Unfortunately on our second day, we ran into a borderline impassible section of strainers that took out one boat and left another stranded with no option other than to get pulled into a spill. My boat was the only one that made it through the section, and that was pure luck. This section of river was deceptive, as the widest channel was also one that led into a blind curve that ended in a fallen tree strainer.
This section led to two boats being stranded on a cold and wet day, we had to contact the authorities for rescue. As we were in a valley with no cell reception, this proved to be difficult. We had to make lots of quick decisions, and that led to all of us making it through this. No drownings, no hypothermia, no casualties. It proved to be a fantastic learning experience, and that wisdom gained is something to be shared.
In this case, going as a group, having proper gear and knowing what to do is what got us all out of there that day. We did not panic and make poor rushed decisions. We also had some great help and support from the local authorities. We were very fortunate.
To best explain the situation, I've assembled a video that shows this section of the river.
As if that's not enough, There are 5 foot tall shores on the left side of the river. There's a couple of eddies with pools that you can cross into, but then getting back out of them forces you into the last deadfall.
All of that is to say, that day on the Upper Iowa was treacherous. In the group of 3, we had each other's backs. We would spot and point out hazards for each other. We stayed close to each other at all times, making sure we could communicate. We all had our PFDs on at all times on the water. If there was one mistake that we made, it was not wearing drysuits. We had raingear on, and kept a change of clothes accessible. In this particular instance, it was good enough. It could have been different though.
Right away, I could see the multicolor boat was in trouble. While they tried to paddle out of it, their boat got taken sideways and flipped to it's left. Strong currents of river water were filling the inside of the boat and pinning the paddler. There were a few panicked slow moving seconds when I wasn't sure I'd see them pop out. But they were able to undo their spray skirt and climb out on a branch. I told the blue boat to stay put, and then freed myself off the island. I quickly crossed over to the left side of the river, about 50 feet downstream where there was a slope I could climb. I jumped out and ran over to the multicolor boat.
That paddler was hanging onto a tree, perched on a branch that was in the water. I quickly pulled them up. They were soaked, but dry from the neck up. They got out and caught their breath, their boat still caught in the tree. I quickly shifted to the blue boat. Myself and that paddler discussed trying to have them cross, but quickly realized that the leftward aim of the waterflow would just pull them into the deadfall. The 5 foot vertical slope meant they couldn't just climb out either.
I ran back to my boat to grab my paracord and a tarp. The tarp was for the wet paddler, to help keep the cold air off their wet clothes. The paracord was to pull a couple bags of essential gear off the blue boat. After getting our GPS locator and a bag of clothes off, we opted to push the SOS button. The wet paddler was stable, but beginning to freeze. I found a route down the sheer shoreline and was able to climb towards the back of the blue boat. I used my feet to knock down sections that allowed for footing to be made. climbing slowly, I reached the blue boat paddler and helped them exit their boat. I then guided them to the lowest part of the shore, and helped push them up to the wet paddler. Once they were on the safe shoreline, I grabbed a few more bags out of the blue boat, and then climbed out to my two partners.
We began discussing subsequent plans. We quickly dug out dry clothes for the wet paddlers to change and start warming up. We used the communicator to send messages to the company's emergency dispatcher letting them know where the situation was at. After about 20 minutes, we began to hear sirens surrounding us. Being in a valley, there was not clear roads to us. Off on the other side of the river, there was a remote cabin in a clearing. Eventually, we saw a drone above us (good sign). A giant golf cart on treads (also known as a Gator) came down with a couple of firemen. I was able to signal them and talk to them across the river. Eventually some ambulances pulled down. I heard from the fire department that they were working on getting boats to us to rescue us.
The first one was a 4 seater long inflatable that looked like a banana. Two firefighters piloted it over to the steep shore. When they realized there wasn't a good way to climb up, I guided them down to where I parked my yellow boat. I took the two other paddlers down to the firemen, and then they took the banana boat back across the river. After they completed the crossing, I checked out the overturned multicolor boat. It was beginning to bend backwards into a U shape because of the force of the water.
