I clung to the log for what seemed like more than a half hour. The cold water was pouring over my head and I could sense that my legs and right arm had become numb. I realized that I was clutching something with my left hand and didn’t recall taking hold of anything. Turning my wrist as much as I could and straining to see over the slimy log I caught a glimpse of what I chose to save from the river’s current; a box of my own homemade fishing spinners. It’s odd what possessions we find important enough to hold onto. There I was just me and my spinners hanging on for dear life to a slippery log as night fell on a cold flooded river.
It was a typically cold and gray afternoon in early spring along the Kankakee River. My lifelong friend Bill and I decided to fish the backwater area on the Indiana side in spite of the fact that the river was at flood stage. We launched my canoe east of Momence, Illinois and planned to skirt up river and under the State Line Bridge, we would then move off into the backwater area. It was a dumb idea, but dumb ideas were nothing new to us. Knowing Bill since the age of nine we often found ourselves in some sort of predicament resulting from our inability to think things through before proceeding. Once he shot me in the left hand with a 22 caliber pistol as we argued whose turn it was with the gun. He shot himself with a bow and arrow; which in itself is quite an accomplishment and the coup de grâce was when he shot himself through the groin with a 357 magnum pistol while attempting to take the gun apart. Yeah, we have always been an accident waiting to happen.
The Kankakee River was so high that in order to pass beneath State Line Bridge we had to lie on our backs and use our hands to pull the canoe under. We made it through and continued up river to a backwater area where we fished for several hours. Unlike the river, the backwater water was still. We saw one other boat that came in from up river to avoid the peril of maneuvering under the bridge. Bill hooked a seven-pound northern pike and naturally we left the landing net back in the car. I told him to bring the fish along the side of the canoe and I would attempt to grab it by hand. As the pike swam alongside of the boat, I quickly reached in grabbing it behind the head with my right hand and yanked it out of the water, just like on TV. Oh, we were just so impressed with ourselves and our outdoor abilities. We laughed at the guys in the other boat who had a thermometer and were checking the water temperature. Outdoorsmen like us wouldn’t waste our time with instrumentation.
Fishing was slow and nightfall was approaching so we decided to head back to the car. Traveling down river was a different story. The current was strong and pushed us along at a very fast pace. The bridge came on us like a speeding truck and Bill couldn’t lie back quickly enough to clear the bridge beam. He hit the bridge and the force of the water behind us turned the canoe sideways. That threw me into the side of the bridge beam and the boat flipped, dumping us into the cold water.
We grabbed onto the canoe and drifted with it. I never considered life preserver cushions to be anything more than a lawful requirement, after all only an idiot would fall out of a boat and need to use one! Now they seemed like a good thing to be in possession of. Both of the cushions floated down to my end, so I let go of the boat in order to capture them before they slipped away. I tossed one over to Bill, but by now the canoe had drifted out of my reach, and all I had left to cling to was the seat cushion. Bill and the canoe floated towards the north channel, and I was being drawn into the main channel.
This area of the river is famous for having had a major logjam that actually changed the flow of the river back in the early 1900’s. The main river now turns south, but the old north channel still flows up to the old logjam and then tunnels underground. The undertow is powerful and many people have drowned there over the years.
I attempted to swim towards the shore but my not wanting to let go of life preserver made progress slow and difficult. Realizing I was at risk of being pulled into the dangerous north channel, I decided to swim back out toward the main stream and take my chances there. I knew there were sand bars in the main channel that shallowed the river’s depth and I hoped to utilize one of them to make my escape. As I approached the peninsula that split the main river from the north channel, I spotted a lesser log jam jutting out from the front edge. It lay directly in my path and I was rapidly approaching. The current hurled me into the logs; fortunately the seat cushion softened the blow to my chest. As my body was thrown under the jam I caught my left arm pit on the leading log. The flow was pouring over my head, pushing hard and forcing me further under the jam.
It was mid April and the water was very cold. I didn’t know what had happened to Bill, and it was nearly dark. I began to assess my situation. It didn’t look good. If I let go of the log I’d be swept under the jam. There was no guarantee that I would find an opening near the front of the peninsula where I could climb out. I might find myself trapped beneath the log jam and drown. My body was parallel to the underside of the jam and the water was moving with such force that I couldn’t pull my right arm up to gain a better grip on the log. It felt similar to the force you would feel when holding your arm out a car window at eighty miles an hour. Attempts to pull my right arm out from the undertow weakened my anchored left arm’s grip on the slippery log. Realizing I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up with just one arm it was becoming pretty clear that the only way to get out of this predicament was to have someone rescue me, and there was no one around.
I was shivering. As time passed I recognized my situation was hopeless because we were out in the middle of nowhere. I presumed that Bill had drowned in the north channel and I would be joining him shortly. I could feel myself getting weak and knew it would be just a matter of time before I would lose hold and slip under the logs. Cold and on my own in what had turned into a pitch dark night, I let the box of spinners go. They no longer seemed so important. The sound of water rushing over my head now became sort of a rhythmic melody of death. Almost like an organ softly playing in the background as the people entered the church for my funeral. I thought of my family. How could I do this to them? How could I be so irresponsible? I was angry with myself …and then it occurred to me…I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t afraid to die. My faith was real.
I really didn’t know what to expect next, but I anticipated something good awaited me on the other side. I hung beneath that log jam waiting on my dying breath when faintly, over the sound of the rushing water, I could hear distance voices. As the voices drew nearer, I noticed waves of oscillating light reflecting off of the out-stretched arms the peninsula’s tree tops. I expected to see angels come bursting out of the night sky at any moment. I was ready.
The angels turned out to be two guys in a fishing boat. Someone driving over the bridge witnessed us capsize and located a nearby game warden. The warden commandeered two fishermen from further downstream and they bravely came to my aide. The river current slammed their boat into the logs, pinning me in-between. It took several attempts to finally pull me away from my peril. One man held onto me as I clung to the gunwale while the helmsman slowly fought the current back to the river bank.
The canoe had pushed Bill close enough to the shore where he managed to grab hold of an exposed tree root and pull himself onto the bank. The great outdoorsmen had survived yet another near disaster. After spending an hour warming ourselves at a fire and regaining the feeling in our limbs, the warden let us leave. He told us that when people fall into this area of the river at flood stage, he expects to find bodies, not survivors.
Arriving home long after I had been expected, Jan already knew something had gone wrong. As her facial expression of relief and gratitude turned to anger she informed me that I wouldn’t be “playing” with Bill again anytime soon.