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  • Writer's pictureRoberta Rathert

Five Things about People, Pop, and Triplets on the River.

1. Minnesota DNR watercraft campsites for paddling sojourners, freely given, water-access only, much appreciated. I earmarked Lone Pine, upper river mile 1034, as my next camp stop. I saw it from the opposite riverbank after traveling 22 miles downriver from Aitkin, so I paddled over to it. The steps going into Lone Pine camp were unusual because most entrances to these watercraft camps have steep ungroomed and unapproachable fronts. Some are bordered with tangles of brush and fallen trees that create a near impossible pass through, especially while attempting to secure the boat and lob gear to the flat ground above. All this done without sinking into the river is a real sideshow. Falling in is strangely unforgettable, so I’ve only done it once so far. Exhausted from this first-round effort, finding a way to climb up and make camp is another lengthy situation. Lucille Ball comes to mind but it doesn’t feel so funny at the time.

But back to Lone Pine camp, its rare steps were filled with soupy mud after flood water had dissolved them, and each stair was kept in shape with a single landscape timber. Sturdy it wasn’t, but I tried them anyway. Slipping and skidding my way up into the camp, I found the air gray and dense with mosquitos. I reached over my hat to pull the mosquito net around my ears and face but discovered the net had blown away during my day’s paddle, leaving the hat plain and unhelpful. I’d need a baseball bat to fight off these mosquitoes because, it is true, northern Minnesota mosquitos are the size of bumble bees and nothing at all like the delicate wispy ones back home. If I didn’t stay at Lone Pine, I had another 18 miles to go before another camp, Half Moon, and it was nearing dusk already. Good decision or not, I started paddling again hoping for the best at Half Moon but, as I passed it, I saw it was a lake of flood water. I quickly texted Vicki Dudeck whose riverfront home was only four miles downstream. She had invited me for the next day but I made it quicker than planned because of passing two uninhabitable camps plus, I had a great paddling day that kept me swiftly moving. Vicki’s response was so enthusiastic and welcoming, I quickened my strokes and got there in about a half hour.

2. Staying with strangers is awkward and amazing. The Dudeck’s are River Angels who sent out an invite when they heard I was on my way downriver. Their home was open, they said, if I wanted to stop. Of course, a shower after sliding up and down the mud-filled steps, a bed, a meal, and laundry were all appealing by now. To just walk up to someone’s house, dirty, tired, hungry, with laundry bag over my shoulder, this was just plain awkward. I felt uncomfortable the whole way there but it was getting late after paddling 43 miles and with no other camp choice, I could not continue much longer. It was not the Dudeck Family that caused my apprehension, but the idea of walking into the house of another, making myself at home as if it was my own, using their stuff and eating the food as if I shopped for it myself – these were the culprits of my uneasiness. They weren’t even an Airbnb so I could not be entitled or pay them anything for what I used. In fact, I was told by another paddler, no, you don’t offer money, at all, ever. That’s not part of the River Angel standard. I’d never done this before and wasn’t entirely sure why River Angels do what they do.

The Dudeck’s friendly dog with husband, John, met me at the dock. John carried some of my stuff up to the house ahead of me, but the dog, he stayed back as if he was the selected welcome party. So far so good, I thought, but I was still hesitant to walk into their house and express my needs to strangers. I went uphill to the house where Vicki Dudeck was at the kitchen sink. She turned to greet me, so warm-hearted and fully genuine, that it melted away my self-imposed clumsiness. Immediately knowing my unexpressed needs, she handed me towels and led me to the shower. On the way, she pointed out the washer and dryer, and then gave me a tour of the guest room. It was awesome and unusual – all my needs were tended to without me saying a word.

After showering, I returned to the main room where I saw John outside barbecuing burgers and Vicki working in the kitchen. This was their home but I was made welcome with no reluctance. I was there less than 24 hours but Vicki, John, and Hunter shared so considerably, all agreed we must have known one another from a different lifetime. About staying in the home of strangers, as addressed in the book of Hebrews, Do not neglect to extend hospitality to strangers—being friendly, cordial, and gracious, sharing the comforts of your home and doing your part generously, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.The Dudeck’s naturally knew how this should go. After two homecooked meals, a night’s rest, washed and dried laundry, and good conversation, I was rested and rejuvenated when Dudeck’s sent me off down the river. Thank you for your generous hearts, Dudeck Family, and to all you Mississippi River Angels for doing what you do so well.

