by Mike McCrea
We ballasted out Dave's boat to a proper trim with all of our excess gear, including our communal dry bag with everyone's changes of clothing...and some other odds and ends of gear.
Nice trip; We'd had been waiting for a bit of rain to bring the river up along this section because it is a longish run (15 miles). The river was up an extra foot or so and running well.
We set off and started to see some good local fauna; deer, foxes, Bard owls, Great Horned owls...the usual river and river bank critters.
Dave tended to lag behind, as he was solo in a big boat and is a natural dawdler; Rob, Jan and I would pull over and wait up for him every once and a while.
We came to a bridge crossing and waited for Dave. And waited. And waited. No Dave. We figured that he had maybe flipped his boat and would be coming down dressed in the clothes from the dry bag. Rob got out a cookset (trust a New Zealander to bring a stove on a day canoe trip) and made some soup to warm Dave up when he got down to us.
A half hour later we drank the soup and started making plans. Rob and Jan would continue on down river to the take out, which was to be locked up at 6:00 and try prevent the Ranger from locking us in (they couldn't move their car because, surprise, their car keys were in the dry bag in Dave's canoe). I would paddle back up river and search for Dave, thinking that perhaps he had pinned the canoe against some rock or log and couldn't get it unstuck.
Paddling upriver was a bitch. The water was running high and in some of the swifter places I was stroking for all I was worth. Occasionally I'd get out and portage past some too-fast strecthes. I made about 2 miles upriver this way, shouting Dave's name and scanning both banks. When I finally reached a fast water area I couldn't paddle upstream through and was too tired to portage around I beached my canoe and walked upriver for a bit more until I was certain that I had covered all of the river where Dave might be stuck.
Back down river I went, stroking fast, hoping to reach the take out by dark and certain that I would find Dave there. I had decided that he must have passed us by, probably going around one of the islands in the river on the opposite side from Rob, Jan and I.
When I got to the take out...NO DAVE!
Now I'm really worried. OK, the new plan is for me to find some way to get back up to the put in, get my truck (I had my keys), drive my truck back to the take out, load my canoe on and have Rob drive me back upriver to a bridge crossing above where Dave could possible be stuck and float back down in the dark (and it was night by now) with my headlamp on, scanning the riverbanks and calling out "DAVE", "HEY DAVE". I'm worried; but Dave was an eagle scout, he's an experienced paddler, he has plenty of gear in the communal drybag...if you stranded Dave lost and alone in the wilderness by the time you found him he'd likely be building a guest room onto his survival hut and figuring out how to brew beer from acorns.
But first I had to call Dave's wife, just in case he had come out of the river between bridge crossings for some emergency, hiked up to some farmhouse and called home.
"Hi Anita, have you heard from Dave"
"No, I thought he was with you"
I tried to downplay any concern and told Anita what I was planning to do, asking her to call the Park Rangers if she heard from Dave.
We found a way to get back to my truck. We met a ranger who was driving through the park, explained the situation to him and he offered to take me back to the put in to retrieve my truck.
As the ranger started to drive me back up river I asked if he would mind heading downstream first, on the off chance that Dave missed the take out and went down river a bridge too far. He agreed and we checked the next bridge downriver. NO DAVE.
On the way back to my truck the ranger changed his mind and said that he thought he had better take me to "Command Central", the emergency operations center for the local county. We get there and are buzzed through a series of electronically operated doors to a bunker that looks somewhat like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
Kirk is not there however. Neither is Picard. Six bored Bubba's are there, watching a football game on TV. It was a quiet Sunday night in rural East Nowhere, USA.
The operative word is was. It was a slow night until the Bubba's heard the words "missing canoeist on the river". Then all hell broke loose, each Bubba grabbing a phone or radio.
"Get the DNR helicopter in the air and do a thermal sweep of the river"
"Get the rescue boats down to the river"
"Get the ground search parties together and get them started searching the river banks"
State police. County sheriffs. Ambulance crews. Fire Department. They called out everything but the National Guard. Finally the Bubba's finish with me (can you describe the missing person, his canoe, his dog...had he been drinking...what would he do in an emergency...) and the ranger starts to take me back to my truck.
We get almost all the way back to my truck when a call comes through from the State Police:
"Ranger Smith, do you still have the suspect with you"
"Do not take the suspect to his vehicle, the State Police want him on the route 26 bridge"
THE SUSPECT!. Now I'm THE SUSPECT. And the State Police want me. This can't be happening.
