Thursday, October 7, 2010

Man vs. Wild: Wild wins

The first Saturday in October was not just bright and sunny; it was spectacular, as it followed a long stretch of cloudiness and heavy rains which had flooded many parts of Minnesota. So I was not surprised to see the water running high and fast when my wife dropped me off at Riverside Park in Hanover. (Specifically, the USGS gage in Rockford—a few miles upstream—indicated the channel had risen about four feet in the past week.) I put-in with my solo canoe at around 3:15, and expected to call Julie from our pre-arranged pick-up site near Berning’s Mill by around 5:00 p.m.

As the crow flies, there are only about 2 ½ miles between the starting and ending points, but as the Crow River turns, it transforms this voyage into one of roughly five miles. I wanted to take my time, though, as my goal for the day was to capture some of the brilliant colors that autumn paints on the Crow River valley, and work on a photo project related to bio-diversity.

Within a thousand feet of my launch point on the left bank, I thought I saw something move along a driftwood log on the opposite side of the river. I docked myself against a low-hanging branch for a few moments, hoping to study the opposite bank with my zoom lens and identify the creature that caught my eye. I only knew that it was small and brownish, well camouflaged in the shoreline foliage; it could have been anything from a duck to a muskrat (or a figment of my imagination). Several minutes went by without the critter showing itself, so I decided to move in for a closer look.

Canoeing across a river is not as simple as it might sound. One must consider the trajectory of the vehicle, much the way a jet pilot adjusts for the weather systems in his flight path; the plane is not just moving through the air, it is flying through a body of air that is, itself, moving. Likewise, you cannot simply paddle a canoe across the river from point A to point B; one must consider the water’s current and aim for a destination somewhere upstream, knowing the flow of the river will push you back to place you really wanted to go. That is especially true when the water is swift and high, as it was on this day.

I studied the opposing shoreline, and decided I would aim for a tree limb that was hanging out into the water perhaps thirty feet. If I could grab that branch with my left hand, it would put me in a great position to scan the area where I had seen the movement, leaving my right hand free to shoot some photographs when the animal came out of hiding. At least, that was the plan.

As I paddled into the current, I was reminded just how much energy is released when weight meets gravity. The volume of water I was moving through represented remarkable tonnage, and it created unstoppable momentum… something I would learn first-hand in the next few seconds.

I miscalculated the speed at which the river would draft me toward the tree limb I was aiming for; arriving sooner than planned, my boat was slammed into the up-stream side of the limb, instead of allowing me to grab it from behind. That put me between a tree that would not move, and the hydraulic power of a river that would not stop.

I cannot explain this paradoxical sense, but the next few seconds seemed to unfold both instantaneously and in slow motion. With my canoe broadside to the current, the tree limb placed downward pressure on the left side of the boat, just as the surging river was lifting up on the right side… not unlike a one-two-punch. The gunwale (rim) of the canoe was pushed beneath the surface, and I was thrown into the water. Simultaneously, as the pressure of my weight was taken off the canoe, the river threw it into the air is if it were a plaything. (I still have the image frozen in my mind… of my body in mid-air just before it hit the water, and the boat suspended over my head, waiting to follow me in.)

The impact of the water hurt in more ways than one. For one thing, this was the first time I had ever unintentionally rolled a canoe or kayak. (I had done so on purpose—so I would know what to expect if it ever happened—which turned out to serve me well on this day.) More dramatic was the sensation of going from overheated and sweating, instantly, to very, very cold. I was dressed for a cool fall day: hiking shoes over sweat socks, cargo pants, a long-sleeved knit shirt, a fleece jacket, and over that, my personal floatation device. But except for the PFD, these layers of protection became a hindrance the instant I hit the water, slowing my movements as they became saturated with cold water. In this part of the country, autumn rains can be very cold… more like a preview of winter ice and snow than the leftovers of a summer thunderstorm. And that cold rain is what gave rise to the river I was now fighting.

