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Louisiana boy tells of frantic night, in Boundary Waters, trapped under a tree

John Toups listens Friday, July 25, 2014, as his son Hayden, 13, tells the tale of his rescue after being struck by a tree in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness during a camping trip earlier in the week. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune) 1 / 2
Using his hands to describe the girth of the tree that fell and hit him, Hayden Toups, 13, of Louisiana, describes on Friday, July 25, 2014, the harrowing ordeal of his rescue. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune) 2 / 2

DULUTH — The night was so dark early Tuesday in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that frantic campers at one site under assault from falling trees had only the incessant lightning to light their way.

Inside one tent, a 13-year-old Louisiana boy was pinned by a 2-foot-diameter tree. It had fallen next to him and reverberated like a tuning fork before rolling on top of him.

Sharp pain and fear coursed through the boy.

“Right when the tree fell on me I thought it was never going to get off,” Hayden Toups said Friday from his Duluth hospital bed. “I thought I was definitely going to die.”

Hayden’s tent-mate and grandfather, Richard Dugas, 70, needed half a dozen kicks at the tree to release the boy, initiating a rescue that lasted for the next several hours.

Resort owner Mark Zupancich helped ferry the boy over more than 30 miles of mostly interconnected waterways. What he saw when he and his three-person crew, including a trained first responder, arrived just before 5 a.m. was harrowing. The condition of the campsite at Lady Boot Bay on Lac La Croix stunned him.

“I haven’t seen a site that destroyed – ever,” said the longtime owner of Zup’s Fishing Resort and Canoe Outfitters. “Pulling up, the big trees that were down gave you cold chills.”

Ferocious winds

Observers compared Tuesday’s early morning storm to one in 1999 that downed millions of trees in the 1.1 million-acre federal wilderness. Like that storm, this one saw a period of ferocious winds that lasted for a half-hour, Hayden said. The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office reported three camps requiring rescue, totaling six people with injuries.  

Hayden avoided being impaled by a branch near his head by inches, he said, spreading his thumb and forefinger to illustrate the distance.

As he talked from his bed at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, he was flanked by his mother and father, Valerie and John Toups, who flew from Louisiana on Wednesday to be with their son. Hearing him talk about thinking he was going to die caused the family to tear up in unison.

In the end, Hayden’s pelvis was broken in two places and he dislocated his left shoulder, an injury that was set at his first medical stop, at Essentia Health-Virginia Clinic.

The Toups family left for home Friday. Hayden rode a backboard out of the BWCAW and was set to go home in a wheelchair. They live in Brusly, La., just outside Baton Rouge, where Hayden loves playing baseball. Just a couple of weeks ago, his team played in the Grand Slam World Series of Baseball in Panama City Beach, Fla.

The retreat to the BWCAW was years in the making, and featured 14 family members among 17 total campers. Hayden lives on the same street as his grandfather, Dugas. Nine years ago, Dugas, an avid outdoorsman, went on a successful trek through the BWCAW with another relative. That visit set the template for years of good-natured harassment about when the next trip was coming.

From harmonious to harrowing

Hayden described the first day and a half as if it were the start of an idyllic week.

On July 20, with 25 hours of driving in their rearview mirrors – from Louisiana to the BWCAW by way of a midpoint stop in Illinois – the group finally settled into a patch above the rocky shores of Lady Boot Bay. They ate steaks for their first supper. They woke and canoed early Monday morning, then fished the day away. They caught mostly snakes, those smallish Northern Pike, but were hankering to fry up walleye and bass. Hayden’s cousin, Lydia, the only female on the trip, caught the first fish.

Their campsite was stretched to roughly 100 yards, with 13 tents in a line. There were five canoes – two on one side of their private peninsula and three on the other. They turned in Monday under lit-up skies.

“It was still bright and shining,” Hayden said. “It gets dark late.”

What Hayden described next amounted to a horror show worthy of Hitchcock, as the trees started to fall in a cacophony of violent cracks and snaps and freight-train-like gusts of wind. Forty-four trees fell in all – a harrowing total that was counted by now-homebound campers who were left behind after the initial rescue.

The winds hit about 1:30 a.m., Hayden said, sending campers to the edges of their tents to keep them from blowing down.

The first scream didn’t belong to Hayden, rather his uncle, Kirk Sanchez.

Everybody heard it.

‘A good trouper’

Hayden described the story told to him by his uncle: Sanchez was shielding his own son from harm when a tree fell on top of the 47-year-old man. The tree had been uprooted; it was the cling of the roots that was keeping the trunk from a complete collapse that would have likely pancaked both father and son.

As it was, Sanchez rode out the rescue seated upright, because he was in too much pain from a separated shoulder to lie down.

Zupancich recalled that at one point during the rescue, the plan had been to airlift the two injured males to hospitalization. But midway through their long boat ride back to Crane Lake, they encountered fog and heavy rain that nixed the possibility of such a plan. Zupancich said Hayden was blacking in and out of consciousness and the disappointment of more time on the water further deflated him.

“He was a good trouper,” Zupancich said. “But he said, ‘Uh, how much longer?’ ”

Hayden and his uncle were finally met by Ely paramedics on the shores of Crane Lake. They were taken in separate ambulances to Virgina.

In addition to Zupancich, Anderson’s Canoe Outfitters helped in the rescue. Anderson’s relayed the first distress call to Zup’s Resort, which was closer to the chaotic scene, before later transferring Hayden to one of Anderson’s larger boats, after completing one of the two portages that led to his exit from the park. Hayden expressed deep gratitude for all involved.

By Friday, Hayden was ready to go home. He was a victim of far too much excitement, but he was not deterred by it.

When asked if he’d camp again, Hayden said, “Yes. This is a one-time-in-10-years event. The last time it happened was July 4, 1999.”