Failed Overnight Canoe Trip – 11/17/2012

Its 6:00 am and my alarm is going off. I reached over to turn it off and and slowly got out of bed. Today is the day that Jake, Ryan, and I go winter canoe camping. The trip is all planned out and we’re set to meet at Ryan’s house at 9:30 am. I’m not packed and I have a bit more shopping to do, so I shower quickly and head out the door.

I got back to the house a bit after 7 am having struck out on my shopping. It wasn’t a total loss because I filed up the gas tank on my van and got breakfast and coffee at Quick Trip. Danelle was half awake when I came home, still laying in bed. Trying to be sweet, I gave her a kiss to say good morning. My reply was that I tasted like coffee and onions. She went on to tell me how she didn’t like coffee as strong as I do. It wasn’t quite the impression I was trying to make, but its what I got.

I was a mess around the house grabbing one thing from every corner of the house and then returning to another corner remembering something else I forgot. While I was doing that, Danelle went back to her work to pick up our GPS. By the time she got back, I had a list of the way points I wanted her to mark so I wouldn’t miss where we would probably stay the night, or the final take out. It was slated to be my most adventurous trip of the year.

By 9 am, I had everything I needed packed in the van and double checked. It felt like a lot of gear for an overnight trip, but it is wintertime and I wanted to be safe! I knew I would be early to Ryan, but I figured he would be ansy to get going himself. By 9:20 am, we were all there with our gear laid out on the driveway to ensure there were no duplicates or missing items. Ryan couldn’t find his sleeping pad and thought I was bringing a second, so we ended up having to go back to my house to get my second one.

We were on our way south towards Meramec State park, taking our sweet time. The drive was easy. Jake was in my van with me, and Ryan and Ingrid were in their car packed with the boat on top. When we got to our exit, we left the highway and pulled into a gas station/Burger King. There, we all got a lunch to go. We also purchased Gatorade to drink on the float. Nearly leaving the parking lot, Jake remembered that we forgot batteries for the GPS. With a quick detour back inside the store, we were on our way.

I wasn’t sure where I wanted to park my van overnight for this trip. I thought I would try the boat rental area, but there was nobody there. So we turned around and went to the other side of the park for a campsite. There was nobody there either, so I opted to go back to the parking lot at the boat launch area and park there overnight. So with one final U-Turn, we were back to where we started.

In my anxiety to get on the water, I drove my van down by the boat ramp and stopped. Jake looked at me, and then I remembered that we were not starting, but finishing there. So I drove my van to a far corner parking spot. Ingrid patiently waited for Jake and I to grab our last minute items from my van. I left a note on the dash with Danelle’s name and cell, plus the date and time we were picking up the van. As I turned to lock up the van, I noticed that Jake had proudly left the passenger door open in my van and buckled himself into Ingrid’s car. I had to go around and fix “Jake’s Door” before we could go. On a slightly side note, I was telling this story to Robin [Jake’s wife] and found out that Jake has a long history with car door issues. Her first memory of Jake’s ongoing issue was their third date…

We followed the directions towards the put in at Campbell bridge. We had lots of small talk getting to the put in. At one point, I started singing a Taylor Swift song. Ingrid promptly turned up the radio to sush me. We quickly found the river and turned into the parking lot. There in the lot, we parked at the top of the ramp and began to quickly unpack the car. Ingrid had somewhere to be so we didn’t waste any time unloading. With the canoe at the river, we lined the pavement next to it with all of our gear. There was a minor discussion what straps for the boat we needed and it was made clear that only 2 of the four straps were mine and that I wanted them with us. Our discussion settled, we had everything out of the car and Ingrid took off for home.

With no cars around anywhere, we were truly on our own. First order of business, we ate our Burger King meals at the side of the river. Cold fries are not that good, but we’re on the river! So after we finished up our unsatisfying meals, we were down to packing the boat. I went into boss mode and told the guys where I wanted everything. We packed the boat in no time. Being lazy, I didn’t want to re-open any of the dry bags, so I used the straps that held the boat on top of the car to act as a mesh, holding the majority of our gear in the boat. It seemed a silly thing to do at the time, but I didn’t want them falling out of the boat.

With the boat fully loaded, the only thing to do was load up and shove off. I put Jake in the middle, then had Ryan load up in the front. Finally, I got us floating free and hopped in. Of note here, Jake was wearing a pair of hiking boots waterproof to about the ankle. Ryan and I both wore sneakers that we threw in the boat and put on wading boots that could go up to about mid calf. So our goal was to keep Jake out of the water at all costs to ensure he didn’t get water in his boots. Ryan’s boots were better than mine, but I felt personally responsible for the group and wanted to ensure a nice start.

