It was a beautiful Sunday in early fall. My wife and I had been in Arnold’s Park visiting my parents. We’d brought along my solo canoe so I could paddle a local river on the way home. I needed a river route to highlight in an upcoming issue of Canoeing Iowa, the magazine I’d started publishing a few years earlier. Every three or four months I produced an issue that detailed a twenty or thirty mile stretch of river in Iowa so other people could plan outings for themselves.
This weekend the plan was to have Susie drop me off at Westcott Park in Cherokee on the Little Sioux River and pick me up at Ranney Knob Recreation Area near Washta. I would be paddling about twenty-two miles. With the current to push me along I estimated the trip would take me about six or seven hours. There were three or four other county parks with river access along the route so when she dropped me off at nine am, I reassuringly said, “I’ll see you in a few hours at the first park. Just hang out and wait for me there so we can gauge my progress.”
“Alright. You be careful and don’t get lost,” she said.
I gave her a quizzical look and responded, “Um. It’s a river, it goes in one direction. How could I get lost?” I responded.
“I don’t know, just don’t,” she said as she hopped in the car and left me at the boat ramp.
I threw a dry bag of food and a few extra items I might need into the canoe. Dropped two cameras on top of the pile and pushed off.
My canoe glided down the river effortlessly and it wasn’t long before I’d left the houses of Cherokee behind me. I casually meandered my way down the slow-moving western Iowa prairie stream. The river was shallow, but I easily maneuvered left or right to keep my canoe in the deeper water and use whatever current I could find.
Outside of Cherokee the valley of the Little Sioux opens up and it gave me the opportunity to view the beautiful, rolling hillsides. Pastures and fields of grass with sparse timber were more prevalent here than the more heavily timbered banks and shores of eastern or even central Iowa rivers.
While the view was pleasant, the open terrain brought something to my attention I hadn’t noticed among the buildings of town; a blustery headwind. It sent small ripples of water back upstream and slowed me down considerably. By noon I should have been to Silver Spring Recreation Area about nine-and-one-half miles from my put-in, but I hadn’t seen it yet. About an hour later I passed under the bridge and inched my way past the river access. I looked for Susie and the car in the park, but they were nowhere to be seen. “That could be bad,” I thought to myself as I paddled on.
Over the next several hours I crept along at an alarmingly slow rate. Rounding bends would expose me to a gust of wind and bring me to a standstill. I put my head down paddled harder until I found some shelter closer to the riverbank and could pick up some forward momentum.
Another problem became apparent to me by late afternoon. There were no signs along the river marking the parks or even the access points. And the accesses apparently weren’t easy to see. I had realized this would possibly be the case when I planned the trip. Afterall, several of my trips in the past had been difficult to plan for. There wasn’t a lot of information available to a paddler looking for distances and access points on rivers. If this information had been readily available, I probably wouldn’t have been out there in the first place. My purpose for doing the trip and publishing the magazine was to go through situations like this so others wouldn’t have too.
As the day progressed, I kept thinking I’d round a bend and see a park with an obvious access point. Once I found one, I could figure out where I was and get a better idea of how slowly I was moving and estimate how much further I had to go. One by one I passed all the accesses without realizing it.
As the day began to fade and the sun sank over the horizon, I also started to get a sinking feeling. It was getting dark and I had no idea how far I still had to go. I checked the time, drew a deep breath and I paddled on.
It turned out to be a dark night. There wasn’t any moonlight to guide me. I had to rely more on my sense of hearing than vision to move down river. I could hear strainers and the flow of the water before I could see what was coming. Not that it mattered much, the greatest danger was running into a downed tree or hitting a log, but the river was moving slow enough there was little chance I’d be accidentally tipped. I simply avoided what I could hear and pushed myself off of whatever I ran into.
After paddling in the dark for what seemed like days, I was beginning to worry about passing my take-out entirely. I was going to have a lot of explaining to do if I suddenly found myself paddling on the Missouri River. I already knew it was going to be an uncomfortable ride home once I met up with Susie.
Somehow I had to get an idea of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. Around every bend or two I pulled my canoe over to the left back, climbed up and looked around. I usually stepped into a corn field or a pasture of deep grass. It was encouraging to see headlights moving down the highway a mile or so in the distance. The thought occurred to me that if I had too, I could leave the canoe, walk to the highway, and catch a ride to the take-out or at least a phone.
After the third or fourth stop, I stood in a field and saw the glow of lights in the distance. They weren’t headlights. There was either a house or farm along the river or that was the lights of Washta. Either way that was going to be where my adventure was going to end.
I rounded another bend and now I could see lights glowing without climbing the bank. But I was still concerned about missing the take-out. I’d been unable to locate the two or three previous access points, so it was a good possibility. Once again, I pulled the canoe over to the bank, climbed to the top, put my hand out, and felt mowed grass. “This has to be a good sign” I thought to myself. I walked away from the river and could see that I was in a small park.
I scrambled back down the bank, pulled my canoe up, turned it over on top of my gear, grabbed my paddle, and started walking down the road. About a quarter of a mile later I walked into the small town Washta. I looked up main street which consisted of about five buildings total. Two gentlemen were standing outside under a flashing neon light. They took a look at me and I thought, “Oh boy, this could be fun.” Anticipating a joke or even a more serious form of harassment I turned toward them. The next thing I heard was “You must be the lost paddler.”
“Uh oh” is the first thing that came to my mind. From my mouth I heard, “Yip that would probably be me.”
“You got people out looking everywhere for ya,” one of them said with a laugh.
“I do?” I tried to act like it was a surprise.
“Ya sure do. Come on in here and we’ll get ahold of the sheriff. He can let em all know where ya turned up.”
There are moments in life that are hard to describe. This was one of them. While I was relieved to be off the river and done with the trip, I was also experiencing a growing sense of panic. It’s that moment you realize you’ve done something horribly, unintentionally wrong, and there’s going to be a price to pay, you just don’t know how much it’s going to cost.
I sat at the bar and ordered a coke. Luckily the guy tending bar didn’t ask me if I had any money. Given my situation I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d offered me a shot of something much more potent and said, “It’s on the house.”
About fifteen minutes later, Susie and my parents walked through the door! I didn’t get what I had expected. Rather than fuming she was crying. She gave me a big hug then backed away and punched me. It wasn’t a hard punch, but it got my attention. “You scared me to death. I thought I’d lost you. We were out looking for you everywhere,” she said.
“Honey, I was on the river the whole time. I had to end up here eventually,” I tried to explain. The look on her face told me emphatically that right now would be a good time to shut up. So, I did. I finished my coke and asked if she wanted one.
“No! I don’t want a coke. I want to go home,” she responded.
After a quick stop by the river to load my canoe, home we went. And the day I got lost on the river came to an end.