A new story about a close call on the Mississippi River at the Star Tribune:
The sky was still dark on a Sunday morning a year ago when I set my new solo canoe on the surface of the Mississippi River. I’d been thinking about this moment for years, dreaming of all the places I could paddle once I got this boat. Now, I was finally ready to launch on its maiden voyage.
I strapped my drybag onto the crossbar, waded into the river in my rubber boots, just north of the Ford Parkway Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul. I slid the boat out. When I stepped in, I noticed that it felt unsteadier than boats I was used to. Then I sat down, started paddling and forgot about it.
Spring had come early. The temperature the week before had been in the 70s, and the snow and cold felt like a distant memory, even though a week or so before, ice floes had drifted past here. I knew the water was cold, but that seemed like more of an inconvenience than a threat. Besides, after the first pandemic winter, I was desperate to get outside.
The sun was rising. I paddled up the “gorge” section of the Mississippi, which runs between the high banks of the Twin Cities, with hills — cliffs, almost — on either side. To the east side, an owl called. From the west, another answered. I was in the middle of the city, but also very far from it.
Although I was a fairly experienced canoeist, I’d never owned, or even paddled, a solo canoe. I’d been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness many times, and worked as the trips director for a YMCA camp in northern Minnesota. A few years earlier, my wife and two daughters had paddled down 125 miles of the Mississippi together on a five-day trip.
I was careful. I always stepped along the midline. In all that time, I’d never tipped a canoe, and I had no reason to expect today would be any different.
The air temperature was 31 degrees, but it didn’t feel that cold. As I made my way upstream the wind started gusting out of the northwest, though I was protected by the west bank. I moved along, making good time, staying close to shore. But when I came to the Lake Street bridge, I decided to go around a footing in the middle of the river before heading downstream.
As I moved out into the main channel, the wind grew stronger. The canoe was light Kevlar, and as I tried to paddle left, it kept blowing me right. So I reached out for a big “C” stroke to correct my course. As I did this, the bow came up, and the wind seemed to catch it from underneath. Before I knew what was happening, the canoe was tipping slowly at first, then faster. I tried to shift my weight back to the middle but was too late. I was past the point of no return. I looked up at the underside of the bridge as I sank sideways into the cold water.
Submerged to my neck, I was shaken but still calm.
“OK,” I said out loud, “just get to shore.”