by Kurt Zuelsdorf
The excitement of a canoe trip boiled in our veins as we launched from the rocky shoals of the Wisconsin River.
Jimmy was a true outdoors man. He carried all the badges from Boy Scouts -- enough metals to cover his shoulders, chest and sleeves. He was the Catholic schools' "muscle-man" and the main topic of the girl's conversations during Phys Ed. Being a master canoeist he took the helm to refine his 'J' stroke. I was glad he did. I was out to fish a few Walleyes or possibly tangle with a Small Mouth Bass. With a little luck I'd hook a Sturgeon -- a prehistoric fish that grows to be the size of a canoe.
My Dad and brother Lee was in the other canoe. Lee's snappy body gestures generated high speed fun and action for all who knew him. Before we launched he fished from the pier working one of Dad's new Rappla lures. On the second cast he threw the bait high up into a tree. Terrified at the thought of losing one of Dad's fishing lures he thrashed the rod wildly from side to side and tried to free himself from the 'Wrath of the Lost Lure.' He marched up the shoreline with the rod over his shoulder hoping to free the snag. The overloaded branch retracted him like a bungee jumper. He shrieked with frustration and climbed to his feet. Jimmy fueled the flame when he suggested wrapping the line around the light post for leverage. The line snapped off as a 22 rifle and it grabbed dad's attention.
All Dads' have a strange affinity with fishing lures. Whenever we lost one he threatened to ban us from fishing. Every trip to the sport shop he'd remind us of the year, makes, and model number of his lost lures.
For some reason today was going to be different. He laughed at the site of Lee's twisted face when he came to confess. Jimmy and I awaited Lee's banishment, but were defiled when Dad reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved a brand new jointed Rappla -- the hottest thing on the market and the prize of any good fisherman. Lee's pitiful expression gave way to show love and appreciation for such understanding. While Dad retied the plug Lee casually turned to us and smiled, then stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes and contorted his cheeks.
The trip began just below the cascading falls in Wisconsin Dells. The waters there churn white with foam then move silently through town. The State's number one tourist attraction called the "Ducks" rapped up another record tourist season and was on dry dock near the launch site -- one of the signs that winter was just around the corner.
The canoes sagged to the waterline with enough camping gear to support four people -- 3 days in the river wilderness. My Dad had it all; Fishing rods, tents and sleeping bags. Tables, tripods and tarps. Pots, pans and paper goods. This being his first overnight canoe trip he wasn't sure what to take so he took it all.
Dad recited the protocol, 'Hang on boys, keep yourselves low and don't stand up in the canoe!' I gripped the gunnels as Jimmy pushed us away. The initial rush of 'floating' tested our balance and we spilled a few gallons of icy water into the bottom of the canoe.
Almost immediately we encountered the caverns. Dark, damp and spooky we inched our way through the caves to sharpen our exploration skills. At times we crouched and used our hands on the ceiling to gain passage. I remember one particularly long route that ended abruptly when the canoe bumped the wall. The 'thumming' of the vibrating aluminum disturbed the night dwellers. It felt as someone dumped a bag of leaves on us when the bats dropped from the ceiling. Being brushed and bumped by a swarm of bats in a dark cave wasn't on the brochure, but it made for a real test of courage. When we emerged in a cloud of winged escorts Dad laughed so hard he nearly lost his dentures overboard.
The sheer rock walls that lined the river told stories of what the Ishnalla Indians saw when they traveled the river lifetimes ago. I imagined Chief Soaring Eagle standing on the cliff in full headdress. His spear held high chanting to the spirits. He blessed the pioneers as they passed. He told us to, 'Listen to the river for she is all knowing.' He ended with a spine tingling wail and cursed the dangers that waited below the surface of the flow. I would catch a glimpse of the warriors lining the banks. I could see their family's living peacefully along the river. It was untamed then and teaming with beauty and wildlife -- their source for survival.
The river flowed at a jogger's pace. A simple paddle drag was all we needed to advance downstream. The swirling water hid scads of underwater obstacles and we bumped bottom often. Sometimes hard enough to whiplash our body's forward, others slid by with a quiet whisper on the gunnel.
Twelve o'clock noon came quickly and dad maneuvered the canoe toward a small sandbar for a lunch break. He unpacked the gas stove and began his mighty preparation. It wouldn't be at all out of place for him to prepare Pheasant Under Glass with Duck'alorange dressed with small red potatoes and asparagus shoots. His extravagant camp menus are famous especially with us kids. The adults couldn't fathom how he orchestrated the tasty cuisine's in the remote wilderness.
The river menu was simple; Beer-battered Pike filets pan fried to snappy perfection in a cast iron skillet, served with corn-on-the-cob and fresh green beans. We often talked about the things we liked best about camping and it was always unanimous -- eating!
Dad cooked and told fish stories about technique and where-abouts. He included his research into the stomach for feeding patterns and spawning seasons. The stories always ended with a peaceful gaze into the horizon and a simple toast, 'Yup, I can still see him swimming around that log and taking the bait.' It always brought a smile to his face.
