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A wet walk in the woods: Brule paddlers make barefoot trek to safety after capsizing

Sam Cook Forum News Service It was supposed to be nice canoe float and a little fishing on Wisconsin's Brule River last Saturday. How it ended up that Brett Stoeger, 22, and Rheannon Wenig, 18, were stumbling barefoot and bare-legged through the ...

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Brett Stoeger of Hortonville, Wis., and Rheannon Wenig of Oshkosh, Wis., relax in camp along the Brule River before an eventful day of paddling and fishing. Rheannon Wenig photo

Sam Cook

Forum News Service

It was supposed to be nice canoe float and a little fishing on Wisconsin's Brule River last Saturday. How it ended up that Brett Stoeger, 22, and Rheannon Wenig, 18, were stumbling barefoot and bare-legged through the woods on a cold, damp afternoon requires some explaining.

The walking began shortly after their rental canoe swamped and became wedged against a tree lying in the water not far below Cedar Island, several miles upstream from the town of Brule.

"I thought I was going to die," said Wenig, 18, of Oshkosh, Wis.

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It wasn't the canoe getting pinned against the tree that scared her. It was that she was cold and wet and had no idea where she was.

"That's when I started to panic," she said. "I said, 'What are we going to do? We're going to die!'"

Both Stoeger, 22, of Hortonville, Wis., and Wenig had gotten wet after the canoe tipped near the base of a rapids. Stoeger, who works at a bank, had tried in vain to free the canoe. The day was cold, with temperatures in the 40s and intermittent rain.

"I could feel my body shaking out there in the water," Stoeger said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "I was so cold."

He gave up on the canoe and focused on trying to minimize the couple's heat loss.

"I said, 'We're gonna be fine. Take your clothes off,' " Stoeger said. "She started taking her clothes off. I took my pants off."

They each left on sweatshirts that were semi-dry.

And they started walking - downstream - along the river. Priorities being what they were, Stoeger took with him two brown trout and two brook trout he had caught.

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"We have no clue where we are," Stoeger said. "It was maybe 1:30 or 2. I figured at worst we'd walk eight hours and get out of the woods by dark."

The couple tried making cell-phone calls, but cell reception is poor in the Brule valley and they were unsuccessful.

Wenig soon lost the Crocs she had been wearing on her feet. Both she and Stoeger were barefooted. Neither had been on the river before. They had no idea where they were going. They had put in well upstream at Stone's Bridge, and their car was waiting a few more miles downstream at the Winneboujou Landing.

"Obviously, there were no trails," Wenig said. "We were climbing over tree stumps and sticks."

As they walked, avoiding a porcupine along the way, they could hear an occasional car on Wisconsin Highway 27, which parallels the river in places. But they were afraid that if they tried to walk to the highway and didn't find it, they might get lost in the woods. So they kept walking, keeping the river in sight.

After an hour or more, they came to a widening in the river. They saw a trail that led up in the direction of the highway. They decided to take it.

Stoeger was in the lead as they reached the highway. A car was approaching.

"Should I wave it down?" Stoeger asked Wenig.

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She thought that would be a good idea.

The woman driving the car pulled over.

"She was a sweetheart," Stoeger said of the driver. "A lady in her 40s. An all-around good person. I wish I knew her name."

The woman drove the couple to Stoeger's Honda at the Winneboujou Landing and dropped them off. They drove to their campsite at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ranger station near Brule. They changed clothes and drove to Brule River Canoe Rental in Brule, where they had rented their canoe from co-owner Aaron Carlson.

When Stoeger discovered he had left his wallet in a pack in the canoe, Carlson loaned the couple $30 for gas to drive home. Later, Carlson retrieved the canoe - along with Stoeger's wallet and fishing gear - from the river, Stoeger said.

When Carlson had to travel to the Oshkosh area two days later, he delivered Stoeger's wallet and fishing gear.

Carlson said canoeists rarely have serious problems paddling the river.

"I think maybe four or six out of roughly 10,000 last year had trouble," Carlson said.

Both Stoeger and Wenig said the experience had taught them something.

"I learned that staying positive through the toughest situations is the best thing," Wenig said. "At first, we were fighting a little bit. Then we decided we needed to work together. I think that really made our relationship stronger."

"It brought us a lot closer," Stoeger said. "She trusts me now."

They had brook trout for supper the night they returned home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Related Topics: DOUGLAS COUNTY
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