Their canoe had capsized in the rapids. Now all Darrell Spencer and Barry Babcock could think about was getting out of the icy water and onto shore.
"I was really scared," said Spencer, of Duluth. "I was thinking, 'Hang onto the canoe and hopefully the river will let us live."'
The accident occurred early on the morning of May 8, near the end of a weeklong canoe trip in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. The men were traveling upstream on Iron Lake, trying to reach the portage that would take them around Curtain Falls into Crooked Lake.
Spencer, 33, and Babcock, 55, of Hackensack, Minn., were paddling the 152-mile Hunter Island canoe route through the park. The 1.2-million-acre wilderness is all but untraveled in early May.
"We didn't see anyone for six days," Spencer said.
Their first day out, May 2, the canoeists had dragged their canoe over ice at a narrows on Knife Lake. They had to break ice to get to camp that first night. Throughout the trip, wherever water spilled from one lake to another, the current was swift.
"The water levels were as high as I can recall seeing them in the spring," said Babcock, who has made 40 to 50 trips in canoe country since the late 1960s. "It's almost like being on a waterslide this time of year."
Now the two men were in the frigid water of Iron Lake, holding onto their canoe. Their 18-foot canoe had been pushed broadside in the standing waves below Curtain Falls. Once broadside to the waves, it quickly swamped.
The current swept the men and their overturned craft out into the lake, leaving them about 100 yards from shore. Both men wore life jackets. With Babcock at the bow of the canoe and Spencer at the stern, they began kicking to reach shore. A pack had come out of the canoe, and Spencer was clinging to it, too.
Spencer is a strong swimmer and swam competitively in high school. But he could feel his toes tingling as he pushed toward shore.
"If it had been anybody else with me except Darrell, I probably wouldn't have made it," Babcock said. "Both of us were going into hypothermia."
Babcock estimated the men were in the water for 15 to 20 minutes.
"Fifty feet from the shore, it was like someone had put a dock under my feet," Spencer said.
"He yelled, 'Barry, I'm touching bottom,"' Babcock recalled.
The paddlers slogged to shore, but they were in the early stages of hypothermia.
"My legs were like stumps," Spencer said. "Barry was in hypothermia, shaking and really messed up."
The men stripped out of their wet clothing and rummaged through packs to find dry clothes. The day would be warm and sunny, but it was still about 9 a.m. They got a fire going. They put on dry clothes. They knew they were going to make it.
"It was the closest brush with death I've ever had," Babcock said.
The empty wilderness had a profound effect on the seasoned wilderness travelers.
"I felt like a bug," Spencer said. "I thought, I don't matter any more than a wood tick. If I die right now, right here, I don't think it would matter to this wilderness."
"Quetico can be a rugged wilderness in early May and late in the year," Babcock said. "And it can be unforgiving.'"