Brother of U.S. Congressman Walz dies in storm in Boundary Waters

GRAND MARAIS - A longtime teacher from southern Minnesota -- brother to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. -- died and his son was seriously injured Sunday night after they were struck by a falling tree as strong storms swept across the Boundary Waters ...

Craig Walz (Courtesy of St. Charles School District)

GRAND MARAIS - A longtime teacher from southern Minnesota -- brother to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. -- died and his son was seriously injured Sunday night after they were struck by a falling tree as strong storms swept across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Four other people were injured in two other storm-related incidents in the vast BWCAW - one of them another case of a falling tree, and the other involving a lightning strike.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office identified the man who died as Craig Walz, 43, of Rochester, and that community was grieving Monday as news of the tragedy spread.

“We’re all kind of in shock here,” said Ben Bernard, principal of St. Charles (Minn.) High School, where Walz had taught chemistry and math since 2003. “He’s a very good teacher - fantastic with the kids who needed the most help. He worked really hard. Great staff member; great colleague. He’s going to be missed.”

The trunk of a mature white pine snapped and the tree fell on Craig Walz and his juvenile son, Jacob, while they were camping on Duncan Lake, about 3 miles northeast of Trail Center and just south of the Canadian border, authorities reported.


The Walzes were accompanied on the trip by another adult male and juvenile male. They “were in direct line of the severe weather when it hit,” the sheriff’s office reported in a news release.

Jacob “suffered significant injuries,” the sheriff’s office reported. He was evacuated from Duncan Lake with the help of staff members of Camp Menogyn, a YMCA camp on nearby Bearskin Lake. Jacob then was transported by ambulance to Cook County North Shore Hospital and Care Center in Grand Marais, where he was met by a medical helicopter for further transfer to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, where he remained in critical condition Monday afternoon, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

Craig Walz’s body was recovered in the morning hours Monday after authorities “couldn’t get to it (Sunday) night because of the dangerous water conditions,” said Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen. The body was transported to the Grand Marais hospital for coroner review. No foul play was suspected and the investigation is closed, the sheriff’s office reported.

The Rochester Post-Bulletin reported that Tim Walz's spokeswoman, Sara Severs, said the Walz family is "devastated" by the loss but had “profound gratitude” to those involved in the rescue and recovery efforts.

“Craig is remembered by his family, students and community as an amazing husband and father, and outstanding teacher, a passionate mentor and loving friend,” Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin in a statement. “The thoughts and prayers of all of us at the Minnesota DFL are with Craig’s wife Julie, his daughter Avery, and all of Rep. Walz’s family as they go through this unthinkable tragedy.”

“Craig was an integral part of our group of parents,” said Autumn Kappes, chief executive officer of the Rochester Swim Club Orcas of which Avery and Jacob Walz are members. “He was our volunteer coordinator. He loved his kids and his kids’ friends equally. Right now our thoughts are with his son and his recovery.”

The swim club was scheduling a grief counselor to attend its practices today.

The incident at Duncan Lake was reported to authorities at about 10:25 p.m., and about 15 members of the Camp Menogyn staff were involved in the rescue of Jacob Walz and the two uninjured individuals, said Fred Sproat, executive director of the camp.


“After hearing about the incident, we immediately put canoes and a backboard on one of our pontoon boats and rallied to the Duncan Lake portage,” Sproat said.

The camp staff traveled about two miles on Bearskin Lake by pontoon boat, then portaged canoes over the nearly quarter-mile portage into Duncan Lake. From there, rescuers traveled about a mile on Duncan Lake to reach the injured camper, Sproat said.

Winds had subsided to some extent by then, but the initial storm was severe, Sproat said.

“I looked up, and it was a green sky,” he said. “The wind pretty quickly picked up to a full straight-line wind. Trees were bending, some big, old ones coming down. It was the real deal. It certainly was the biggest storm I’ve ever seen.”

The rescuers from Camp Menogyn transported Jacob Walz by canoe and portage to Bearskin Lake, then by pontoon boat to the camp. There, he was transferred to a waiting ambulance.
It’s common for the camp, which provides wilderness experiences for youths ages 11 to 17, to be a base command post in wilderness emergencies, Sproat said.

“I’m incredibly proud of our staffers and the people who assisted (Sunday) night,” Sproat said. “They were professional. They acted quickly and responded appropriately. ... I couldn’t be more proud of this community up here and the way we all responded.”

At nearly the same time as the Duncan Lake rescue effort, Cook County authorities received a report that a tree fell on a man at Clove Lake, along the Canadian border northwest of Gunflint Lake.

The man suffered injuries to his upper body, the sheriff’s office said, and was transported by ambulance to the hospital in Grand Marais. An update on his condition was not available late Monday.


And three people were injured by an indirect lightning strike Sunday night while camped along Sunday Bay on Crooked Lake, along the U.S.-Canada border north of Ely, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office reported.

The individuals injured by the lightning strike were part of an Outward Bound group, consisting of two adult instructors and six youths, ages 14 to 16. They were following storm safety protocols and were spread out, sitting on life preservers, when lightning struck a nearby stand of trees at about 7:30 p.m. The shock was conducted into the surrounding ground.

Three students in the party sustained injuries “ranging from superficial burns to temporary loss of consciousness,” according to a report from the sheriff’s office. All members of the group reported a sensation of numbness following the strike.

After evaluating the group of students, the adult instructors contacted the Outward Bound base south of Ely via satellite phone. A subsequent 911 call was placed, requesting help at 11:10 p.m.

Jack Lee, executive director of the Voyageur Outward Bound School, said that following the initial lightning strike, the instructors began efforts to evacuate, but ongoing weather conditions forced the group to hunker down and continue to employ its lightning safety protocols for quite a while longer.

“Once those lightning protocols were lifted, the instructors did a comprehensive evaluation of the students and the situation,” he said.

“Since nighttime evacuations - pretty much anything after 7:30 or 8 p.m. - are pretty difficult in that area under good weather conditions, and the students were apparently stable, the decision was made to begin an evacuation as early as possible the next morning,” Lee said.

The party had to be evacuated by two flights, with the last in the air by 7:45 a.m. Monday.


The St. Louis County Rescue Squad and the U.S. Forest Service responded. The party was flown to the Ely Seaplane Base and then transported by Ely Ambulance to Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital for treatment. None of the injuries appeared to be of a life-threatening nature, but two students were remained hospitalized for ongoing observation Monday night.

The students were on the sixth day of a 28-day course.

Their parents have been notified of the event, and Lee said they will be returning home soon. They will be offered the option to take another class at a later date or to receive a refund.

Lee said at least another dozen Outward Bound groups are currently on trips in the BWCAW, and all the others appear to have weathered Sunday’s storm without incident.

The U.S. Forest Service, Gunflint Ambulance, Cook County Ambulance, Gunflint Fire Department, Cook County Search and Rescue and Gunflint Search and Rescue were among the other agencies who responded to the various calls.


Brady Slater, Forum News Service

Peter Passi and Sam Cook contributed to this report.

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