We had 4 canoes on this trip, so one person from each of 3 canoes wrote what they went through. The 4th canoe is mentioned a few times, but neither guy wrote anything.
"Shipwrecked on the White River"
Bill and Al
The winter had been long and brutal, but, before I knew it, it was time for the annual spring canoe trip. This canoe trip is an annual ritual for me and a group of friends from college - UW Stout. Every year we head to Northern Wisconsin to spent 2-4 days canoeing some of the best canoe rivers in Wisconsin.
Spring was coming very late it seemed. It had been an above average winter snow-fall wise with a lot of snow falling late in the season. To top it off, we had picked what was for us a very early date to canoe - I believe it was April 17th. For many years we went the first weekend in May but lately we had been going earlier and earlier to stay away from opening day of fishing season and to catch better water. On Wednesday night, my friend Al and I drove up to near Medford, WI, to stay in Bogie's cabin as the plan was to canoe Thursday morning up by Superior, WI, and the drive from Milwaukee to Superior can take 8-9 hours otherwise.
When we got to Taylor County, I remember remarking that there were still 4-5 foot snow drifts on the lakes and fields. It had been an above average winter for snowfall and there had not been any extended heat waves to melt it yet. That night we slept at a friends cabin on Sackett Lake near Medford, and I remember the next morning well. After I got up I opened the drapes that covered the large picture windows that looked out over the lake - the site I saw was a first for me for canoeing - the lake as still FROZEN over! Bad omen #1.
Al and I made the 2-3 hour drive up to Ashland or Superior, WI on Thursday morning.
As I remember it, we all met at a place called the 'Crow-Bar'. As we walked in, the song playing loud on the jute-box was Gordon Lightfoot's 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. This haunting ballad was bad omen #2. As I remember, the canoeing Thursday went well on the Bois Brule river with good high water and no major mishaps.
After canoeing Thursday, we were eating dinner and it started raining. And raining. And raining. Bad omen #3.
We woke up Friday and it had stopped raining by later in the morning! We could canoe after all. The plan was for 8 people to canoe - 4 canoes. Around 9:30 or 10 we got to the drop-off point. There were 6 of us - one party of 2 had made a detour to go to Superior to drop off or pick up something and would be joining us later. At the drop-off point 2 canoes loaded up and headed down the river. It was a beautiful day - sunny and perhaps 60 out as I remember it. Al and I decided to await the return of the other party for safety reasons so we would canoe down together meeting up with the other 4 people downriver later.
As we waited, Al and I sat near the river bank and looked around admiring the natural beauty of the area. Up-Nort Wisconsin is as beautiful as it gets if you admire nature. We both remarked at how high & fast the water was flowing on the White River. All that rain the night before had melted a lot of the deep snow cover and it all was making its way into the rivers of the area. On a lark, I remember poking a stick into the ground where the water line met the dry land. We waited. And waited. And waited. After what was about 2 hours, Al and I decided that the guys perhaps had car trouble and would not be going canoeing. If we didn't get headed downriver soon, we never get done in time to hit the pick-up point where the other 4 people would be. Before we got into the water, I happened to look at where I had poked the stick into the ground where the high water mark had been. The stick was now a good 8" under water. Bad omen #4.
Al and I loaded up our canoe and pushed off - journey underway!. We felt very thoroughly prepared for the rough water that surely lay ahead: dry bags, extra paddle and all items tied to the gunnels - including our life preservers! The sights that we beheld as we made our way downriver were spectacular. There were numerous ice flows breaking free from the shores and making their trek down river. Numerous times we had to pull over to let them pass us or risk being run over. If you have never witnessed canoeing during 'ice-out', it is an awesome sight. The power of nature is never more evident than during a time like this. One time I remember telling Al that we should pull our canoe on top of a particularly large sheet and just ride it down the river. I think we wisely changed our minds when we saw one large sheet ahead of us suddenly stop and submarine under another stuck sheet. If we were on that one, we'd have been in big trouble.
Another awesome event to witness when large chunks of ice are flowing down a swollen river, is to see (and hear) these large sheets mow down small tress along the shoreline. There is so much force behind these sheets that they simply snap over or sheer off all trees up to many inches in diameter. The sound is amazing.
