Ya, Youbetcha. Notes from the Midwest: Storm On The River

     Mother Nature can occasionally show her temper during spring and summer in the upper Midwest. Just when we are all lulled into thinking it’s going to be a nice season of gentle rains and sunny days, she unleashes Hell.

     So, it was a nice summer weekend and a group of us decided to rent canoes for a two-day paddle on the Wisconsin River, camping overnight on an island. There were three canoes, six adults and one cute little dog of unknown mix. As we packed our gear and headed out from the boat landing, one of our paddlers casually mentioned that the weather forecast predicted thunderstorms for our region later in the day.  We weren’t going to let a little storm stop us – right? Besides, we figured we’d be settled snuggly on an island by the time any storms would overtake us, so off we went, not a care in the world.

     The Wisconsin River is one of the most beautiful rivers for paddling. It is wide and shallow in spots because of the numerous sandbars that appear as the water levels recede over summer. There are also islands that have mature trees and shrubs on them and, with the long stretches of pale sandy beaches, it’s a little paradise for camping.    

     We spent the first day joyfully paddling our canoes; and the dog, exhibiting his “happy dog” face, perched himself on the bow of the canoe; he only fell off once, swam back to the canoe and was retrieved by his owner. We stopped at a sandbar intermittently to have some lunch, go swimming, or just to rest and gaze at all the beautiful hills that graced this lovely river. Later in the afternoon we started tracking the ominous clouds gathering on the horizon and agreed it was time to find a safe island for our camp. At this point, everyone was in good spirits, although we did notice that quite a few other groups of paddlers had already occupied the choicest islands. It took some time to find a vacant spot and, in the meantime, those storm clouds had gotten a lot closer, accompanied by thunder and a few flashes of lightning. 

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     We finally found our island and, as we dragged our canoes up to shore, I kept looking back at the storm, alarmed by now at how fast it was approaching. We pitched our tents and gathered up our gear, and all sat down to watch the storm’s progress. The clouds had blackened to “end of the world” darkness and we could see the rolling squall line that was about to hit us; and that’s when I heard the “freight train” noise. I yelled to everyone to get into their tents. Too late. The storm was upon us. We all scampered into the closest tent, someone yelled “where’s the dog?”, and then we noticed a lump under the tent floor. The dog had excavated a hole in the sand and crawled under the tent. Smart dog. 

     Huddled in the tent, wide-eyed and a bit frightened, we could hear the storm’s fury:  howling wind, canon blasts of thunder followed by seriously huge bolts of lightning, horizontal chunk-style rain that pelted our tent (and our vehicles at the boat landing). I was wondering how the other tents were doing, and one of our group peeked outside to see what was happening and shouted out that they were either collapsed or rolling towards the water. He sprang into action, running out into the storm to retrieve the tents before we lost them. 

     After a while, there was an eerie calmness outside.  We emerged from the safety of the tent to see the storm moving on, leaving the skies an odd color I hadn’t seen in a while, and I realized this was just the beginning of this storm system. I looked down to where the canoes had been pulled up onto the shore and was alarmed to see the water level had risen so they were almost in the water. We all rushed down to retrieve them and pulled them up to a much safer level (we hoped). I went over to my collapsed tent – what a mess: the sleeping bag had gotten wet and sandy as had my other gear, and the tent wound around itself in the storm. After a bit of a struggle I got the tent up again just in time to see the next storm barreling down on us. 

     I spent the night lying on my stomach on my sodden, sand-filled sleeping bag, desperately holding onto the tent struts in my attempt to prevent it from collapsing again.  The storm’s fury was both impressive and frightening. I could feel the wind’s power trying to knock down my tent as I squeezed my eyes closed every time a bolt of lightning crashed like a sword from heaven into the earth, the rain like huge buckets of water being thrown on us from a very angry “Mom Nature”. I thought to myself “I’m probably going to die tonight”, as visions of my childhood floated in my head. 

     One after another, the storms kept coming all night long, each as furious as the last, until at about 3:00am I heard the sound of tree frogs and thought to myself “they probably know the storms are over now”. I finally fell into an exhausted sleep and awoke around 7:30 a.m. to a beautiful, sunny morning.  The others emerged slowly from their tents, the dog happily running around and greeting everyone. We counted seven storms that night and we all survived with our gear intact. We looked down to where the boats had been pulled further up on the shore, and were surprised that they were half-submerged again, the water level rising impressively overnight. 

     We still had another day of paddling until our trip ended, so we had breakfast, shared a lot of “storm stories”, packed up all our gear and headed down stream to the take-out landing where, hopefully, the canoe rental van was waiting to shuttle us back to our vehicles. It was an uncomfortably hot day for paddling, so we spent a lot of time swimming and got to the landing much later than our original plan. No shuttle van was waiting and it was getting late in the afternoon. OK, now what? One of our group volunteered to walk into town (just a mile away) and phone the canoe rental office to see about getting our shuttle and I went with him. The woman answering the phone said she didn’t know where our driver was, but would give him the message to pick us up. We waited in the hot sun for over an hour, dripping sweat, sunburned, over-tired and longing for a shower and a real bed before our driver finally arrived.  We were so happy to see him that any irritation we felt dissolved instantly—we were going home at last. 

     Mother Nature sometimes gives us a lesson when we fail to appreciate the power of the natural world. Our terrifying night on the river was a humbling experience and, seeing the storms up close and personal, we will carry the memory of that night always.

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