Even before I made it back to the surface for my first breath, a dozen thoughts zipped through my mind. I remembered the conversation Julie and I had just before she dropped me off; I had taken my cell phone out, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and then replaced it in my right-side cargo pocket. “I hope you’re as careful with yourself out there as you are mindful of your equipment,” she said. I muttered something about how expensive replacing it would be, and that I need to protect this stuff with my life. She replied, “Well, if anything ever happens, remember to save yourself first, and then save the stuff.”

Now, I was under water in a very cold river, fighting the anchor of a D-SLR camera around my neck, and pockets loaded with the usual stuff, along with a handheld GPS device… and my cell phone. I thought about emptying my pockets and ditching the camera, just as Julie had recommended. But there was no time, as I was too busy competing with the current and fighting my way to the surface.

Suddenly, a slide-show began playing-back in my head: I was picturing the last images of the shoreline I had seen, just before hitting the water. I was remembering, vividly, the lay of the land… and now, I was using those memories to create a strategy of how I’d get out of this mess. There was a fallen tree about twenty yards downstream from where I went in, and another about ten yards beyond. If I hadn’t been pulled too far from shore, there was a good chance I could grab one of those limbs, and gradually make my way toward the riverbank. I remember calmly thinking, “That’s a solid plan… that’s what I’m going to do.” I had it all figured out within the first few seconds I spent under water.

My soaked clothing slowed my ascent, causing my first gasp for air to begin prematurely. So I had to choke down some river water as I started kicking and slapping my way toward the still-mostly-submerged canoe. It was not my intent to recover the boat, but instead, to let the boat recover me. The water was too deep and fast for someone of my size to “right” it in midstream, especially in this kind of current. So, I thought, I would attempt to “wrong” the canoe, clearing it of water by flipping it completely up-side-down, and turning the canoe into a bubble that would keep me afloat for as long as I could hold on to it. It took three attempts, but my plan worked.

I was perhaps thirty feet from shore, and maybe twelve feet from the downed tree that I had hoped to grab. Holding on to the canoe with my right hand, and half-swimming with my left, I tried to work with the current and put myself in a position to grab the longest branch as I floated by it. The swimming was slow… as I was still wearing hiking shoes, my joints were aching from the cold, and I was towing an overturned canoe. There was a lot of self-talk going on during these minutes: “Boy, I better get out of this, or my dad is going to be really irritated” (my father was a Navy man; he wouldn’t want me getting beat by a bunch of water). “I bet my camera’s shot.” “I’m glad I’m wearing a PFD today or this would be a lot harder.” “I bet my cell phone is shot.” “By the way, how am I going to call Julie and tell her it’s time to come pick me up?”

I could not see where I was going, because I was swimming both toward shore and into the current (it was the only way to stay above water). Still using the pictures of the shoreline in my head, I had an idea when to throw my hand out and grab at a tree I could not see coming. You cannot imagine the relief I felt when, right on cue, I threw my hand up just in time for the branch to hit my hand. I grabbed it tightly… and the force of the current flipped my body (and the canoe) into a single-file line behind the half-sunken tree, much like a flag unfurls and whips into its form when hit by a gust of wind.

I was still twenty feet from shore. But it was at that moment that I realized… I was a very lucky man.

I rested there for a few moments: The past few minutes had been utterly exhausting. I would use my clutch of the tree as an opportunity to rest, catch my breath, and plan the final stage of my self-rescue. The ache in my feet and ribs reminded me, though, that while the risk of drowning had passed, the threat of hyperthermia had not. So I began to work my way toward shore, tugging myself along the branch, then grabbing forward and repeating the process.