So far it had been a great canoeing day: spectacular beauty, sunshine, no rain, great whitewater. We had stayed dry so far! We never did hear or see any signs of the 2 groups that were ahead of us. All was going well until Al and I came around a turn. We were over near the left bank of the river as I remember and we were in pretty calm, but very, very swift flowing water. I believe I was in the front of the canoe and stood up to see what looked so funny on the water line perhaps 50 yards ahead of us. Couldn't tell. With the super-fast current, we approached the spot fast. As we got within perhaps 20 yards, we could see a tree had fallen over diagonally downriver and the water was flowing perhaps 4" over the top of it. Bad omen #5. The tree covered perhaps half the width of the river. I didn't think there was enough water for us to ride over the top of the tree. At the last second I thought we could paddle hard and get around the tree. We turned the nose of the canoe 45 degrees to the right and paddle furiously. The water was so fast we were getting closer to the tree and could not get ahead enough to get around it. We hit it broadsides hard and it did a barrel-roll of the canoe throwing us into the water.
The water temp was probably around 35 degrees. Pretty darn cold. When you get immediately submerged in water that cold it takes the wind out of you. I immediately lost my glasses, and coming to the surface I was gasping for air. I remember swimming for the right shore as it was closer. I stroked hard as it was so cold all I wanted to do was get out of the frigid water. Making the shoreline was easy compared to getting out. Normally there is a bank along most shorelines, here all there was was brush and trees as the water had swollen way past its old shoreline. I tried grabbing trees and shrubs to pull myself out but the current kept pulling me farther downstream. Finally, I was able to hoist myself out of the water, panting for breath. I estimate I was in the water maybe 1 to 2 minutes.
Al was nowhere in sight. I yelled. Nothing. After gathering my wits and resting for a few minutes, I tried slogging my way farther down-river, yelling for AL. Slogging is a good word as the snow came up to between your knees and hips. It was very SLOW going. There was not a speck of dry earth anywhere. Just snow and water . At last I heard a call back from AL!. He was on the other side of the river. Seems he had stayed with the partially submerged canoe - trying to guide it to the shore somewhere so we could restart the trip. By doing so, Al subjected himself to much more cold water than I endured. It does not take very long for hypothermia to set in when you are wet and so cold.
Al later told me of how he was swept away from the canoe he was trying to pull to shore. He was swept down river where he eventually got stuck on a cluster of branches and logs. He got swept under, nearly getting hung up underwater. After several attempts to get to shore without success and suffering from hypothermia, he knew he had one last try to grab tree branches and pull himself to shore. Al, an excellent swimmer and lifeguard, said if not, he knew he was going 'down for the last time.' He was finally successful. He stripped down to his underwear and stood in the sun trying to get warm.
The canoe was now gone. A raging monster separated Al from me. There was no way either of us ever thought we'd try to cross that river by swimming - to do so at that moment would be a death sentence. The river was too cold and too fast and too menacing. I think we just sat and pondered our next step, shivering and shivering. I remember sitting drenched in the snow and taking my shoes and socks off and letting the bright sunshine hit my feet to try to warm them up and dry them off.
Perhaps 15 more minutes passed, then we heard a noise! It was the 4th canoe coming downriver! Rescue? We yelled for help! It was Mac and Mark. They went to the left bank and found Al and loaded him into their canoe. He did not want to get into that canoe but eventually did in a near state of panic. As I said Al had been subjected to much more cold water than I had and was probably in some stage of hypothermia. Mac and Mark then completed some of the greatest canoeing skills I have seen in the 25 plus years I have been canoeing - they guided a canoe sideways across that raging torrent with not 2 but 3 people in an overloaded canoe. Al and I were now back together but there was nothing else Mac and Mark could do. They couldn't proceed downriver with any more than themselves. They had to leave us to fend for ourselves while they went for help. Before they left, Mac took a pocketknife and scratched his cell phone number onto the label of a bottle of Dr. McGillicutty's and handed it to me. It reminded me of
The river bank was pretty high where we were - perhaps 50 feet above us. It was a hard, slow climb as it is not easy to get thru snow that is nearly hip high. We literally were grabbing trees and pulling ourselves up foot by foot. After probably 30 minutes we made it to the level bank above the river bed. There still was not a patch of dry ground anywhere, just snow and more snow. We decided to try to follow the river downstream - that was our best hope to eventually reunite with the other 6 people - however long that would take. As I said it was very slow going. It was also darn cold on the feet. Each plunge of a wet foot clad only in tennis shoes into the freezing snow was excruciating to me. We then spotted a small cabin up ahead of us along the bank. Warmth at last!
