|Survival Training on the Wisconsin River
With a positive weather forecast, no rain until late, and that was a maybe, we loaded up my bike and headed for a ‘put in’ place for the canoe that we had scouted out earlier and by Google Earth.
It was about a 20 mile drive over to the outskirts of Eagle River and our launching destination. The spot I had chosen was the very spot my Mother used over 40 years ago to drop me and three friends and two canoes for us to take our first overnight canoeing/camping trip. It was quite an adventure.
As we drove along the highway on the way to our debarkation point, we had several real good looks at the river we were soon to come down. The sections of the river that we could see appeared to be studded with large glacial droppings in the form of reddish granite boulders. The river’s surface appeared mostly calm, but the strength of the current was apparent. If you were not paying attention, the current would slam you into one of the car-sized boulders and dump you into the brink.
The billowy white clouds we had enjoyed on the drive over were now banding together, getting darker at the bottoms, and shooting fingers towering up into the sky. This is somewhat a common, almost daily, occurrence and rarely leads to much precipitation.
On the way to the launch site we went to our planned take out point, a small boat launch near a snowmobile bridge. Here we dropped off my bike. The plan was for us to pull out here and for me to hop on my bike and zip back up the highway 8 miles to get ‘the Rocketeer’ while Nancy tidied up the canoe and gear. I chained my bike to a good sized Birch tree and we drove on.
Back at the put in place we quickly unloaded the canoe off the truck and carried it to the water. We tossed in our gear, took another look at the thickening clouds and pushed off.
The Wisconsin River is semi clear. Many of the rivers and streams in this area are laden with minerals, especially iron. This gives them a dark coppery look and certainly not as clear as the rivers and streams of the West. The current was swift, but not racing. The surface was so smooth like glass. We had to pay attention because of the random scattering of large boulders that we could see above water, and numerous smaller boulders just below the surface. The current carried us along at a nice pace and we did very little paddling, just enough to keep us off the rocks.
Shorty after we started our voyage the clouds really socked in and we heard distant rumbling thunder. It was starting to look like the weather dudes were wrong again. I had checked the Doppler radar before we left and the scope was clear. Thunder showers will swiftly form, dump hard, and just as swiftly pass on. Sometimes they can be accompanied by sudden, high winds. I was cautious of the winds. There are stretches of the river where it becomes more like a lake as the current flattens out and I wouldn’t want to be out in the middle of one of those sections during the approaching storm.
I didn’t want to get stuck out on open water, even though the river was only about 40 yards wide at this point, so we eased the canoe over to a dock in front of a cabin that appeared to be deserted. We did not have any overhead cover, but we were close to shore and could hold our position. The thunderstorm was approaching quickly now.
Just about the time we were getting ready to hunker down for the storm, the phone rings. Nancy was getting a call from her friend and real estate agent, Amy, with an update on 214 which we are trying to get leased with Amy’s very able assistance. It was surreal, holding the canoe up against the dock, a storm bearing down on us, and Nancy gabbing away on the phone. The current was fairly swift running under the dock we were clinging to. There was an enormous fallen tree wedged against the dock and a large submerged boulder in front of the dock. I wedged the bow of ‘the Nancy Gail’ up against the fallen tree and let the current push us up against the front of the dock.
While Nancy talked with Amy on the phone, it started to sprinkle, then light rain fell, and just as she hung up, an all out downpour. We had thunder and lightning booming and cracking overhead and the driving rain obscured the river’s surface. We were unprepared for the sudden weather change, which is unusual for us. We got drenched to say the very least. Nancy’s new pink hat was sure getting a test. The rain was pouring off of her hat, keeping her face and neck mostly dry. We both just sort of slouched over to keep our cores dry and warm. Fortunately for us the storm appeared to have passed on and we only got poured on for about 15 minutes.
With the sun starting to poke out between the threatening clouds, we pushed off from our temporary sanctuary and headed back out into the current in high, though somewhat damp, spirits. There were eerie wisps of steam rising from the water as we silently passed down the placid appearing, copper colored river.
When enough of the glacier strewn boulders get together they create a Class I set of rapids. There is very little white water, but the current nonetheless will ram you into the visible boulders as well as the slightly submerged ones you cannot see if you drop your guard. The river split a few times and we had to guess as to which channel the most water and least amount of flotsam piles had.