As we started down the river around noon, the water was crystal clear. I’m not sure where that changes on its way to St. Louis, but it looked good enough to drink. Of course, it was also very cold, because its wintertime. The canoe was a bit tippy as we got started, rocking more than I was comfortable with. Jake scooted off his seat and down the bottom of the canoe for the first bit as we got used to the boat loaded down. I have paddled this boat before and it was a fine craft holding its line. But loaded down with lots of gear and people, it was a different boat. It was heaver in the back, due to most of the gear being behind Jake and my being a bit bigger.

I generally find that it takes me about 30 minutes to get comfortable with any small tippy craft. Today seemed to be no different. We all were on our seats looking around and enjoying the river. It was amazingly quiet and stopped paddling and talking several times to listen to the sound of nothing. The scenery around us presented a view that set peace in my inner self. Three good friends enjoying some of the best that life has to offer.

There were many cliffs around us, and we eventually spotted a path leading up the side of the river to a cave. On a whim, we decided to explore. It took some jostling, but we eventually got the boat to the shore and all of us out without any accidents. We tied a rope to the bow and to a tree and made sure the boat was aground before we started to ascend the path. at the top, all three of us were panting at the climb, but rewarded with an expansive cave opening and downstream view of the river. When we realized that the cave went back a ways, Jake and I went down to collect flashlights while Ryan kept the cave company.

After a long decent and climb back up, Jake and I had to take a moment to catch our breath. With delight, we entered the depth of the cave. Just past the section where the light no longer illuminates the cave, the ground changed from gravel to a washboard pattern holding mini reservoirs of water at each step. The ceiling got low and only Ryan hit his head before we came to the end of the cave. It probably went back 400 feet, but was worth the exploration. The group photo from inside the cave didn’t turn out, but none of us would complain about it.

Back at the boat, we had to re-pack part of the boat we unpacked to get at the flashlights that we didn’t anticipate needing until we set up camp that night. After we were settled, Jake and I got into the boat, but we had trouble, so Ryan pushed us off and we paddled back to another spot for Ryan to get in. Unfortunately, Ryan put one foot in a bit too deep and had some water come over the top of his boot. His foot was going to be cold for the rest of the trip.

Up to this point, the three of us considered ourselves royalty enjoying ourselves without a care. It was probably this attitude and a momentary laps of judgment that brought us to the hardest part of the whole trip. I’m normally a taskmaster in the boat, bossing around my partner to make sure we are where I want to be on the river, but today, I was relaxed. We came into a faster section of the river and I didn’t like where the boat was positioned. There were two sets of dead-fall [trees large and small] in this fast part of the river. We were too close to the upstream portion and I wanted to correct our position.

I started to paddle harder, but the boat suddenly caught some current I didn’t anticipate an turned sideways to the current. I saw what was coming and fear crept in. I said to Ryan and Jake, “We’re going to tip.” I was calm, not in a panic, but stating an unpleasant fact that was coming our way. They both said no, not believing that anything could interrupt our paddling trip. The back half of the boat (possible more) hit a large branch that was right at the water level. The branch was approximately 6″ in diameter. Right as we came up to it, I used my hands to cushion the hit, hoping against hope that I could push us away with nothing more than a close call.

Instinctively, I leaned my weight into the branch, hoping to put the bottom of the boat towards upstream and prevent a tip. I don’t know if Jake and Ryan were leaning upstream away from the branch, or if the suction of the river would have prevented such an action, but the boat tipped upstream and we all fell out of the canoe.

I had talked over our tipping plan with Jake and Ryan before we started letting them know to get back in the sunk boat. I told them that I would stay in the water and keep it upright while they paddled it submerged to safety where we could empty the water and start to change/warm up. Unfortunately, we tipped in fast chest deep water that I didn’t plan for. Ryan was about 20 feet downstream chest deep almost pinned to dead-fall while Jake and I somehow had the boat and pulled it to shallow water right next to us.

The situation was much worse than I imagined, though none of were hurt. Most of the stuff stayed in the boat thanks to the straps I had put in place as a half joke. We only had one of our three paddles left with the boat. I should have made it clear to Jake and Ryan that paddles were VERY IMPORTANT and to rescue them before any other gear! Here is the list of stuff floating down the river:

2 paddles
1 Waterproof camera
3 Gatoraid bottles
1 water bottle
1 water bladder (half our drinking water)
1 pair running shoes
1 jacket
1 fleece
1 cooler with our beer/dinner (had not drank any beer yet)

With our stuff moving away quickly, I wanted to get the boat drained of as much water as possible and start retrieving it. The first priority was Ryan. We moved the boat over because the rope was tied to it and threw him the rope. Holding the rope, Ryan was able to safely cross over to our shallow side of the river. Once we were all together, I tried to get the three of us to tip the boat and get water out, but it was too heavy. I opened up one of the dry bags and got out the two cooking pots and began to start bailing water. we probably spent 10 minutes before enough water was bailed out to be able to turn the boat and get more water out. At this point, there was only one paddle and a section of dead-fall at the end of the fast water that I didn’t feel I could avoid with only one paddle. Every second, our stuff went further downstream.

