Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Bitten By The Snake
by floatstanley

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/24/2013
Entry & Exit Point: Other
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 15
Trip Introduction:
So, here I go on another adventure. Suncatcher (S) invited me and AndySG (A) to go on River trip over the Memorial Day weekend. The location was a 35 mile stretch of the Snake River in far northwest Nebraska. The area is known as the Sand Hills and S told us it was beautiful and we would all have a great time. So to Norfolk, NE we went to hook up with S.........S explains that this stretch of the Snake is entirely on private ranch land, and that our trip planner has secured permission of the ranchers whose land we will pass through. Yet according to S, we will see no signs of civilization except for some fences across the river. There is no cell service in the area and any type of rescue would involve a long walk to the nearest ranch house. It sounds great! (What A and I did not know but would soon discover is the Snake is one mean river. It is rated Class III, but is fraught with many fast stretches, obstacles, and back breaking pull-overs. If we'd known this, we may of thought twice about accepting S's invitation.)............. About the group: This trip is an annual event for a group of young Nebraska paddlers, and S has done this trip before with his son, a close friend of these youngsters. There are 12 young guys, aged 21 to 30, most of whom have been doing this trip every year since they were teenagers. They have certain traditions, one of which is to paddle every obstacle regardless of the danger. Once I heard that, A and I made a pact that these traditions were not ours, and we would use better judgment.
After packing gear into the wee hours, A, S and I wake up and arrive at the take off rendezvous at 7:30 AM on Friday 5/24. Two Suburban vehicles towing pickup bed trailers will be our transportation to the put in. There is a collection of six rag-tag canoes racked up on one trailer. They are an ancient collection of dented aluminum and plastic boats. Many have been patched and welded, while others appear held together with bondo and silicone sealant. Thank goodness I'll be traveling in S's Wenonah Rogue. We all pile in, 15 strong, and start the 5 hour drive to the put in south of Merriman, NE. Not long into the drive, I notice my younger partners seem very thirsty. They are drinking some kind of liquid from blue & white cans. Oh well, we're under way and I'm enjoying the ride in back with a jumble of gear bags.

I soon hear talk of a traditional stop at some crossroads saloon at Johnstown, NE. I'm not sure of the purpose, but it has something to do with a Yeager Shot? I decide to stay put in the "Burban."


After a long drive we arrive at the ranchers' house to pick up the two elderly proprietors, Eva and Harley. Their ranch is our take out point, so they will ride with us to the put in and drive the vehicles back to their place. Once they are aboard, the boys aren't so thirsty and the blue/white cans disappear as does the foul language I've been hearing. These boys are rough and tough, but they know how to behave like gentlemen when they should. I'd say they are a good bunch of kids.

We are soon at the put in and load the canoes. There sure are a lot of coolers going in the boats. As noted earlier, these boys are a thirsty bunch. We pose for some pictures before launching.

A is thinking this looks like a piece of cake. Hahaha

Over Loaded?

The Gang poses for the "Traditional No-Shirts Photo.

The first strech of the Snake is sandy and shallow. S and A sure run aground a lot on sand bars, it seems as if they are out and pulling every 10 minutes for 2 hours. We then hit some water deeper than 8", but not by much. Its an easier paddle now and the scenery is wonderful.

About 7 PM we all stop to set up camp on the river bank. Its a beautiful spot. One of the young toughs heads for a huge downed tree and is furiously chopping off pieces 18' thick by 5' long. He viciously swings his axe for at least an hour straight without a break. He is superhuman and the other guys have nicknamed him "The Eighth Wonder." Very fitting. They haul the logs to the camp for what looks like an all night fire.

Moored Canoes
Camp is set.

S cooks up some brats for dinner, and after eating we retire to the fire for some good natured BS. A is drinking some brown liquid from a bottle with a picture of a turkey on it. It must be some kind of energy drink since he is very animated and has the group in stitches. S is entertaining as well telling the guys stories of his past paddling adventures. S and I are wise and hit the rack early. A.....not so wise.

S enjoys a cold one with Trip Planner Brandon
A and Teddy solving the World's Problems....Yeah, Right!

Satuday 5/25, S and I are up at dawn and S wanders around taking photos. An hour or so later A crawls out of the tent but does not look like he's feeling his best. S cooks us a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and taters. A feels better after eating and does the dishes. Everyone patrols the camp site picking up any trash and the remains of the fire are well doused. I like these guys' style.

S and I bivy in Boji's roomy Lean 3.
A is in this tent but won't get up.

Finally up, A needs a hearty breakfast.

S makes a nice dawn light video of the camp.

I get ready to go and I want to be like the young guys.

A & S say I'm better off tied in with the cargo. Dang!

Soon enough everything is packed and were floating again. The river twists and turns and my guys are starting to figure out the channels, constantly swinging from the left to the right bank. Back and forth we go adding miles to the journey, but still frequenly running aground. S has insisted that A take the stern and A seems to be tiring from making all those tight twisty turns and getting in and out to pull.

Two of our guys are hung up....Again!

Nice and Wild.