We got to the cabin and it was unlocked. There was firewood, paper, matches and a spare jacket and sleeping bag inside! We made a roaring fire and removed our wet clothes to dry them off and warm up. After about 45 minutes we were slightly recovered - without that fire I'm sure one or both of us would have had some pretty severe complications such as frostbite. We now pondered our next step - stay in the warmth and security of the warm cabin and await help coming to us? Or head out to try to get to help ourselves?. The sun was getting low in the sky so we decided to venture out. We found some snowmobile tracks near the cabin so we felt it could not be too far to some other habited dwelling. Which way to go? There were tracks going in many directions - along the river or deep into the woods. We just picked one and went. The first one went no-where, damn! About every 4 steps or so, you would break through the crust of snow and bruise your shins. Even so, what was nice is that the snowmobile compacted the snow and you could walk along it somewhat without sinking in above your knees. This made travel probably 3-4 times faster than it had been.
About this time we came across what we thought were bear tracks - just what we needed! I had a small knife but that was all. Severe numbness had returned to my feet. After about 2 hours, and with darkness starting, I think we came around a bend in the woods and saw a farmhouse. What a sight! Saved! We approached the house and found, to our surprise, the 4 other canoers who had been ahead of us. All 6 of us had spilled and were lost in the woods without canoes. All 6 were on the same side of the river and had made it to the same farmhouse! How miraculous! The couple who owned the farmhouse were most gracious to us offering warm drinks. We slowly recovered.
The couple explained how they heard that the Sheriff's office was about to send up a helicopter to look for some missing canoeists. Seems someone was driving by a bridge near where our ending point was, and they saw 3 canoes come down the river without any people in them. Mac and Mark did make it all the way to this endpoint intact. Again a truly great feat of canoeing. They talked to the Sheriff who had arrived and they then backtracked up the local roads till they found the 6 of us safe at the farmhouse. The farm couple were amazed we attempted to canoe that river at that time as it was the most dangerous they ever remembered seeing it. We thanked them and headed back to the end spot to try to gather the debris of the trip. Mac and Mark had seen all 3 canoes near this end spot. Here the river widened and slowed. All 3 canoes were here stuck on ice flows or by trees. With some degree of difficulty, we were able to recover all 3 canoes and gear. The County Sheriff gave us wise words as he advised us to either "go to a Church and Pray" or "go to a bar and drink heavily".
We loaded up the leftovers of the carnage and all got in the van, thankful for our lives. Al was bruised from heat to toe but we stayed at a hotel in Ashland that night and I recall the hot water of the Jacuzzi was the best I can ever remember. Quite a few of us did suffer some small frostbite and to this day have some numbness in our feet and a higher susceptibility to cold in our feet. This ends the saga our group remembers as: 'Shipwrecked on the White River".
Bill Kelly and Al Straub
as remembered March 10, 2007
By Tom and Craig (with reference to canoe 4)
The annual canoe trip began in 1976 with a group from UW-Stout. We usually have about a dozen canoeists, with a “never miss” core group of 8 guys. We stay at a family cabin on Sacketts Lake north of Medford Wisconsin. Our group now comes from the Twin Cities, Madison, Milwaukee, and North Central Wisconsin. We usually depart on a Thursday morning in mid to late April and converge on the first river about noon.. We go early in the spring to give us a better chance of high water levels. After 31 annual trips at this time of year we have experienced everything from sunburns to snowstorms and dragging boats down a dry riverbed to floodstage conditions. On years when we are concerned about low water levels in North Central Wisconsin we opt to go further north and run the Brule on Thursday and the White River near Ashland on Friday. We then move south and more friends join us for the weekend. This was the plan in April 2000.
