Within the captivating and challenging wilderness of northeastern Minnesota, where outdoor recreation and secluded living within the Superior National Forest abound, a dedicated group of volunteers and emergency service officials stand ready to don their headlamps, lace up their boots, and grab their “Go Pack” at a moment’s notice to help a neighbor or individual in distress.
Spanning from the Grand Portage Pigeon River Port of Entry on the Minnesota-Canadian border, eastward to Voyageurs National Park, and reaching southward to Duluth, the responsibilities of Cook, Lake, and St. Louis County law enforcement, emergency services, and fire departments in this region are as vast and diverse as the terrain itself.
Even in the most challenging circumstances, their unwavering commitment and readiness to respond highlight the true sense of community and selflessness that characterize this remarkable northeast corner of Minnesota.
Cook County is the second largest county in Minnesota by total area with 3,340 square miles, of which 1,880 is water, most of which comprises the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As the snow fades from the Northland each spring, canoeists finalize BWCAW trips and prepare to venture into the remote and rugged landscape. Each year, search and rescue and various emergency management services (EMS) crews are dispatched into the nooks and crannies of the one-million-acre protected wilderness area to find or recover individuals.
Earlier this summer, in June, law enforcement received a concerning call about a canoeist needing medical attention on Beth Lake, just southwest of Sawbill Lake in the BWCAW. North Shore Health and Cook County EMS crews were dispatched to Beth Lake at 5:58 a.m. and immediately made the hour-long drive to the end of the Sawbill Trail, then loaded into canoes to begin the traverse across Sawbill, Alton, and finally to Beth. The EMS crew made contact with the patient at 9:00 a.m.
After assessing the patient and providing initial care, the EMS crew loaded the patient into the canoe and began the return trip. Not too far into the paddle, the patient started seizing. Fortunately, EMS crews remained calm and secured the patient to prevent capsizing. After 8 miles of paddling and portaging with the patient, the EMS crew returned to the ambulance, where they began the trek down the Sawbill Trail to connect with Life Link III at the Lutsen Fire Hall. The entire 911 call lasted seven hours.
Karla Pankow, the ambulance director at North Shore Health who was one of the four responding EMS officials, said in a statement the next day after the adventurous ordeal, “We’re all feeling those muscles a little bit more today, but we did the best we could with what few resources we had yesterday and it truly made a difference in our patient’s life.”
“In EMT and medic school, they don’t teach us how to handle calls and rescues like yesterday’s event, but this crew tackled it head-on, and I’m so very proud,” she added.
Although that 911 call was unique in its way, fortunately, calls to that degree are not encountered consistently. But when they are, EMS responders do not hesitate to throw a canoe over their shoulders and paddle numerous miles into the wilderness to save a life.
In recent years, an increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts and individuals seeking adventure or solitude have faced unexpected accidents. Earlier this summer, search and rescue (SAR) crews along the North Shore responded to calls including a missing canoeist, a dog rescue at Palisade Head, and unfortunate outcomes that resulted in drowning recoveries.
During times of crisis, several North Shore SAR squads extend their support and resources to one another. The St. Louis County Rescue Squad has played a pivotal role in numerous SAR operations in Lake and Cook County, making them an indispensable part of the life-saving network within the North Shore community. This summer, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad responded to numerous calls for assistance in Cook County, including an unfortunate drowning recovery search in the BWCAW and the search and recovery of Denny Pechacek, a resident of Cook County and ultralight pilot who went missing on Aug. 18.
While some of the calls have unfortunate outcomes and may be tough to process, the St. Louis County Rescue Squad remains steadfast in its commitment to saving a life and showing up in moments of uncertainty.
“We take comfort and satisfaction in having made a difference…helping folks out in major jams and bringing loved ones home to their families,” the St. Louis County Rescue Squad said in a Facebook post in late June.
Many of the SAR responders along the North Shore are comprised of volunteers. They give their time, skills, and resources to respond swiftly to emergencies. In various regions, especially those with vast wilderness areas like northern Minnesota, volunteers play an indispensable role in extending the reach and capabilities of professional search and rescue teams. You’ll find a diverse group among the volunteers, including small business owners, fathers, mothers, teachers, and fellow emergency responders such as firefighters.
Volunteer firefighters and small fire departments in rural areas serve as the backbone of their communities, providing crucial emergency response services that go far beyond fighting fires. Additionally, they are called upon to respond to medical emergencies, accidents, and natural disasters.
Minnesota and its 725 fire departments statewide have the second highest proportion of volunteer and mostly volunteer firefighters in the nation, with 97.2 percent of firefighters in the state being volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Department Registry.
In addition to safeguarding the lives and property of the North Shore, firefighters enhance the quality of life in rural areas as they actively participate in community-building activities and contribute to the social fabric of their towns. Every summer, numerous fire departments organize lively community events, not only as a means to raise funds for essential gear and equipment, but also to attract and recruit new volunteers. The festive events include pancake breakfasts, canoe races, bean bag tournaments, wooden bat tournaments, and more.
Recruiting volunteers poses a significant and ongoing challenge for fire departments and emergency response teams. In recent years, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of volunteer applicants, affecting fire departments across Minnesota and the nation. Several small North Shore fire departments offer training on weeknights and weekends to accommodate interested volunteers with full-time jobs.
If you’re considering becoming a volunteer for your local fire department or emergency responders in northern Minnesota, taking that step is an opportunity to give back to your community and make a real difference during critical moments. Becoming a volunteer emergency responder is about more than lending a hand during emergencies. It’s also about joining a family with a shared passion to make their hometowns safer and more resilient. As we gather around the table this holiday season to celebrate, let’s extend a heartfelt thanks to the courageous men and women who protect our communities along the North Shore. They are true heroes, and their dedication and selfless sacrifice merit our enduring appreciation.