I had Google Earthed our course and had only seen one area where the river split in any significant difference in quantity of water flow. The reason I mention this is because if you choose the wrong channel, you can end up on the rocks, high and dry as the river flow dwindles to a trickle. From an altitude of 3500 feet I saw only one area that stood out as a possible problem if you took the right channel. Staying to the left in this area seemed prudent. Now, we just had to figure out when we came to that spot. We were already experiencing several similar spots.
Conditions on the river became idyllic. The sun would poke out every now and then, exploding the surrounding forest in riots of green foliage.
Of course, any time the river split into multiple channels or widened out in a small lake, the water became much shallower. Whenever these frequent conditions occurred we had to keep an extra sharp eye out for canoe tipping obstacles. There were many boulders that were just below the surface that were hard to see in the coppery water because they were not close enough to the surface to disturb the current.
We continued on down the river, paddling only occasionally to avoid obstacles. Nancy was taking pictures of the surrounding forest and meandering river. The weather was starting to sock in again upriver behind us. We were about to pass the last pull out spot we knew of before the planned take out where we left my bike. Hawk’s Nest Outfitters had a launching spot where they set their paying clients adrift in an assortment of water craft, including tubes of various sizes and colors. We could pull out here, or gamble on the weather holding off and continue on downriver another 6 miles to where the bike was. The sun was shining through the clouds occasionally, just enough to dry us off, so we paddled on.
The experience was really neat. Canoes are a very quiet means of transportation across the water, so we were able to sneak up on a mix of wild animals as we drifted on. An enormous, dark colored bird launched from a tree just ahead of us. Its wingspan must have been six feet at least. We disturbed the mighty bird a few times as we continued down the river. The big fella would fly a short ways with those long wings, land for a short time, only to launch again as we came close. Unfortunately, we were never able to get the camera on him. My guess was we were getting a rare view of a Golden Eagle. I will have to check, but I think they are bigger than Bald Eagles, our national bird.
Speaking of Bald Eagles, we encountered a mighty fine specimen a little further downriver. We paddled right under the magnificent bird’s perch. Nancy was clicking away on the camera. Most of the notable creatures we saw on our paddle were birds. Blue Herons, Egrets, and Osprey were common sightings. Adding two large eagles to our viewing pleasure was great.
From my earlier Google Earth searches I knew that along our path we had to cross a large lake formed by the river. I could tell from satellite view that the channel would be difficult to follow as it meandered through the prolific floating grass islands that covered the lake. When we finally came to the lake, the weather was closing in fast. It was very dark behind us. I wanted to get across this section quickly, but the current disappeared totally and the channel was nonexistent. A few creeks ran into this lake so there were a couple promising looking areas for the exit from the lake, but I couldn’t be sure. I knew that if we hugged the right side of the lake and followed the shore line we would eventually come to the river channel as it exited the flowage. But that was going to be the long way around, for sure. We could hear thunder off in the distance and it was getting darker as we paddled along the shore.
As we half way hugged the shore and half way crossed further off shore it started to sprinkle. I knew we could end up spending a lot of time and energy trying to find our way out of the aquatic maze. When we had crossed about two thirds of the lake we could detect what appeared to an opening in the thick forest. We cut across a little more open water gambling on that notch in the forest being our ticket off the exposed lake. As we rounded a corner of land and headed into what appeared to be the main channel it started to rain a little harder. The thunder was gaining on us. Great! We had guessed correctly and it was the main channel which meant we had only about a half mile more to our pull out spot.
We got about two hundred yards from the bridge that was our landmark for our planned take out spot when the skies let it all go. We could hear the deluge coming from behind us like an approaching train. I spied a large pine tree hanging out over the river and there were no rain drops on the water getting through its branches yet, so we made a beeline for its protection. It poured and poured. We were fairly wet from the preceding moderate rain but we were escaping the worse of the downfall under the tree. So, with the bridge in our view, we sat out the storm. More thunder and lightning were part of the show. After about twenty minutes the downpour slacked off and we shoved off and made a beeline for our take out.
We pulled the canoe out well above waterline and moved our gear over to where the bike was stashed. I hopped on and made a mad ride in the mist along the highway back to get the truck. I went the eight miles in under 40 minutes, not bad for a senior citizen. I called Nancy to let her know I had gotten to the truck and would be there in a few minutes.
When I got back to Nancy, she had the canoe all cleaned up and read to load on the truck. We loaded up and headed for camp.
In camp we got to watch the third thunderstorm of the day. It really rained hard again. We were warm, cozy, and dry in ‘the Neighborhood’ after another day of high adventure.