We arrived at the Brule and found 2-3 feet of snow in the woods. Eight of us paddled the upper Brule without any serious problems. The water level was only slightly higher than normal. It started to rain just before the takeout. We had a new guest on this trip. I had a series of business meetings in the Fox Valley and Craig attended from a sister company in Ohio. The meetings were continuing the next week so he intended to spend 4 days in his Appleton Hotel. I said I had a more exciting option and asked him to join the annual trip. He said he had never canoed before. I assured him that it wouldn’t be a problem.
Craig was my partner. He is about 6’1” and 240 lbs., and with him in the bow we were riding pretty low. However, he had good balance and kept his weight low and his first river trip on the Brule was a success. I explained that if we did tip over that he should hang on to his paddle and stay near the canoe but never downstream from it.
We spent Thursday night at a motel in Ashland and it rained hard all night. After breakfast it started to clear and we decided to tackle the White as planned. Mac and Mark needed to pick something up in Duluth. They left early and said they would catch up to us on the river. We put in on Maple Ridge Road just outside
the town of Mason. I had paddled this same section at least 15 times before. It is one of my favorites because of the small but almost constant rapids for about 75% of the 14 mile run. I also enjoyed that it is very remote. Once you left this landing there was no way out until you reached a small reservoir from a power dam 14 miles away. The last time we were here was a family trip the previous fall. The kids were throwing rocks off the bridge and I recall that they were 10-12 feet above the water. Today was different. After wading though waist deep snow to launch the canoes, we had to duck to get under the bridge. Pavia and Robin went in the first canoe. Craig and I were second and Al and Kelly said they would wait for Mac and Mark.
Ice out had occurred 2 weeks earlier but the high water brought the huge chunks stacked on shore back into the stream along with logs and branches that had previously been above the high water mark. Within the first 100 yards it was apparent that the water level and speed was beyond anything we had experienced on the White in the past. We immediately went through a 2 foot river wide wave. This prompted us to have Craig kneel behind the front seat to allow the bow to ride higher. We didn’t realize at the time that this was the calm part of the river.
Normally we would follow the haystack waves marking the main channel. This was different, many of the haystacks were 2-3 feet high and water came over the bow with each one. We tried to run half way between the center and the shore. The shore side was also very dangerous since the river’s edge had spread out into the woods and there were many downed trees and low branches waiting to snag us.
Craig and I worked well together. We could quickly choose a path to avoid the biggest obstacles and drops. Still, we had to stop often to drain the canoe. One thing was clear, we had to keep the boat straight. When approaching a drop in the river or large waves we had to hit them straight on. With the power of the river today an approach at an angle would flip the canoe easily.
My guess was that we were about at the half way point when we came upon Robin and Pavia on the left bank. They had tipped but luckily held on to their canoe and paddles. They were very cold but said that there was no reason for us to wait. They would dry out and continue. Craig and I were now the lead canoe.
After another 2-3 miles the river took a sharp turn to the right. We made the mistake of cutting the corner short and being near the right shore. Once around the corner we were shocked by the sight of a long series of 3-4 foot waves all of them the full width of the river. Because of our approach we were now in the center of this torrent. I knew we were doomed but all we could do was hold it straight. The first wave went over Craigs head and the boat was one third full. After the third wave we were three quarters full and lost all stability and the forth hit took us over.
At that point the river took total control of us. As expected the icy water took our breath away. I would be pushed down into a deep hole and open my eyes to see a wall of rocks and gravel coming fast. These walls would be 3-4 feet deep and really beat up the elbows and knees, but at least it was a chance to get some air. This was repeated several times and then I came up to find the canoe in front of me and Craig going down. I knew that I couldn’t survive for more than a couple of minutes. I could see that the river was now bending to the left. Craig came up and I told him to forget the canoe and swim hard to the right. My guess is that while we moved 15 yards across the river we traveled 100 yards downstream. Finally we both caught overhanging tree branches. When we pulled ourselves out we realized that this wasn’t shore. It was an island with more than a foot of water flowing over it. We waded to the upstream end of the island and found a downed tree lying parallel to the ground above the water line. We stood on it and balanced by holding on to other trees. We were very cold but it could have been worse. Although we were surrounded by icy water, it was a warm spring day about 60 degrees and sunny.