At one point the canoe is hung up on some shallow bed rock. A and S are dragging the canoe when suddenly, A disappears! I glance over the gunnel and only see his head above water. He has steped off the shallow rock into a deep hole where he can't touch bottom. Then six feet downstream he is again in ankle deep water. This river is indeed strange. Soon we stop to scout the first of four waterfalls on the route. Now the "tradition" is to paddle all obstacles. S is urging us on, but A and I have our doubts. Given the shallow water and many hands ready to assist, we agree to shoot it.

First we wach the younsters. Looks like fun!

Now its our turn. S tells me if we make it he is going to dump the canoe and get A wet.

After about 3 more hours of tough paddling and dragging, we come to waterfall #2. A scouts it and decides he is too fatigued to attempt it. There is a serious backflow at the bottom and he is not sure he has the energy to keep the canoe from going over sideways and dumping us head first into the churn.

So S recruits one of the young toughs to steer him over. I'm pretty scared but we make it without dumping.

Hours more of paddling and to A's relief, we finally make camp for the night. S cooks up one of his home dehydrated wonders, Teriyaki Chicken and rice. At dusk A is in the tent since he is exhausted. I don't see that bottle with the turkey picture for the rest of the trip. Hummmmm? But S heads for the campfire to entertain the yougsters. Rut Roh.

Some nice wild flowers here too.

The guys like the view.

Sunday 5/26 early AM. A is up as S crawls out complaining of a headache. Really? But he cooks up another big breakfast. He tells A to eat heartily since this will be our toughest day. We'll be going through an area known as "the trees." Its an area where the river really picks up speed and narrows to a width of 30' or less. The almost verticale banks are full of cedar trees, many of which have fallen into or overhang the river, creating pinch points no wider than 3'-4' wide. A whispers to me saying he is apprehensive about this and hopes he survives it intact.

Get up boys!!!!

A pulls on his wet socks and water shoes.
S loads me up.

We are loaded up and moving. After an hour of easy paddling we come to waterfall #3. Its not quite a water fall but a jumble of shallow rocks. A says he rather conserve energy by portaging it. S wants to go so he has one of the young guys steer us over.

We make this one and soon we arrive at The Trees. I'm tied to the middle thwart and wedged between a cooler and a blue barrel. I sure hope A & S are up to the challenge.

A is in the stern and constantly yelling instructions to S. The water is very fast and we are barley squeezing through the narrow gaps of open water. Back and forth we go, bank to bank dodging one obstacle after another, not knowing what is ahead of the next hairpin turn. Then A misjudges the current speed for a turn. The front of the canoe is through the gap but A can't get the stern turned soon enough and he is swept under a cedar strainer. The boat is precariously rocking on an underwater branch and A lays back trying to pull through the limbs, but the boat will not move. A then discovers the reason. The right shoulder strap of his PFD is hung on a branch. He tells S to hang on while he tries to pull the boat backwards to slacken the tension on the strap. S fights to keep the canoe upright and keeps yelling above the noise of rushing water, "Are you out, are you out?" A says "not yet, not yet," for what seems to be an enternity. A finally pulls himself back enough to free himself, and we are free and floating. Wow! That was scary! Why A & S are laughing I have no clue. I cringe at the thought of S and I being dumped in those savage waters leaving A hanging in that tree like a human pinata. I hunker down and close my eyes. I've seen enough of "The Trees."

They recover from a dump.

Another fence to negotiate.

Half way through the trees we arrive at water fall #4. A says he's saving his strength and again tells S he doesn't want to deal with a dump. So one of the young toughs will steer us through. I go along for the ride and again we make it without dumping. Whew! That Wenonah Rouge is saving our butts.

A ans S negotiate the remaining stretch of trees without incident and arrive at a old WPA bridge built in the 1930's. Its good to take a break. We are regaled with the young guns' stories of spectacular dumps and pinned canoes in the trees. But these boys are tough and help each other freeing and bailing the boats, and collecting any lost gear. We are all full of adrenaline and happy that we have conquered "The Trees." A & S walk around a bit taking in the scenery and snapping photos. In the distance they spot a Golden Eagle in flight. Beautiful.

We get back on the water and in 2 hours arrive at our final campsite. What a day! Camp is set and S cooks up another dehydrated meat. Pasta goulash....Yummy. A & S are in the tents early yet the younsters party well into the night. Good for them.

S poses by his new solo tent.

Moday 5/27 dawns cool, cloudy and a heavy dew has wetted everything. For the third straight morning we are awakened by the gobbling of wild turkeys. They are really thick here and don't seem to mind our presence. S cooks up another hearty bacon, egg and hashbrown breakfast. Once the breeze dries everything, we pack up the canoes and head downstream. The paddle is enjoyable as A & S are now reading the shallows much better and paddling like a well oiled machine. We hit a series of about 6 or 7 class I & II rapids in quick succession, but my boys are riding through them without any trouble. After an ejoyable 4 hour paddle, we are at the takeout.

All in all it was an exciting trip on this wild and remote river. We only dumped once and that was mostly on purpose at the first water fall. A tells me its the toughest stream he's ever paddled, but he's glad he did it. S too is in good spirits and arranges group photos. I am happy to be out of the canoe, but a little sad this wild ride is over. We agree that we've been "Bitten by the Snake" and would gladly do this trip again. [paragraph break] Wildlife Spotted: Wild Turkeys, Bald Eagles, Muskrats, Golden Eagle, Pronghorn Antelope, White Pelicans, Deer, and many unknown birds A is researching to ID.