The Rescue at Bearskull Rapids

It happened sometime in the mid 1980’s.  I was just getting back from doing some wildlife task and had just pulled into the Mercer station when John Bernier one of the fire control equipment operators ran out the door and excitedly stated, “thank goodness  your back , your just in time, I need you. Some canoes are flipped over and swamped at bear skull rapids on the North fork of the Flambeau River. We need to rescue them.”

Within 15 minutes we had loaded a canoe, paddles, lifejackets and a rope and were on our way to Robinsons landing the nearest access .  During the 30 minute drive John filled me in on the details. The forest fire control plane had spotted them and the dispatcher had called us on the scanner radio.  No one appeared to be injured but two canoes were clearly sunk in the rapids and 3 other canoes were landed on an island in the middle of the rapids. The fire plane had circled them for several minutes and noted their frantic waving.  They needed help.  Oh, and they appeared to be all women and girls. Boy I thought, this could be exciting.  If we could pull this off we could be quite the hero’s. My ego started growing.

I knew this stretch of river well.  I’d canoed and camped on it many times. The stretch of river  between Robinsons landing downstream to Holts landing took about five hours by canoe or kayak and went over about a dozen rapids.  The rapids had various ratings  including class 3,( experienced paddlers only not for novices).  Some class 2 and 3 rapids were near bear skull rock a large bolder in the middle of the river that resembled the skull of a black bear.

The first time I had canoed this section of the North fork had been with my wife Sheilah and two friends visiting us from Iowa Ross and Charlene.  Ross wanted a wilderness experience so colleges at work had recommended this trip.  I remember the river water was low and our two aluminum canoes were constantly hitting exposed rocks and getting stuck in the rapids. We came close to capsizing several times  as we tried to free them.  By the time the trip ended the women were ready to kill us.  They had refused to go through some of the rapids  and while walking on land detouring around one rapids Charlene had sprained her ankle.  When we reached Holts landing our wives weren’t even talking to us.

The rivers flow could vary greatly because just a half mile upstream from Robinsons landing was the Turtle Flambeau Flowage dam.  If the area had just had a lot of rain the dam may be opened somewhat  allowing a lot of water through or if drought conditions were occurring it could be just the opposite. High water was a faster run through the rapids but because most of the dangerous boulders were under water it was actually easier to maneuver a canoe and much safer with the water high..  Today the river was low, we were in drought conditions, that’s why the fire patrol plane was flying that day.

Fire patrol planes were becoming the new norm.  I felt bad about this because I liked the fire towers we had dotting the landscape.  For decades men and women sat in those towers and patrolled for smokes as they called them.  I had even manned a tower a few times myself when no one else was available.  The problem was it was hard to find personal to work in them. First the work was temporary and seasonal because one year could  be dry and the next year wet.  The work was usually only in spring and fall because in the summer after green up forest fire conditions were greatly reduced.  Another problem was their height.  Most were over 100 feet tall with an attached ladder on the side with only an exposed cage around it..  It was sometimes hard to find someone with  enough courage even to climb them let alone sit their all day in windy conditions as they swayed back and forth then climb down just before dark. As of this writing Iron County only has 3 towers left standing  when we originally had 6.  Patrol planes have replaced  the towers and interestingly two of the towers have osprey nesting on them.

When we got to the girls they were mighty glad to see us.  They were from the Camp Nakamos girls camp nearby on Trude lake and were on a week long canoe camping trip.  No one was hurt but as the plane had reported two of the canoes had swamped and sunk in the rapids.  They had salvaged they’re equipment and had everything  spread  out on the island to dry.  They had been counting on the plane to notify someone and were glad it did. Their were about a  dozen of them including two counselors who appeared to be in their mid 20’s. I don’t remember the names of the counselors but for the sake of the story I’ll call them Jane and Sue. We introduced our selves and then it was time to rescue them.

John and I soon found out this was not going to be easy.  First of all  in our haste to leave we had only brought one rope which  was too short for the task  at hand.  The canoes both aluminum were sunk in only a few feet of water but the current was so powerful and swift we couldn’t stand up to walk out to them without being swept downstream.  The girls solved this by tying together their canoe bow lines then adding it to our rope. We still didn’t have enough length to tie to shore and still reach the first canoe in the rapids so John waded as far as he could into the water and held the end of the rope.  Jane, Sue and I then proceeded out further until I on the far end of the rope finally reached the canoe. John was the only one with decent footing as the current was so swift and the rocky bottom so slippery we could barely stand.  I had the rope tied around my waist and when I slipped and fell Jane would pull me back until I gained my ground again.  Finally at the canoe, I tried lifting it and started to doubt whether we could pull this off or not.  The canoe was sunk and wedged between two boulders in about 3 feet white water.  It wouldn’t even budge.  Jane then said,” wait stay their, I’ll work my way to you, maybe I can help.”  When she got beside me she said, “ lets try rolling it together.”  Well it worked.  Both of us together were able to roll it in the current so the canoe emptied itself of some of its water and became light enough we could dislodge it from the boulders .  After a few more minutes of  maneuvering we got it tied to the rope and John and Sue pulled the canoe and us to shore.  We had one down and were jubilant, now for the second canoe.

This canoe was a different story.  It looked easy. It was in only in about two feet of water and the bow was even above water so it wasn’t even fully sunk.  It was even closer to shore but there were other problems.  It was in even swifter whitewater and it was shoved against a downed tree. We tied the rope to shore and all of us worked our way to the canoe.  We tried lifting and rolling it and it moved a little but try as we might we couldn’t empty its water or dislodge it. The problem was as we lifted it because of its tilted angle as the water ran out even more water ran in because it was in the middle of the white water current.  Sue got an idea.  She searched up and down the bank and found a pole the beaver had cut that was about 20 foot long.  I remember it was a black ash and every limb had been gnawed off. It was perfect. We all waded back out and stood in the swift water and used the pole as a pry bar to lift the canoe higher above the incoming current.  It worked .  If we gave it all our mite we could lift the canoe about an inch above the current. The problem was, that’s all we could do, nothing more. Then Jane had an idea.  She ran back to the island campment and grabbed a two quart cooking pot.  She waded back out and as the three of us pried on the ash pole and raised the canoe above the incoming water Jane bailed water for all she was worth.  It worked.  In about ten minutes the canoe was floating again.  We all were exhausted, soaking wet but jubilant.

John and I loaded up and headed for the truck.  We didn’t want to canoe for four and a half hours downstream to the next takeout so we went upstream portaging the rapids and canoeing in the eddies and slower water.

When we got to Mercer the forest fire crew wanted to know the details of how we rescued the stranded women.  The whole district had heard about it as they had scanned the airplane traffic on the radio and heard Johns reply to the plane we were responding to the call.  We didn’t give too many details because we didn’t really feel too much like heroes, after all, had we really rescued  them or had we just given them a little of our muscle and hadn’t  they really rescued them.