After we got ourselves together and Craig thanked me again for inviting him on this trip, it became apparent that we needed to walk out. First, how would we get off the island? We waded down the island on the side opposite from our arrival.
It was only about 15 feet from shore but there was a strong current and even if we found our way across, the bank was very steep and covered with sheets of river ice. We went back to our log perch. Our only option was to wait for our guys to ferry us to shore. I think we stood on the tree for more than an hour. This is when worry about the other guys really set in. After our experience I knew that it was very likely that they had problems. When we considered that after all our difficulties and they were still more than an hour behind the worst could have occurred.
Finally we saw a red canoe come around the corner. Immediately it went
I think we could see 12 feet of the bottom of a 17 foot canoe. Then it disappeared, shot up again, and then we would get glimpses of the canoe rolling in the water and Robin and Pavia near the boat. They wisely started further to the left than we did and after getting bounced around for a long stretch were able to pull the canoe out of the river. They ended up almost directly across from our island. Strike two for them! We communicated with hand signals due to the roar of the river. It took them quite a while to get going again but then with some outstanding paddling came to our island. Then with 4 people we slid down the shore to a flat unloading area.
Our plan was to get to the top of the high banks and then follow them downstream.
I knew that no roads came anywhere near the river and going off into the woods would really get us lost. First we had to climb a 60 foot steep hill in snow 2-3 feet deep. With the warm temperatures the snow was very soft and we would fall through with every step. Our feet with only tennis shoes were wet and extremely cold and numb. We started our walk at 3:30 and going was very slow. Craig was a smoker and realized that he still had a lighter and it worked. This was very good news. At about 4:30 we thought we could hear someone yell. After some delay someone yelled, “Stay where you are!” We were shocked, had someone started a search? We could see two people slowly moving our way. Eventually we recognized Robin and Pavia. They had dumped again and this time they lost everything. Strike 3!
We slogged along together sometimes walking on deer trails that allowed us 2 or 3 steps before we fell through. We took turns leading and the others would follow in the same tracks. At 6:30 it was getting dark and we agreed that at 7 we would stop and build a fire. At 6:50 we came to a clearing and could see the lights of a house.
White River Trip
By Mac and Mark
Mac and I were late to arrive at the river. It was a great sunny day with air temps in the 50’s or maybe 60’s. What a great day for sandals, I thought. Boy, was I wrong. We could see the water was higher than what we were used to, but didn’t think anything about it. We’d done this river many times before and it was like an “old friend” to us. This day our ‘buddy’ was pissed and we paddled right into his wrath.
Mac and I got our first indication, a little subconsciously maybe, within the first 20 yards, as we had to duck to get under the bridge right after we got in the canoe. The 2nd hint was in the first turn of the river. We almost went over due to a “side ways” wave that hit us. How could that be as we were heading straight down the river? The water was moving so fast that as it hit the shore in the turn, it bounced back toward the middle, causing a cross flow toward the center. Right then Mac decided to kneel behind the front seat and I did the same in front of the back seat. This allowed us to lower our center of gravity and provide additional stability while raising the front gunwales. Mac and I knew we were the last canoe in the water and there would not be anyone to come in behind to help out if we ran into trouble.
Things were happening fast on the water. We tried to take every turn as wide as we could to get the quickest indication what lay ahead. Doing this, we crossed the center of the river many times over; so staying very stable and straight was critical. Getting too close to shore was dangerous as the river was flooded and trees were always ready to snag and upset the canoe. We had a good routine going until we came wide around a right hand turn. As we stayed wide to the left we saw a huge haystack on the left shore. We decided to try to paddle to the right of it, toward the middle of the river, but at the last second Mac realized we weren’t going to make it. We were headed right for it, which would have almost been a certain swamping of the canoe. Mac ordered us to change course and try to beach on the left bank. We made it with about 18” to spare. A great decision made at the right time. I remember thinking how odd it was to have to portage around anything on this river, as we never had in the past. Our “old buddy” was real serious, must have been a bad winter for him and wanted to take it out on us.
