you go to the BWCA. I was in good spirits, amazed by the beauty of the water and the streams and the sounds. Instead of turning to head to Agnes I turned to head back through Ramshead. I hadn’t done Ramshead before and it had some cute islands on my map I wanted to check out.

The river was very low. So low in fact, I had to walk in the first half-mile or so of the day. This meant that the usual route to get to the portage between where I was and where I needed to be wasn’t so clear. I looked at three maps and decided it must be on the other side of the wild rice patch. I was certain I would only have to push through a hundred yards or so.

A hundred yards became a thousand, which became a beaver dam I would have to carry over. I swung my leg over the side of the canoe to cross onto what I thought was a sturdy dam-y thing. No. I was now in 1.2 meters of mud, and I am only 1.5 meters tall. It’s also disgusting.

I put my other leg in to try to get my other leg out, and all is fine, my leg is dislodged.

But gone is my shoe.


I stick my arm into the mud as deep as I can and I’m blindly feeling around for a shoe. Every stick I touch I think is a bone — I hope they were sticks, at least.

No shoe.

At this point, I am unhappy, and a little irritated. Everything was going way too fine my entire summer until this.

After about 30 minutes of trying, I decide the shoe will be left for the next ice burg, whenever that may be. I take an irritable breath of frustration and anger and decide I have to continue onward anyway.

I find a small beaver pond — no more than an acre large at this point — at what looks like would be the portage. There seems to be a dried creek bed to my east, and my maps show that the landing is near, but I can’t seem to find it the path. I climb atop a large river rock to try to get a better view. I still can’t see where I need to go, but I do see some annoyed river otters, a beaver, and a bear in the distance.

What I’d give to be a bear at this point: a bear who didn’t have a neurological disposition to avoiding, at all costs, textures.

I decided to try pushing through more wild rice along the south-end of this small beaver pond. Ah, good choice joshmn: the portage.

I dismount, take another sigh of angst due to my shoe situation, and march through. I thought this portage was just 100 rods. It must have been pushing 300, and it was not fun. Along the way were the remnants of a grouse who seemed to have made an enemy of a wolf.

Grouse and I have a long-standing connection through my mother, and I treat them as a symbol in these parts. Normally good, if not great symbols. Seeing one in this condition, in these circumstances, was far too fitting.

I got through to the other side physically unscathed but emotionally torn. There were beautiful evergreen trees towered above me and it smelled like pine. If I had my shoe, I’d love this, but at this point, I wanted my bed. I put in the creek where I hoped to wash some of the mud off my body and my canoe. No chance: this creek had the most-ripe algae bloom I had seen in years.

And it was only going to get worse.

I took the creek through to Ramshead, but before I got there I had to carry over a bunch of river rocks due to the water level. The noise of me and my canoe scared the birds that were resting on the other side: cranes, ducks, mallards, geese, and more. I saw turtles dive into the water. Normally, I’d admire the turtles. Now, I’m just irritated.

I cross the lake, a 500-some acre lake, but it must get no deeper than ten feet — I see plenty of rocks, and the algae indicates that the lake doesn’t get cold enough to kill it off. I’m on the other side, where the portage should be. It’s 1PM, I should be at the landing by 3:30PM.

And the portage isn’t where the portage must be.

I blame the water level and check my maps. Normally, I’d get out and walk the shore and into the woods to find it, but with one shoe I wasn’t as brave as I normally was. I was also annoyed, tired, frustrated, and anxious, so I was hoping for an easy way out in the wilderness — something that doesn’t happen.

I get out where the portage is on my map, load up, and walk 200 feet in the direction of the portage on my map. I can’t seem to find any semblance of a portage. I turn around, put in, and decide it must be on the other side of this little peninsula I’m on.


It’s 4PM, I’m still on this shore, and I’m feeling like Tom Hanks; my canoe Wilson. My flip phone has no service. The digital camera I carried for photos was nearly dead. Feeling helpless, I give my whistle a blow, hoping that someone will whistle back.


30 minutes passes, another SOS on my whistle.


God dammit.

I started mentally preparing to spend the night. On every other day trip, I pack prepared — I pack for the worst. This time, I packed light for some reason, and I left my fire-making stuff in the car, along with my usual bag of high-protein snacks.

It’s 5PM. I have memorized every inch of this shore and still no luck. Another whistle, another request timeout. At this point I started trying to make sense of what status code I was. 404 would be the instinctual one, same with 410; 412 made sense, but maybe 416.

I was losing it.

Sun sets at 7:35PM. It’s now 6. I thought about going back the way I came, but even then I’d be back at midnight — not great, but I know the route. I had tried calling everyone in my contacts to see if they could help me figure out where to go, but I had no service and no calls were connecting.

I say fuck it and decide to call 911 on my phone.

A minute passes. My phone’s display doesn’t change from the “Connecting…” screen.

Suddenly, a voice: “911, what’s your emergency?”

“… Sorry, what?”

“Yes, 911, what’s your emergency?”

“Ugh okay so I’m actually in the boundary waters right now and I’m lost and I can’t get out. This is really demoralizing, I have paddled thousands of miles and I’m just not able to figure out where to go. Can you help me?”

“I can see your approximate location on Ramshead. Stay there and I’ll get search and rescue out there as soon as possible. Call me back in 30 minutes and ask for Tom.”



I ask myself what the hell just happened. I find a rock to perch on as the sun starts to fade behind the trees. It’s very pretty, though I’m exhausted. I try to think what do I do for the next 6 hours until search and rescue gets here: after all, they have to go in the way I came, which is fine… but they’d have stuff to spend the night at least. I just had the shirt on my back, an empty Hydroflask, a dead phone, and the crust from my sandwich.

I ate the crust.

It’s 7PM and I call Tom back again for an update on the location of the rescue squad. As much as I wanted to ask him how the hell he connected to me, I didn’t. He said that they were en route. I didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t know what that meant either.

I hang up. A duck lands 15 feet away. Must be nice to be able to fly.

I hear a float plane flying overhead. “No way,” I say to myself.

They flew across the lake. Bah Humbug.

A few minutes later it’s back, and circling above me.

“Oh god.”

They land on the water at 7:20PM. We have 15 minutes until sun hits the horizon. They instruct me that if we don’t take off soon we’ll be spending the night: some daylight is required otherwise so we can see the rocks below. They ask me to paddle over, which I do proudly.

We ditch the canoe. At 7:41PM, we’re in the air.

They flew me to Lake Vermillion, some 65 miles away from my car. We’re chatting on the radio: “Are you okay?”

“Physically yes.”

“Your ego?”

“Fucking shattered, man.”

“It’s okay.”

“So, how much do I owe you guys for this trip and do you take insurance?”

“It’s a volunteer thing, you’re fine.”

We landed on Lake Vermillion. I was just there a few days before visiting a friend. My phone had died. One of the guys in the rescue squad offered to drive me to my car — yes, 65 miles away. I tried saying no, he wouldn’t let me.

We’re chatting on the way there. His son is a software engineer for LinkedIn. His daughter is high-up in some marketing company in Chicago. He retired from FEMA a few years ago and wanted to stay active. He was leaving for Florida at the end of the month for the winter.

I got home at 11PM that night. I plugged in my phone to charge and jumped in the shower to rinse myself off. I was gross, even by BWCA standards. In the shower I tried to figure out how much the plane ride should have if it was billed to my insurance — I figured that would be my donation to the volunteer org that picked me up. When I got out of the shower I opened up HackerNews to see what I missed that day — after all, it was Apple’s day.

The top post is about the satellite tech in their new phones.