3. Old triplet brothers, not something you see every day.

As I left Dudeck’s, Vicki reminded me the next dam is a hard right turn just beyond a bridge. At the time, it seemed incidental, but there was nothing insignificant about it at all. I paddled about 15 miles over wide bodies of water filled with Sunday morning fishing people and pleasure boaters, toward the approach to Brainerd, Minnesota. I came by a small flat-bottomed boat of three men moving about inside. From afar, it was not possible to know details so I mistakenly counted four people in the boat, but one turned out to be the outboard motor. When I was close to it, the inhabitants of the boat became obvious – three old men fishing. They stopped what they were doing to stare as I slowly paddled by, their heads turning deliberately in unison as they watched me, my head turning, too, toward them. I was given complete attention from all three. I’m pretty sure they thought I would be a man or a younger person as I drew near. Then I realized it, these three men were brothers, identical, dressed alike, hats the same. They were triplet brothers about 85-years-old, staring like silent boys, each with identical thin smiles. I nodded, said nothing, and kept going. They were amazed I was me. I was amazed they were three. Not one of us spoke, yet we found each other to be memorable on that morning.

4. Open dams are spectacular and menacing. There was a bridge shortly after the triplet brothers, just as Vicki had described. I saw a structure up ahead after the bridge, but it did not register I made it to the Potlatch Dam already. I used my rangefinder to prove it was the dam alright. I went to the right bank to ease closer without getting caught in the downbound current that could suck me into the dam’s pull. As I inched my way along, the booming sound of dam-released water, high-rising mist could be mistaken for smoke, and swift-moving suds were beyond disturbing. I sat up straight to pay attention to every possibility before me while creeping closer to the dam structure, but still unable to see a portage take-out that was expected on the right bank. A tree-covered point protruded just enough to create a blind spot before I would hit the dam’s wall 30 yards to the front, so I guessed the take-out was concealed somewhere between. Suddenly, there it was, a large sign announcing the portage, a twisted chain-link fence, and a tie up, plenty to brace against if necessary. I abruptly turned and pushed up on land, tied up my boat, then took position up the slope to assess the layout. It was evident what I needed to do but I walked myself through it anyway, before emptying my boat and hauling everything uphill. At the put-in end of the portage, right next to surging waters released from the Potlatch Dam, the side waters were bubbling every which way. A sign cautioning against careless portaging warned about possible Class 3 rapids at times like this. I considered calling for local marine assistance, for a second opinion at least, or to be moved to a safer put-in location.

I walked back to the take-out and saw that another boat had pulled in – my paddle friends, Greg and Max. Their presence didn’t change the waters, but it gave the second opinion and mutual assistance if something might go terribly wrong. After assessments, we put our boats on the churning shoreline and took off against the rapids. I heard myself shout, “Jesus, you are the boat! You are the water!” It was a great ride, fast yet safe, as we made our way downstream. Greg planned to stop at a riverbank property for the night, just above Crow Wing, and welcomed me to join them, an invitation I accepted wholeheartedly and gratefully.

5. Praying for Pepsi.

I can’t say for certain but it might have been the wind, hot sun, and maybe the salty trail mix and jerky I packed for food and add the stress from the Potlatch Dam waters. But I had gotten terribly thirsty for a cold fizzy drink. This took a prominent place in my thoughts throughout the all-day paddling. I saw a Kwik Trip on the map, off the river, but a possible short walk if I could find a place to tie up. While I paddled the miles toward the location, I thought about a cold pop, lots of ice, I wasn’t kidding, this was serious. I added a lunchtime meal, dessert, and something extra – a handful of candy bars – to my forthcoming Kwik Trip food, if I could find a way to walk to it. Greg and Max were paddling with me as we leapfrogged one another all through the afternoon. They passed me on one occasion and asked how I was doing. I said, "I’m praying for a cold pop." I’m not sure how that was received but I meant what I said, there was no other way a cold Pepsi would materialize on this long stretch of warm river.

I never did find a take-out near the alleged Kwik Trip so was forced to dispel my strong desire for an icy cold and fizzy drink. We ended up at a pleasant site off the right riverbank, before entering Crow Wing territory, and set up a comfortable camp for the night, despite Max’s uneasiness with the resident snakes. I had long given up on the cold drink idea and was in my sleeping bag about 10:30 p.m. when I heard Greg outside my tent. “Do you want this?” he asked. I unzipped the tent flap to see an ice-cold bottle of Coke in Greg’s hand. No, it can’t be! Was this a mirage?! I’m still not sure if it was a delusion, but it tasted real good, that I know for certain. Greg said the landowner had come down with a sack of treats and I got this Coke, dripping in cold water droplets. I slept good that night, my prayer for pop perfectly answered.

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