Nathan Williams disappeared on the edge of the Boundary Waters in 2004. He has never been found
“We do not have any new information or leads on this case, and it is still considered open, but it’s obviously a cold case," Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson told the News Tribune recently.
ISABELLA, Minn. — It’s not hard to see how someone could get lost in the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or in the 2 million-acre Superior National Forest that surrounds it.
With thick forests, myriad swamps, creeks, lakes and hills, it’s not a forgiving place for people without the right gear and experience.
It's harder to grasp how someone could never be found.
It's been 18 years since Nathan Williams disappeared while on an autumn fishing trip to the north country. Not a sign of him has been found since — not a stitch of clothing or fishing gear or any human remains.
Williams left the University of Minnesota Morris on Sept. 28, 2004, telling his college roommates he was going up north to go fishing. His parents and roommates reported him missing about a week later, when the fishing trip seemed to be lasting longer than usual and he had made no effort to check in.
Days later, the 21-year-old's pickup truck was found by Hog Creek, a remote stream in Lake County, along the Kawishiwi Lake Forest Road and just outside the BWCAW boundary. When Morris police released an all-points bulletin, Lake County responded they had already found the vehicle, a restored 1966 Ford pickup, but found no person to go with it.
A multi-agency land, water and air search turned up no trace of Williams in a nearly 6-mile radius from the truck. Cadaver-tracking dogs trained to sniff out bodies found no scent. Underwater cameras were dangled from canoes to no avail. Another search was conducted in spring 2005, and still nothing was found. Two psychics, who were asked to help, failed to develop any leads.
To this day, nothing more is known of Williams' whereabouts.
“It's as if he was here one day and then dropped off the face of the Earth,” said Jim Beauregard, then-chief of the Morris Police Department, in a 2007 interview with the News Tribune at the site where Williams’ truck was found.
There’s still hope among those involved in the case, as the snow melts and spring returns again, that this might be the year that campers and anglers returning to the Hog Creek and Kawishiwi Lake area might find something that would help solve the mystery and bring closure to Williams’s family.
In October 2007, nearly three years to the day that Nathan Williams disappeared, Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson and Nathan Williams father, Dave Williams, along with Morris Police Chief Jim Beauregard, drove with a newspaper reporter to the site where Nathan’s truck was found. An ensuing newspaper story was hoped to jog someone’s memory and spur some sort of information coming forward. But nothing happened. Another story ran in 2016 in the Morris Sun Tribune. Again, nothing happened.
Beauregard tried to keep the missing person case active until he retired. But in the nearly 18 years since Williams disappeared, there have been no new clues on what happened to Williams or why.
“We do not have any new information or leads on this case, and it is still considered open, but it’s obviously a cold case," Sheriff Johnson told the News Tribune recently.
Williams is still listed on the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's missing persons page . There’s no active investigation now, Johnson said, but “we will not close a case unless we had some type of resolution to it.”
Loved to fish, adopted Minnesota as home state
All Nathan Williams is known to have had with him when he left on his trip are two fishing rods and a single shot Harington & Richardson 12-gauge shotgun, in case he saw a grouse. He was wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt. He didn't even have a sleeping bag — just a blue down comforter from his bed. There's no evidence that he stopped anywhere to buy any additional camping or fishing gear.
But if he fell into a lake or became lost and then perished, where are the fishing rods? Where is the gun or the comforter?
Dave and Sandra Williams, Nathan’s parents, lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the time of his disappearance, although Nathan spent time as a child with them in the Bolivian Amazon, Colombia, Mexico and New York. But when people asked him where he was from, Nathan invented a home state: Minnesota.
“That's why he went to college here. He adopted it as his home state because it was up north and had the 10,000 lakes and forests and the world's largest freshwater lake,” Dave Williams said in 2007.
Nathan Williams was the kind of guy who would take off on a whim and disappear for days, mostly to fish or knock around in the woods. He even told friends he dreamed of living off the land, disappearing into the wilds and living by his own means, like a special forces soldier.
Williams picked the University of Minnesota Morris because it was known for chemistry, his major, and because it was known as being a school friendly to helping students with dyslexia, which affected his ability to read. He played cello in the school orchestra.
Nathan's nickname in high school was “Fish” because he loved to be on the water so much. He hoped to land a job in wildlife management, or maybe as a game warden, after graduation.
There was no indication he was suicidal. There was no sign of trouble in school and no sign of criminal activity or foul play, police have noted. The college senior's photo and Social Security number have been sent across the country and around the world. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have helped look. There was no cellphone and no credit card involved to trace, and he didn't have much cash, Beauregard noted in 2007.
The many days between when Williams was last seen and when he was reported missing vexed the investigation. Officers have no idea which way he went from the truck, or how far, or by what means. Did someone stop to pick him up?
Sheriff Johnson has said that he believes someone driving the forest roads northeast of Isabella — maybe a moose hunter or leaf watcher, maybe a logger or a fisherman — may have seen something 18 years ago. Maybe someone found a fishing rod or the comforter or the shotgun and just kept it, never thinking much more about where it came from. Maybe that person might still come forward.
Johnson has said that trying to find signs of Williams is a needle-in-a-haystack kind of effort, and he reminds people that there are several other cases of lost people never being found in the forests and lakes of Lake County.
Nathan was the Williams' only son. He would have turned 39 in May.
“He sure picked a beautiful place to disappear,” Dave Williams said in 2007, walking at the exact site where his son's pickup was found. “This is the last place we know for sure that he was alive. … This is a terrible place. But it's also the last connection I have to my son.”
Anyone with any information on the whereabouts of Nathan Williams is asked to call the Lake County Sheriff’s Office at 218-834-8385.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and environment for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com .