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John Myers column: Unexpected rapids, swamped kayak and unplanned night in woods

'Be prepared' was good advice for Boy Scouts. It also works for adults.

Brule River canoe angling
Northern Wisconsin's Bois Brule River can look serene in many areas. But the river also holds some challenging rapids that are best avoided or taken only by people who know what they are doing in craft designed to handle them.
Sam Cook / 2015 file / Duluth News Tribune
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BOIS BRULE RIVER — Older folks might remember the cautionary advice from Sgt. Estherhaus on "Hill Street Blues," the 1980s television show, which he gave his officers every day right before they hit the streets: “Let’s be careful out there.”

But Esterhaus might also have offered another line: "Be prepared for the worst.” It turns out being prepared wasn't just good advice for Boy Scouts. It also applies to adults outdoors.

John Myers
John Myers

In the outdoors, being careful means things like avoiding big water during bad weather, or avoiding long distances when you are short on time. Being careful usually involves the decisions you make while you are outdoors, or simply deciding not to go. Being prepared, however, requires advanced thought and action.

This is the cautionary tale of a southern Wisconsin angler who on Sept. 14 was on his first fishing trip to the Northland’s Bois Brule River. He had a pedal-powered fishing kayak, his paddle and fishing gear. He was wearing shorts, a lightweight fishing shirt and wading shoes. He had little else. No map or compass or hand-held GPS. No dry bag with matches, extra clothes, energy bars or a Mylar blanket. No one else apparently knew exactly where he was or when or where he expected to be off the water. His cellphone either didn’t work or didn’t get coverage in the Brule River valley.

paddler on the Brule River
There are some rapids on northern Wisconsin's Brule River that should only be run by experienced paddlers in proper craft.
Clint Austin / 2012 file / Duluth News Tribune

The angler put his kayak into the Brule at Stone’s Bridge Landing, a popular location. His vehicle was at his expected take-out spot at Winneboujou Landing, 12 miles downstream. But he became disoriented on where he was on the river due to a miscommunication with the driver who shuttled his vehicle to the takeout point. He had fished for a while, then found himself moving into an unexpected rapids the pedal kayak couldn't handle.

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The kayak flipped, then filled with water. His fishing gear floated downstream, as did his paddle. He managed to tie his swamped kayak to a tree, then decided to hoof it over land. By then the sun had set. The temperature on a sunny day when the angler started was in the mid-60s. But overnight it dropped to about 49 degrees in the woods.

“He tried walking in the dark but said he was up to his waist in mud in some places, so he made the right decision to stop and spend the night leaning against a tree,” said Austin Winfield, a Brule River guide who became a good Samaritan in this story. “He had some cuts and scrapes, but he didn’t seem in too bad of shape. … It’s a good thing it wasn’t any colder that night.”

When a Rochester, Minn. youth was pinned between a crumpled canoe and a rock by the fast-moving waters of Basswood Falls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last summer, who you gonna call?

Hypothermia, or exposure, is a real danger even with temperatures in the 40s, especially when someone is wet. It can reduce and eventually stop both physical and mental function.

The angler also remembered the last civilization he saw and, come sunrise, started walking that way. He stumbled out of the woods near the storied Cedar Island Lodge fishing camp just as Stone Kelsey and Winfield were going to work at the camp.

“I told him to get in my truck and warm up. … We took him to Holly’s (Holly Kelsey-Henry) and got him a blanket and some coffee and bars and water. He gobbled them up.”

“If he had just had a compass he could have easily walked out to Highway 27. But he had no idea where he was,” Winfield noted.

This is not an uncommon situation, especially during the pandemic-inspired rush to get outdoors in recent years. Just ask the St. Louis County Rescue Squad that performs dozens of extractions each year. People who dump canoes or get lost on an ATV or snowmobile trail or who break a leg in the Boundary Waters or otherwise bite off more outdoors than they can chew. Most of the people are unprepared to either find their own way out or to spend a night in the woods. It’s the rescue squad members who often have to go find them and bring them out.

In this case on the Brule River, the angler made enough good choices to survive mostly unscathed. And he bumped into some good old Northland hospitality at the right time. But the rule outdoors must be to never go into anything assuming someone else might get you out.

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The angler's cellphone worked despite being underwater for 10 minutes, but he was unable to get service, which is not uncommon in the deep river valley. He said he kept warm by moving back and forth while leaning against the tree and prayed that he would make it out the next day.

“My unplanned overnight adventure in the Brule Wilderness resulted from a litany of errors in planning: unaware of no cellphone coverage, no map, no compass, no emergency dry bag,” the angler, 67, noted this week, asking not be named for the story for fear of repercussions. “Feel very blessed and fortunate emerging relatively unscathed.”

"Austin was unbelievable, He was an angel, the answer to my prayers,'' the angler said.

The North Carolina group of four was stuck in a swamp, cold and wet, far from the nearest road.

Not every story like this ends happily. Sometimes cellphones don’t work, get wet or are lost. Sometimes people stumble and fall and don’t get back up. Sometimes people go into the water and don't come back up alive. Sometimes there’s no one there with a warm truck. Sometimes the rescue squad is too late.

“He made the right decision, heading toward the last road he saw and deciding not to try to make it at night. But he really wasn’t prepared for the Brule, or to spend a night in the woods,’’ Winfield noted. “The river can look pretty calm where you put in. ... I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”
In this happy ending case the angler, once warmed and fed, thanked his helpers. Winfield drove him to his motel in Brule. And the man made it home to Waukesha, Wisconsin, vowing to return some day to go ice fishing with Winfield.

As the angler was back at his motel room resting, Winfield and Kelsey went back down to the river to recover the swamped kayak. They also managed to find some of his gear and brought it back to the motel. Winfield noted that the fishing-style kayak was not the best type to handle the Brule River’s rapids well.

“I’m just glad it ended well,’’ Winfield said. “But people need to plan ahead before they get on the river. Nobody expects to spend a night in the woods. … But it can happen to anybody. You need to be prepared.”

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