Mac and I pulled out and slogged through knee high snow and loose mud to get around the haystack. We started thinking about the other guys in our party, 3 canoes and 6 guys, and what they did when they got to this point in the river. We could see that we were the only ones that portaged on the left around this section, as there were no footprints in the snow. We could not see the other shore, but when we got back in out canoe, we tried getting over to the right to look but could not tell from the signs if a portage had taken place. I thought, “Damn, how are we going to live this down, we had to portage this and no one else did?” Little did we know at that time that the decision to portage allowed only our canoe to make it without swamping.
We were in a very technical rapids heading toward a hard left turn around an island when we heard shouting on the right side. It was Bill! We pulled over and talked to him and he filled us in. He lost his canoe with everything in it and most troublesome was that Al was not with him but on the other side of the river. We left Bill and started downstream to find Al. Within a very short distance we saw and heard Al on the left side of the river. We were able to land near him. As he was extremely cold we built a large fire and tried to get him as warm as we could. A plan was made to ferry Al to Bill. Al didn’t like this, but it would have taken us too far down stream to go over empty and then ferry Bill across to Al. Further, we also knew there was a cabin on the right not too far from where we were. Al was almost in a state of shock. He was very nervous to get back into the canoe. I can only imagine the courage and trust in us he had to have to get back in a canoe and back on the river after almost drowning a very short time ago. We started across with Al in the middle. We were almost to shore when Al just about jumped out because of his anxiety, but we made it.
We gave Al and Bill some dry shirts and we pushed off to continue on. We had learned that Al and Bill had started much later than the rest of the guys and they had not seen any of them since they had started. Within a few hundred yards we saw the cabin we knew was there to the right high on the ridge above the river. We tried yelling back to Bill and Al, but we were not sure if they could hear us above the roar of the rapids. In any case, Mac and I felt certain they’d find it and they would be safe. We weren’t certain about the other 4 guys that we hoped were still in front of us.
It wasn’t very much further before we came upon another rough spot. We decided to portage on river right this time. We got out and started walking. It seemed to us that someone else had walked this section, but it only seemed like one set of footprints. This made us think that at least one more person was out of the water and safe. Mac and I talked a little about the possibilities that not everyone would make it off the river. We couldn’t dwell on it though as we had too many other things to communicate to each other as we maneuvered down river. By this time, with 2 portages behind us, my sandal decision did not seem like the right one to have made. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, a bad sign. At least they didn’t hurt, but I had an idea what the pain was going to be like once they started to warm-up.
We came around a corner after a bit and saw off the right, caught in the
It was pretty uneventful after that. The water was fast with tall standing waves all the way down but staying in the middle proved to work for us and with one person per canoe, it was actually a very fun ride. We came around the last corner and the river opened up to a small reservoir. There was a dam on the far end. We couldn’t believe our eyes. It looked like a yard sale at REI. 2 canoes, life jackets, paddles and various other items were laying everywhere on the ice shelf that had not yet melted.
It seems that the river had gotten very high during the night and early morning due to heavy rains and melting snow. 2 canoes, 6-8 paddless and other gear all came rushing down the river, except for the one canoe that Mac and I cut free. About the same time, the dam had been opened to allow more water through it, so as the water level of the small reservoir fell, everything floating on the water was now laying on the ice shelf.
We then proceeded to collect all of the items and lashed the two ice-bound canoes to ours and pulled them in to shore. A local farmer was imploring us to hurry as the ice flows coming down river were beginning to close our path to the shore, which would have trapped us out in the middle of the reservoir.
As we started across the reservoir, we saw activity on the far side, where the take out is. At first we were overjoyed to know the guys made it out but as we got closer we wondered why
The most we had ever worried about on previous canoe trips was “were we going to dump?” We never really considered if some could drown due to conditions. We all learned some valuable lessons on this trip. Many of which we now know could have been easily avoided with some common sense. But without some experience, those decisions aren’t as easily made as some may think.
The lessons learned on the White that spring day helped us to make many correct decisions on a number of white water Canadian rivers in the years to come.