The ranger takes me to the bridge. Well, almost to the bridge. We get @ 1/2 mile away when we come to a massive traffic jam, where we sit for 20 minutes or so. Finally, the ranger calls the State Police:
"Unit 24, I have the fellow you want in my truck. We're 1/2 mile from the bridge but stopped in traffic."
"Keep the suspect with you, we will clear a lane for you".
A State Police cruiser comes down the shoulder, lights flashing, and escorts us to the bridge. I'm freaking.
At the bridge. Did you ever see the movie Apocalypse Now? The bridge in that movie? That is what the Rte 26 bridge looked like at 9:30 on Sunday night. All it needed was some Hendrix blaring over loudspeakers. The bridge is closed to traffic, with a couple generator trailers and banks of high power floodlights parked on the span illuminating the river. Dozens of emergency vehicles: ambulances, firetrucks (I mean, seriously, a hook-and-ladder...did they think Dave was stuck up in a tree or what), search and rescue, county sheriffs, State cops. The chopper is flying around overhead with a searchlight on. Rescue is lowering search boats down the banks to the river. Red and blue strobes are flashing on the roof of every vehicle. Surreal. And very scary...no way I'm paying for all this!
I get passed off from Deputy sheriff to sheriff to county cop to State cop to Fire Chief to Search and Rescue leader. Every one wants a description of the missing canoeist (can you describe the missing person, his canoe, his dog...had he been drinking...what would he do in an emergency...).
After an hour or so of this they finally agree to take me to my truck if I promise to drive straight back to Rob and Jan at the take out.
What is it they always say to the suspect in old movies - "OK, you can go, just don't leave town".
Oh yeah, Rob and Jan. 3 hours ago Rob and Jan saw me leave with a ranger to go get my truck. 2 hours ago a chopper began flying low searchlight sweeps over the river, then a fire truck and an ambulance towing a search and rescue boat arrive at the take out. The Search & Rescue boys had to dismantle some of the parking barriers to accommodate their trucks. Rob and Jan are figuring the worst.
So am I. I didn't think things were too bad until I got to Apocalypse Bridge; then I was convinced that I was going to be called down to the river to identify Dave's waterlogged carcass. Now, after sitting in one emergency vehicle or another of a couple of hours, listening to radio calls ("Helicopter thermal and visual sweeps negative; there is nothing alive down here")...now, oh man, now I'm completely freaked out about all this.
When I arrive back at the take out Rob approaches my truck and he is smiling. Hugh rush of relief. I get out of the truck
"Where is he?"
"Downriver at a bridge"
"We looked downriver!"
"Not far enough"
It seems that Dave had gone around an island, gotten in front of us, didn't see us and figured that we must be way ahead of him. He started to paddle faster. And passed the take out bridge.
And passed the next bridge.
And passed the next bridge.
He was way the hell downstream. He had: 1) left his river map back in the put in, in his car. He had 2) met Rob, Jan and I at the put in that morning. On every other trip I have instructed everyone to meet at the take out in the morning and then we all drive up the put in en mass. This sometimes seemed like a waste of time; only the post-trip shuttle drivers and one other vehicle really need to go to the take out first. Now I know why - if everyone meets at the take out then everyone will recognize the take out when they get there.
He had paddled and paddled and paddled until he finally passed under an interstate highway bridge, saw a big highway exit sign looming over the bridge, and realized that he had gone too far.
Then (don't ask me why) he continued down the next bridge (another 4.3 miles), at last coming ashore along a rural stretch of blacktop where he schlepped his canoe, gear and dog up to the roadside.
And sat in his canoe alongside the pavement for several hours waiting for Rob, Jan and I to come looking for him. Finally some drunk, who had spent the evening sitting in a backwoods honkytonk listening to a police scanner squawk the description of the missing canoeist stopped.
"Hey, hain't you the feller that theys all out searching fer"
(This was Dave's first indication that perhaps there was some brouhaha regarding his disappearance).
The drunk promised to let someone know Dave's whereabouts.
He let someone know alright; he called 911.
The officer that responded to the 911 call rolls up to Dave.
"Are you hurt?" "No, I'm fine" "Are you cold?" "No, I'm fine" "Are you hungry?" "No, I'm fine"
Actually, the first thing the cop said to Dave was "Hey, that dog ain't blond" - I had described Dave's dog as blond in color...OK, so the bitch is light brown...hey, I was upset at the time.
The cop stayed with Dave until we arrived to retrieve him and the officer was somewhat unhappy with the nights events. He had been involved in the ground search and "Got my shoes all muddy down there and I was attacked by a god-damn beaver".
The moral of the story: meet at the take out, stay together on the river, bring the map and never bite a State trooper on the leg.