We bailed until there was only only about an inch of water left in the boat and I thought I could maneuver it. I gave Ryan one of the Thermarest sleeping mats and told him to use it as a paddle and for Jake to stay low in the middle as there was still water sloshing around. This would give us enough mobility to get past the second obstacle and start retrieving our stuff. I walked the boat as far as I safely could in the shallow part and got in before it was too deep as we started floating. Ryan paddled with the Thermarest and I used the only remaining paddle as I made sure we didn’t tip again. As we started passing the dead-fall, Ryan saw one of the paddles caught and we maneuvered until we got in the eddy of the dead-fall. From here, Ryan got out and walked forward, sinking in mud each step to the front of the pile. There, Ryan recovered one paddle and the waterproof camera. We’re about 90% sure that his jacket and one of my shoes are still there caught…

Its worth noting that somewhere during the process of us bailing and watching our stuff float down the river, we heard the sweet sound of a motorboat coming up river. we were excited to know that there was help, and we fully expected them to help recover some of our stuff. There was no denying that something was up with us as all three of us were standing knee deep in the middle of the river looking at our boat and bailing water. Instead, the motor boat looked at the river, and then got up on a plane and proceeded to zoom past us at a distance of approximately 10 feet. The waves from the motor boat nearly swamping our boat! Just behind the first motor boat came his buddy who proceeded to nearly swamp us again at high speed and close proximity. I’ll let the reader make their own judgments about the motor-boaters, but we were not pleased at all!

With a second paddle, our confidence grew as we could control the boat again. We backed up and started moving downstream to collect anything we could. Along the way we started to assess our situation. I was in favor of stopping and making a fire to dry, but they both assured me that they were warm enough. I made sure both of them had a non-cotton base layer in case of emergency. We put the fire on hold as we could stop anywhere downriver and warm up if needed. We also decided that dry clothes were not a good choice as we could yet tip again and have nothing left. Our location was approximately half way through the 15 mile planned trip. We had two locations in mind to pull over and camp for the night. Our issue was that Ryan’s dry bag wasn’t an actual dry bag. It was a nylon bag good for keeping dripping water off the contents inside. A continued drip would get through.

Now we had soaking wet sleeping bags and no good way to dry them. Had we been much further from civilization, I think we all would have agreed to pull over and start a fire to dry our bags. But seeing as we were in range to finish in daylight, it was the right choice. We started paddling with a purpose, trying to move as quick as possible. Along the way, we found the third paddle just floating down the river. Its worth noting here that I have reflective material on both sides of every paddle I own. In this case, I think it may have been the only reason we saw the paddle. Its an all black paddle that merged with the water as it floated in the shadow. I was amazed how far down the river it was when we caught it. We also found one of my shoes floating down the river.

The rest of the trip was less memorable. We were cold, but happy to know that we would be off the water and warm as long as we hurried. After our tip, Jake and Ryan paid more attention to the river and its changes as they approached. We were all concerned and much safer as we all cared and called out obstructions in the river. I know that we made tons of jokes about the tip once we were back in the boat and on the way.

Probably one of the funniest aspects of the whole thing was the excuses we kept coming up for our wives about why we were coming home early. Some of them funny and some of them serious. Partly out of a fear that they would let the lot of us go out together again and partially because we didn’t want them making fun of us.

There were a few campers on the side of the river that we talked to. They told us that it was about a mile to the take out. That news gave us a renewed strength to finish strong as the sun was setting and really taking a tole on our limited warmth. When the concrete ramp came into site, Jake and Ryan both visibly sunk in their seats relaxed to know that it was almost over. There was one more river bend that could have been trouble, but we talked it through and were safe.

On the shore, I took the emergency dry bag with keys and got out of the boat to walk over to my van and bring it so we could pack up. Each step made me realize how dangerously cold I actually was. Both of my feet felt numb and I had a hard time walking up the hill and across the parking lot. Somehow my van was still partially warm parked in the sun and warmed up quickly. We all got in and enjoyed the heat before retrieving all of the gear and finally the boat. Before driving off, we each changed into our full dry set of clothes to be more comfortable.

Not to let the day get the best of us, once home, we unloaded the boat and turned around and went to the bar for a celebration beer. With one beer each and a meal, I think we looked like a group of people that just lost a bet but were in high spirits. I was home and in bed by 8 pm. The warmth of the comforter was never so wonderful!