When I got within three or four feet from the water’s edge, my feet finally hit ground; it was not solid, but the mud felt quite satisfying beneath my feet, given how far they were from land over the past several minutes. I pulled the canoe up toward shore and righted it, tied it to a tree stump, and then unclipped the paddle and threw it up the bank. (I had tethered my paddle to a crossbar in the canoe, something paddlers often do to prepare for just this kind of mishap.) Then, still standing in about a foot of water, I began tilting the boat side-to-side until all of the water had been emptied from the craft. Finally, I walked up the bank, and set myself down on the grass.

I was safe. But the experience was far from over. I tried to look at the thermometer that is clipped to my life vest to see how cold the water had been, but my vision felt blurred. At first, I attributed that blurriness to having my eyes open under such cold water… but as I brought my hands up to rub my eyes, it occurred to me that my bifocals had been washed from my face, probably when I first hit the water. As near as I could tell, the mercury indicated a water temperature in the low 50’s or upper 40’s, cool enough to drain the heat from a man’s body very quickly. (Cold water soaks the heat out of you much faster than air of similar temperature.)

My glasses were not the only thing missing: One of my favorite fitted caps had washed away, as well as the folding handsaw I use to clear debris when it’s caught in a logjam. Ironically, my camera was still hanging around my neck, with water dripping from the lens. Ruined, too, was the plastic-wrapped cell phone in my pocket. I had not protected it well enough to spend ten or twenty minutes underwater. The only equipment that had survived the ordeal was my waterproof GPS device, the boat… and me.

Sitting on a riverbank on the Crow-Hassan Preserve, I was miles from a road and even further from a phone. But I was in a remarkably good frame of mind. The outcome of my crash could have been quite different, and I knew it. After resting a few minutes, I decided the shortest way back to warmth was the same route I had originally planned: I rung the water from my clothes as best I could, and put the canoe back in the water for the trip home. My original landing site was near a bridge over the Crow… where I could flag down a car and call Julie as planned. If I started hiking from here, it would be a long trek, and too much time would pass before I could call Julie. But if I paddled with strength and consistency, I could both make it to the meeting site within an hour or so, and be kept warm by the workout of rowing… all while I avoided causing any unnecessary worry.

It was a God-given, beautiful day on the Crow River. The Ash trees were golden, and the Maples bursting with orange and red. With a camera no longer working, I was not bothered with the distraction of taking pictures; instead, I captured images in my minds’ eye. I studied the power of the floodwater beneath my canoe, holding a renewed respect for its strength and trickery.

As the sun fell lower in the sky and shadows replaced light, my fingers and earlobes began to burn from the chill. By the time I arrived near Berning’s Mill, my whole body was quaking… and I did not even pause between exiting the canoe and pulling it up the twenty-foot incline to the road. I was sure that hard work would be the only way to make the shivering subside. It didn’t.

There is a gun club not far from the landing site, and a few dozen men had gathered there to talk-over their exploits for this day, the season opener for duck hunting. I walked over, was invited in, and offered a cell phone so I could call Julie. Then I was invited to soak-up the warmth of the lodge and to join-in their conversations of adventure. But Julie would be here soon, so I made my way back to the canoe landing within a few minutes.

That evening, there was time for hindsight. Every muscle on the right side of my body was aching from the day's workout. I had nasty scrapes on my right forearm, and bruises on my left forearm and rib cage. My left thumbnail was smashed pretty good, but it did not fall off as I thought it might. It was an expensive day. I lost a Nikon D-SLR camera with a 300 mm zoom lens, a cell phone, a cap, my saw, and a pair of glasses. Lost, also, was my perfect record of never having unintentionally tipped a canoe, kayak, or any other watercraft, for that matter. But my mood was lifted by focusing on what I did not lose.

The USGS river gage later revealed that my hours on the Crow River that day coincided with the crest of the biggest fall flood in decades. That having been said, I was able to handle the river.

But only after the river had handled me.
© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.


  1. Mike, Glad you were able to keep your wits about you and survive such a freak accident!

  2. Glad you're well and great work at guilting Julie into getting you a new camera. :)