After enjoying one of Dad's finer moments as camps cook we repacked the gear and continued downstream. Dad had been on the river many times and knew the terrain. He'd been planning this trip in his mind for years and told stories of someday camping on the "perfect" river island.
The next few hours flashed by with the help of a hefty Crappie, two Walleye's and a Channel Cat the size of an oar. We took turns estimating his weight, "Gotta be 10 pounds!" Lee chirped.
"Oh it's bigger than that," Jimmy remarked.
"Do you think so?" I wasn't sure. The thrill of such a big catch had me basking in my own angling brilliance. "Eighteen pounds if it's an ounce!" Dad concluded before I slid it overboard.
Then dad peered and smiled, "There she is boys!" Our excitement grew as we cleared the final corner that revealed a small island no bigger than a football field. He found the "perfect" one. The gunnel scoured onto the beach. We slid the crafts ashore and set off to explore the island. We discovered the bones of a long since deceased deer and we discussed the various possibilities of death. Jimmy calculated the "live weight" based on the skull size. "Last year's winter was pretty tough. I'll bet she starved. By the looks of things I'd say she weighed about 90 pounds. The teeth look like a two year-old's. Dad held the skull and studied it Shakespearean precision, 'Winters have been pretty tough the past three years... probably starved.' He concluded. I thought death was caused by an old hunt wound. Lee's guess was, 'Maybe it just died.' We split up and wandered aimlessly about pondering 'natural death' for almost an hour before we regrouped and finished setting up camp.
The lack of firewood on the island limited us to a small, smoldering evening fire. Dad's early to bed lifestyle was boring us so we swam and played with the fire until we became exhausted and fed up with the swarms of mosquitoes.
Soon we were in our tents. Dad's tent was simple. A piece of old canvas draped over an aluminum frame with two lines staked to the ground... No floor... No ends. Wide open to the elements. We often wondered why we used it at all, he said that it was "All we needed to keep the moisture and morning dew off us." Dad grew up in a cattail marsh and developed an immunity to mosquitoes. In the midst of swarms he could remain cool, calm and collected and would emerge with "not one bite." Lee on the other hand had a phobia about bugs and it would be amazing if he got any sleep at all.
By midnight large raindrops plunked the nylon sides of our tent and I was thankful for Jimmy's tent. An unexpected storm announced its presence with clap of thunder that rolled down the river. In the distance a tornado siren warned the locals of an oncoming uncontrollable force. Sheets of rain tested the side walls of the tent and we all had our senses tuned in to the elements. Instantly the wind and rain died, warning us that the calm before the storm was upon us. A low "humming" startled Jimmy. "What the hell is that?" The wind increased and whistled across the tent ropes. I heard the concern in dad's voice, "We're in for a little wind boys, hang on... here it comes!"
The stories they tell about the sound of tornado are accurate. The charging locomotive was coming. It snapped huge trees like tooth picks as it ripped toward camp.
" I wanna go by Dad!" I cried as the earth began rumbling. I could hear my brother crying and it blended with the wind to make a horrifying scream.
The funnel cloud bounced off the tree lined edges and headed in our direction. It was pushing a wall of water out ahead of it and before we could adjust to higher ground the flash flood reached our stoop and uprooted our tent stakes. I could feel my fingers digging into the sand through the bottom of the tent but my grip washed away and we started sliding toward the drop off. The water flowed through the sides of the tent uninterrupted. The loose nylon snapped and tattered as the winds increased. The deafening roars of the twister drown out my screams for dad's help.
Trapped inside the tent by the twisting wind and lightening that surrounded us toyed with our minds. The storm's sky splitting bolts had no concern for the burning voltage or what it can do to human body. The sheets of rain pelted the nylon tent and sprayed water through the zipper. There were times when the water came in faster then we could bail it out.
I could hear dad's voice cutting in and our of the storm, "Hang in there kids it's almost over!".
Little Jimmy fingered through his scout manual looking for answers, "Get me out of here. Get me out of here!" As quickly as it began it was over. The snapping of trees and the rumbling of Mother nature's force continued down stream. I emerged from the tent into ankle-deep water and discovered my Dad's tent gone. I couldn't believe my eyes. They slept only 10 feet away from us and they disappeared! I called out for them both but no one answered. I grabbed the flashlight and scanned the surroundings. When I found the canvas tarp pinned against a fallen tree I thought the worse of things. Water and loose brush were running over and around it. When I approached I heard sobbing and noticed the tarp was vibrating. I could hear Dad trying to calm Lee. I pulled the tarp to the side and they huddled together tightly. Dad actually laughed when he saw me and exclaimed, 'Wow! Quite a storm huh boys?' His eyes showed concern, but he popped to his feet brushed Lee off who shivered uncontrollably. Then he checked us for injuries and hugged us both.
We were wet and cold but safe. We huddled under a partially dry sleeping bag and watched the river regain its serenity. The sky cleared and the stars returned and for 30 minutes we didn't say a word we just sat in the sand and watched the night.
Dad pointed out the missing deer skeleton and blessed our good fortune. Then he laughed,
"Well boys it's good to be on dry land again. Next trip we'll bring a weather radio."
That's my Dad - Always looking for adventure in the great outdoors.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals