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A Surging River (Entry by Scott and Todd)
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(May 15th, 2005) Our last journal entry was sent three days ago from our layover day in the rain. The next day we got up bright and early and set out to attempt the 16 miles to Le Sueur. The river seemed absolutely swollen with water and we struggled with every paddle stroke. At times it seemed we literally moved forward about one inch with each stroke.
We caught a break when our river map showed the river arcing in a huge ‘C’ but we found that the river had ripped a new channel basically from one tip of the ‘C’ to the other; this shortcut saved us about 2 miles of paddling. We don’t know when it ripped through, but our maps are only a year or two old so it may have been very recently. We could tell it had to have been fairly recently because young trees still stood right next to the top of the banks—we don’t see that anywhere else. Some water still went through the old channel; it was neat seeing the river trying to make up it’s mind.
The valley of the river has become more evident as we’ve gotten further up it. Thousands of years ago the river was hundred of times bigger than it is now. Today it is comparatively just a tiny river in the bottom of a huge valley, so we see high banks sometimes a ˝ mile off the river. The channel now winds back and forth between these high banks and lately the topography has gotten more dramatic with high wooded hills lining the banks. Yesterday for the first time we saw actual rocky bluffs.
We had lunch on some train tracks in the middle of nowhere and all the sudden some headlights appeared; it was a truck fitted to ride the rails and make repairs. We thought he might slow down or stop and talk to us but he just roared on past. We’ve seen a lot of beautiful songbirds including a bright red and orange American Redstart.
We got to Le Sueur exhausted and climbed out of the river bottoms and talked ourselves into eating at the Diner. I’m sure we looked like muddy fugitives, but we said hi to the police eating there and made sure we were OK to camp in the town park. The river measured a little cleaner at 163.
2 bridges, no dams and no boats or people seen again. Bridge count at 14.
We woke up at 5 am to try and make it to St. Peter by 4 so Todd’s wife could pick us up and bring us to Mankato for a potluck put on by the Paddling Club. On our original itinerary we were to have paddled to Mankato on this day, but we were behind. We didn’t really know why we were behind until we talked to Brand Frentz of the Paddling Club and he explained that the river had tripled in volume over the past week. No wonder it was so hard to paddle and our shoulders hurt so much!
The going was very, very tough and it started to rain some more. Then the wind came up at more than 20 mph at times. We were inching along and occasionally getting blown backwards. We were bordering on exhaustion when we pulled over to let Scott heed the call of nature. In a hurry he stepped from the canoe despite Todd saying he didn’t have the canoe stabilized. One foot on shore, one in the boat and a raging current. The canoe started to pull away and the next thing we knew we were in the water and our canoe upside down. Scott pulled himself up on shore but where Todd was the 5 foot bank had disappeared beneath the swirling waters and he couldn’t get up. Scott pulled Todd up on shore and we set to retrieving all our gear. Then Scott had to change his clothes as the violent shivers were setting in, so Todd muscled the canoe out of the river. Scott put on all the dry clothes he could find, ate an energy bar and started doing jumping jacks to stay warm. Finally a moment of relative calm came and Scott was able to heed nature’s call.
We collected ourselves and our gear, pleased to see that the rubber pieces we were using to secure plastic liners had kept the water out of our stuff. Once again we hadn’t lost anything but we were wondering why the two times we’ve tipped had to come on the two coldest days of the expedition! Within 5 minutes of being back in the canoe Scott had stripped down from 5 layers to 1 because paddling upstream generates so much body heat.
We stopped for lunch and realized that we were risking illness and injury to proceed for the day. That and entire trees were floating by on the river and we had to dodge them. The river had jumped it’s banks in places forcing us to paddle in the main current more which makes it even more difficult. For the first time on the Minnesota River, we aimed our prow downstream and shot incredibly quickly back to a place where the river bends near 169 and we pulled out onto somebody’s land.
Rod Reddington was mowing his lawn and his daughter Mercedes was replacing some sod. They greeted us warmly and we were very thankful. Within minutes Todd’s wife appeared as she had been on her way down to meet us in St. Peter. We loaded up our things and headed for the potluck.
The Mankato Paddling Club knows how to cook and entertain! The potluck was held outside in the cold weather and yet 25 people or so showed up. We chatted away with them, gave a short presentation and then listened to some wonderful music by the Singing Cowgirl. She regaled us with many John Denver songs. The Mankato Free Press had sent a photographer to find us and he took some pictures at Rod’s house, and a reporter interviewed us at the party. The paper put a nice article about us in today’s (Sunday’s) edition.
On Day 14: One bridge, so 15 total. Still no dams, no more boats (14 total as of yet still no other canoes)
THE BIG DECISION:
Everyone wanted to know what we were doing next, given our battles with the river. Brand Frentz had printed out some river level data for us. He informed us that much of the water in the Minnesota was coming from the Blue Earth River, which flows in at Mankato and is the first (as you go upstream anyway) major tributary. If we could get past it, he said, the going should be easier.
Only 20 miles by river to Mankato, but the conditions were not good. The USGS data showed that the river was three times it’s normal cubic feet per second for this date (this is how you measure the flow of a river), and the historical data showed it was over 12 times higher than when Sevareid and Port had come through. Sevareid and Port had done the trip during the dust bowl of 1930 and had problems with low water and sandbars! We also realized the river was several feet higher than the recommended safe level by the Minnesota DNR, and that’s assuming people are canoeing downstream. The river has only been as high as it currently is on this date on two or three other occasions in the past 100 years. After a long discussion between the two of us, we realized that our larger goal of getting to York Factory was more important than risking illness, injury and getting way behind by taking on this challenge. We decided we would take today (Sunday) as a rest day and let Molly (Todd’s wife) drive us and our stuff to Mankato. Sevareid and Port had to make a similar decision when they decided the conditions on Lake Winnipeg were overwhelming and they took a steam ship up the second half, so in a way we’d like to think we are being level-headed and prudent like they were. Having fought against the current so hard just to get to Le Sueur, it was a hard decision to be so close and have to take a ‘four wheel portage’, but we are satisfied knowing we tried our best.
And so we are now writing you from the incredible comfort of a Dunn Bros. coffee shop in Mankato. It has free wireless internet and we are taking full advantage! We did some laundry, slept in, and will go to bed early in anticipation of bucking the current again tomorrow. The 2nd big tributary we encounter is in New Ulm, the Cottonwood, and it too is in flood stage, so the going will be easier now but not way easier…
Have a good week everyone and we will be in touch. We are still having fun! –
Oh also we put up a journal entry right before this that had 10 pretty pictures…
Scott and Todd
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