After a few minutes, the next boat arrived with two more firefighters. It was a flat top motor boat, called an air boat. They came from downriver, and tried getting as close as they could. Because of the shallow water, they couldn't get more than 3 feet of the shoreline. So they held out a hook and I jumped aboard. They tried to maneuver the airboat up the river past the deadfall section. The first attempt, they hit some shallow rocks and it jammed up the engine. We began to drift downriver while the two firemen diagnosed and cleared out the engine. Once clear, the boat fired back up and they expertly guided it back through the narrow patch and to shore.
From there, I joined my other paddlers in a hot ambulance. They were doing fine, wrapped in blankets and sitting in the heat. We talked with the EMTs a bit while the fire department gathered our boats and gear. We sat there for maybe an hour, wondering if they'd be able to get it all.
Then an agent from the department of natural resources came to complete a report. He seemed happy to learn that we all had PFDs on and were able to stabilize until we could be saved. It wasn't his first time reporting something like this. I could tell he was relieved, largely stemming from how cool it was that day.
After that, the fire department completed grabbing our boats and gear. We took a look through everything on a hillside. The multicolor boat largely looked fine, as in there were no cracks. Just a few stretch marks. We gathered our clothes, some of which were wet. The fire department arranged to take our boats to their garage while we would try to arrange for a pickup of our cars (which were still at the endpoint, an hour's drive away).
The ambulance took us to the Super 8 hotel in town. We checked in. This poor girl behind the front desk was trying to figure out why 3 muddy paddlers were getting dropped off by an ambulance. We shared a bit of the story, and were fortunately able to get rooms that late in the day.
I was able to talk to our original guide and get a ride to the endpoint where our cars were stashed. On the way back, we picked up a few clothes from Walmart and some Casey's gas station pizza. It was the best pizza we ever had.
The next day, we gathered our cars and drove to the Cresco fire department. We were greeted by one of our rescuers. They were so nice, they emptied our boats and laid everything out to dry! We also got to talk with him for a bit about what went down the previous day.
Here we are discussing the incident with the Cresco Fire Department:
To the Iowa EMTs, fire departments, sheriffs, DNR agents, and anyone we missed, thank you for being great first responders. This includes folks from Winneshiek County sheriff's office, regional health services of Howard County, Harmony and Winneshiek County Ambulance services; Howard and Winneshiek County Dispatchers; Iowa DNR.
To Tessa and Colton of the Upper Iowa Resort, thank you for being a great shuttle and for taking care of us on short notice. We greatly appreciate your flexibility!
To Super 8 of Cresco, thanks for taking us in on short notice and dealing with the mud we dragged in. We needed to see someone with a smile on their face that day, and we sure got one!
To Zoleo (our GPS transponder provider), thank you for having a great product. Your product was tested in the heat of battle and it worked well. be proud of what you provide!
Finally, to our watcher upstairs. There were a lot of little things that went wrong that day. If just one more thing had gone wrong, the situation would've been a lot more dire. Someone was definitely watching over us that day.
With situations like this, it can be easy to armchair quarterback or second guess what we should have done in that situation. After talking it over with the authorities, revisiting the same spot on foot, knowing what we know now, I am not certain we could have done more than we did that day. The multiple obstacles are lined up in such a way that you naturally get set up to hit the last deadfall. The current was so swift, that you had maybe 5 seconds tops to scope out and evaluate which path to take. When it happened, we recognized we needed help and called for it right away.
Could we have packed our boats a little lighter to be more maneuverable? Worn drysuits? Waited for better weather? Gone with different currents? Yeah, absolutely. That's not the point in sharing all of this. The fact is, 3 very experienced paddlers got stuck in a borderline no-win situation. If it wasn't for our collective experience and some good luck, the situation would have ended differently. Nature is a much more powerful force than mankind. We never got overconfident in our abilities, and still had great issue. Do enough paddling, and eventually something will go bad. But when that situation happens, have the right gear, training and mindset will make a difference.
Finally, here are some photos from the day: