The second day started off calm. My first goal was to reach Nebraska City, Nebraska, where I would meet my parents for lunch and then continue further south.
I was excited to get on the water. The river was smooth and the air quiet save for the sounds of flowing water and the occasional bird. I jumped in the canoe and shoved off from shore with a dehydrated breakfast still cooking in its plastic bag.
Once in the main channel, I stowed my paddle and let the river gently push me south as I ate my steaming eggs and potatoes.
I was happy for the glassy water and still air. But the wind on the river is like the wind in the mountains. It is calm in the dark of the early morning and fierce during the day. Eager to cover as many miles as possible in the placid conditions, I slurped down the rest of my breakfast and put the blade of my paddle back in the river.
The main channel of the river is where the fastest moving water runs. It is the ideal place for a long distance paddler to pilot their boat—sending the boat a few extra miles downriver each day. Over the course of a long expedition this boost can add up to hundreds of miles.
As the river meandered south I followed the outside bend of its giant, smooth, sweeping curves. The channel of the river hugs the outside of the bend and this is where I found the swiftest water.
I stayed in this fast part of the channel for most of the journey. This strategy required that I cross from one side of the river to the other as it made those “S” curves—curves more beautiful than any calligraphy I have seen. The river here is about 200 yards across, sometimes more, and with each crossing from the outside of one bend to the other I felt its immensity and my smallness.
The problem with these curves is that sometimes the wind comes head on, sometimes from the rear, and the rest of the time from various angles broadside to the canoe.
The wind crept up on me slowly. I first noticed its effect on my travel while paddling a ten-mile straight away. There was an abandoned concrete building a few hundred yards ahead of me. It was an old loading dock of some kind. The structure was still solid, but its dock and windowed rooms where lonesome and long silent. I wondered about the goods that passed over its supports. Grain, perhaps? Or maybe it was a way station of some kind—a place for barges to wait while traffic came from the other direction.
Covering the short distance to the building was incredibly slow. I doubted I was moving at the speed of the current. The wind gusts felt like sticking my head out of the open window of car moving at twenty miles an hour, maybe more.
I was close to the shore and I used it as a speedometer. I paddled hard, but forward progress grew more difficult with each stroke of the blade. A small child strolling on shore and dawdling to examine rocks and driftwood would have out paced me. This was disheartening. I stopped paddling to take a drink from my steel canteen. To my grave surprise I started to float upstream at a brisk pace, against the current!
Well, I thought, this is why I’m out here. And I moved into the posture that would become my identity while on this river. I made my body small, tucked my chest down close to my legs, lowered my head, and gazed ahead with no particular focus. My paddle became a paintbrush—a tool to be deftly handled or risk losing it to the wind. A series of strokes went like so:
At midday the boat ramp at Nebraska City, Nebraska came into view. Standing on the concrete pad, shivering in a Great Plains wind chill of 19 degrees, were my parents, who had dropped me off in Omaha, and one other person.
That other person was a reporter for the Nebraska City newspaper. We talked for about 15 minutes while I ate a sandwich.
Meanwhile the weather was getting worse. A full-blown blizzard—pushed south out of the Arctic circle by a temperature imbalance—was scheduled to strike the Great Plains in two days. A smaller front preceded the blizzard. That front had just arrived at Nebraska City.
First, small flurries zipped across the river. But within minutes the wind pushed thick snowflakes into our faces. My three companions on the boat dock were shivering in their thick layers and I was eager to keep paddling. I jumped back in the canoe, shoved off, and headed into the whiteout that descended on the river.
I can only imagine what the reporter thought when I paddled in, wearing just two thin outer layers and uninsulated farm store muck boots. Or, what did he think when I slid into the canoe as large snowflakes whipped around us? I do know what my parents were thinking: he’s crazy.
After an hour or so the snowstorm dissipated, but the strength of the wind continued to grow.
Feeling somewhat emboldened—having paddled through an ice floe, being in my second day, talking to a reporter, and paddling through a snowstorm—I decided to try sailing the canoe.
If I can figure out the dynamics, I thought, I bet I can cover a lot of exertion-free miles.
I designed the fore wind cover so that it could double as a sail. To sail, all I had to do was release the side tensioners, hold one in each hand, and catch the wind.
At first, it worked. The wind was strong, but steady, and the boat skipped across the waves.
Then the wind changed direction. Without the guiding pressure of the paddle in the water, the wind grabbed the stern of the boat and pushed it perpendicular to the wind’s direction. With the sail out and the stern functioning as a sail, the wind pushed the boat through the growing waves at an alarming and unstable pace.
It took a few years to realize that I had executed a basic sailing maneuver—I had heaved-to in a boat not designed to heave-to, for heaving-to requires a giant lead keel. This proved to be dangerous.
The crests of wind-blown waves splashed over the gunwales and into the boat. I felt the growing instability of the boat beneath me. A gunwale nearly dipped into the heart of a wave. I felt close to the edge. A capsized boat was near at hand. And with that a complete submersion in freezing water for me. I was on the verge of losing the canoe and perhaps my life.
I dropped the jury-rigged sail, struggling to reattach the tensioner straps to keep the cover from transforming back into a sail.
Once I had reattached the cover, I grabbed my paddle and dug deep into the water for my life depended on each stroke.
Soon the boat was on the right bearing, pointed downstream and into the waves.
The wind continued to grow in force and crossing the river, from outside bend to outside bend, became dangerous. Near shore, there is the safety of proximity to land and the features of the land that break up the wind. However, making a crossing from shore to shore requires venturing out in more open waters where the wind howls up the river valley unchecked. I was nearly swamped several times during these river crossings, with waves breaking over the gunwales of my canoe.
The wind does not like the shape of a canoe. I once thought that a canoe, especially a long and narrow canoe like mine, would work like a weathervane—wanting to point into or away from the wind along its length. Sometimes this is true, if the wind is striking the boat at a perfect angle. However, it is the opposite that is true most of the time. The boat itself becomes a sail and turns perpendicular to the wind. In these conditions I used all of my strength to cross the river and keep the boat pointed in the right direction, often paddling on one side for twenty or thirty minutes without rest—for a moment’s rest would allow the wind to flip the boat.
After several strenuous and nervous crossings, I found a tiny cove where I took a breather. I ate an original Cliff Bar—those amazingly lifeless, dry, gritty bars that remove an athlete’s desire to eat anything at all. But it was fuel, and I needed fuel.
The break allowed my nerves to settle and my courage to recharge. I decided to push on in hope that the wind would ease its onslaught.
I quickly consulted my maps before picking up my paddle. I would have to cross the river again in a couple of miles. And a mile or so after that, I would arrive below a hilly, wooded landscape that rose out of the seasonally barren plains.
Hills, I thought, in their shadow maybe I will find some relief from the wind.
But first I would have to get there.
Crossing the river had put me on the outside of a long straightaway with a slight bend, so I could paddle next to the shore for a few miles. This was a comforting thought as the possibility of capsizing danced in the front of my mind.
I paddled past a summer river retreat—tattered trailer homes and shacks dotting the bank—and the retreat’s private boat ramp. A rope swing hung from a cottonwood branch that dangled over the river. It looked abandoned.
Then I thought I saw someone on the shore standing among the structures—I latched on to the thought of someone nearby to help should something go wrong. But the shape was not a person. It was a stump. This little island of civilization was soon behind me and with it went the strange comfort I had found in its presence.
Over an hour later I came to the end of the straightaway where I had to make another crossing from one bank to the other to follow the channel and avoid the exposed wing dikes.
I was nervous. I didn’t want to make the crossing. But I needed to—I needed to move forward. I dipped the blade of my paddle into the leeward side of the canoe and paddled hard.
The inside bend of the bank and its tall river bottom trees created a small wind shadow. The shadow protected me from the brunt of the wind. But within several minutes I paddled beyond the shadow. The wind slammed into the port side of the canoe. Every third wave sent water splashing into the boat. I was trying to paddle a weathervane through a gale. I fought hard to keep the boat pointed downriver. But the wind had other plans.
Despite my muscle and sweat, the wind slowly pushed the boat broadside to its direction and to the waves. By the time I reached the other shore, the wind had pushed so hard that I was paddling upstream, against my will!
As a neared the shore a release of tension came over me.
I’m not going to die just yet, I thought. I can easily swim to shore from here should it all go bad.
My struggle against the wind and waves continued as chugged toward the hills.
The hills were a mirage of sorts. They did not give the protection I had hoped for. Instead, they created a bottleneck that channeled and concentrated the southerly wind right into me. The fast-moving and cresting waves quickly grew to over two feet high.
On my streamlined canoe, the freeboard was only about 12” or 14”. Freeboard is the height of the boat above the water. On flat water, this enough distance to keep the inside of the boat and the paddler dry. But in heavy chop, like on this day, I had a strong feeling that I needed more freeboard—a lot more.
Generally, the waves that day had high frequency and the bow of the boat could bounced from the crest of one wave to the next. However, about every sixty seconds the frequency of waves faltered and the bow plunged into the trough of an oncoming wave. Each plunge threatened to dump gallons of water into the boat, but my homemade spray skirts, stitched together from hardware stores tarps, held back the water and kept the boat dry.
Undeterred, I prepared to make another river crossing over the expanse of the wind ravaged river.
And then fortune struck in the form of a complete inability to paddle forward—perhaps saving my life. The winds increased, gusting up to 50 mph. Paddling with all of my strength, each stroke only pushed the canoe an inch forward. The wind pushed the boat closer and closer to the riverbank.
As the riprap of the bank neared, I paddled harder. I had to keep moving forward. I had to cover more miles that day. But the weather refused to allow me passage.
Before I could act, waves threw the canoe into the riprap of the bank. I scrambled to get out of the unstable boat and pull it ashore before waves and riprap bashed it to pieces in their iron grip.
I tied up the canoe and walked up the bank to the forest where I found a grove of trees to sit amidst. I looked into the tempest the river had become.
I’m not getting back out there today, I thought.
Not only was it impossible, but it was foolish to paddle in those conditions. I called my parents, who were only a few miles away in a warm hotel, to let them know that I was done for the day.
Contented to rest there for the night, I set up camp. The sky was growing ominously dark, so I hastily strung a tarp between four trees to provide shelter from above. Then I pitched the tiny bivouac tent a friend had loaned me. I barely fit inside. Was it a coffin or a shelter, I thought. With shelter built, I stripped off my sweat soaked clothing, with the ignorant hope that the synthetic garments and wetsuit would dry by morning. Then I cooked a quick meal and climbed into the claustrophobic shelter.
The wind howled far into the night. At some point, the thermometer hit zero, but I didn’t know it.
However, I do know that it was a long night and sleep evaded me.
Read the next post.