Dam, This Driftwood Jam

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My youngest son guides his kayak down Salt Creek earlier this summer.

One of the joys of canoeing and kayaking – especially the latter – is the very real possibility that your tippy boat is going to capsize and you will get an unexpected opportunity to swim. In spite of that though, I’ve had very little experience of this actually happening, except when goofing around and deliberately flipping boats on hot summer afternoons. In fact, I don’t remember ever getting myself or my stuff wet in all my years of paddling.

Until this summer.

In August I was canoeing and kayaking with a group of family members on the Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin, one of the best paddling experiences in the upper Midwest. The Namekagon is clean and clear with a good current and flows through the best of the beautiful Northwoods, far from any development.

That particular day was memorable not only because of the gorgeous setting and perfect paddling conditions but also because one of our boats tipped halfway through the trip! In addition to people getting wet (not the end of the world) one family member lost an expensive camera in the process. It was a good lesson for us all on taking care of gear on the water – or so one would think.

Fast forward to last Saturday and to Salt Creek near my home in the west suburbs of Chicago, a stream I’ve mentioned before in this blog. The creek is about 40 miles long, originating in northwest Cook County, meandering through DuPage County and then re-entering Cook before flowing into the Des Plaines River at Riverside, Illinois.

Salt Creek at its average flow of water is borderline for paddling (a bit shallow in many places), although it fluctuates greatly with rain because its watershed is so large and there’s a lot of development around the upper half of the creek. The lower half (near my house) is surrounded by forest preserves, giving it a place to flood when the extra water comes. The bottom-line is that a light to moderate rain leads to good paddling on Salt Creek, while a heavy rain means excellent paddling in two to three days, after the floods have receded.

Last week, a local conservation group had emailed and asked me to write an article for their website on canoeing/kayaking the creek. I had already been on it 3-4 times this season but we had some good rain last week so I went out solo again early Saturday morning with my camera, my iPhone, and (unknown to me until later) my iPad mini in a pocket of my camera case. Perfect gear for a kayak. Right.

The creek was running high but not dangerously so and I was cruising along. Eventually though I started seeing more and more driftwood clogging up the “strainers” (downed trees) on the sides of the stream. It was getting worse and worse until I finally encountered the granddaddy of all logjams that completely clogged the creek with multiple layers of driftwood, trash, etc. (see photo).

kayak and logjam

My kayak safely on shore with the mega-logjam in the background.

Unfortunately the banks of the creek there were high and very muddy – not conducive to portaging – but I did find a nice log to ascend on the left side of the stream. So with the Namekagon experience fresh in my mind, I carefully placed all my valuables safely up on the bank first, before attempting any de-boating maneuvers. I then climbed up the log, pulled the kayak out, portaged the logjam, and put the kayak back in the water.

Getting myself back in though I didn’t have a nice log to climb on. I also was on a bank about twice the height of the kayak. At this point, for no apparent reason, I felt a strange rush of confidence and competence (and laziness?) and decided to just keep all my valuables in the camera case, which I strapped across my back and shoulders. Why not?

As you might expect (or else I wouldn’t be writing all this), I did a Charlie Chaplin-esque entry attempt from the high bank into the kayak, wobbled back and forth a few times for full comic effect, and then plunged into the water. I did manage to fall on the side of the kayak closer to shore so I was able to lunge toward the bank in the process, grasping at roots and plants and pulling myself out of the water.

As I glanced back at the creek, I saw the kayak and paddle starting to float downstream. So with surprising calm, I slid the camera bag over my head and onto shore, pulled my phone out of my pocket and threw it into the grass, and swam down stream to retrieve  the boat and paddle.

After collecting myself and catching my breath, I took the battery out of my camera, stowed everything in the dry bin of the kayak, and took some time to get most of the muddy water out of my boat. I accomplished all this while standing in muck in a waist-high current of water.

Long story short: none of the electronics were damaged, it was a beautiful day so the wet clothes were not an issue, and I learned several valuable lessons about kayaking with no permanent negative consequences:

  • Don’t take an iPad mini in a kayak
  • Buy a dry bag for stowing electronics
  • Stick with the cautious approach or just plan on getting wet
  • Enjoy the water!
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