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A river rescue (07/06/2008)
By John Edstrom

Not since the spring of 2001 has any significant high water resulted from the winter snowpack. It is generally the thaw plus heavy spring rains that produce record floods like we experienced in the springs of 1965 and 1969. In the past few years, though, we've seen high water in June and even July caused by pouring rains in the early summer. This unwelcome phenomenon naturally affects the boating season and fishing on the river. The difference between 5.5' or 10' of water in the river locally, while not officially a flood, makes a world of difference to the boater and requires extreme caution.

At low water, the river's current is hardly perceptible; 9' or 10' make it very heavy and quite dangerous, particularly if the unlucky (or foolish) boater should lose power. At that point he will careen merrily down the stream towards various hazards such as bridges, dams, or towboats. Bridges, particularly, channel and restrict the flow, turning fast water into a turbulent mill race going under their piers. There are scour holes just downstream from the old railroad bridge in Bathhouse Slough (on the Wisconsin side of Latsch Island) that are 60-70' deep. In high water, these can create extremely treacherous crosscurrents and turbulence.

One summer night, returning from Sullivan's Restaurant down in Trempealeau in an old, underpowered houseboat, we overtook a tow with a string of barges. Many, (though not all), of the captains of these vessels can be very obnoxious about shining their enormous spotlights in your face at night, blinding you while they bear down on your boat. I don't know what they expect to accomplish, since they can't maneuver around you, and thus make it impossible for you to see to get out of their way. Fortunately we were both heading upstream, so the tow lit us up only from behind as we passed him.

About the time we came abreast of RTP in Winona, we overtook another houseboat dead in the water. It was one of those rental units they'll hire out to anyone down in La Crosse, half the passengers singing, half screaming for help, all of them good and drunk. This was a very dicey situation; the towboat was not that far back. We managed to throw them a line and someone there was either sober enough by now (or at least good at tying knots while stinko) to tie on, all in the blinding white light of the tow's spotlight.

We managed to drag them out of the channel to the Wisconsin side, and the barges rumbled and growled on by. I had thought of trying to drag them straight to the gas dock at Bob's Marine, (now the Winona Marina at the foot of Laird Street) but was warned that I didn't have time. It was true.

Afterwards, when they were safely tied up at Bob's, we explained to one of the guys on the rental boat that towboats can't stop or go around you, and that he should be sure not to get in their way anymore. The huge bulk of the barges sliding by so closely in the pitch black night had put him into a more serious frame of mind. He said he wouldn't do that anymore.

As long as I have been on the river, you would think that I should know better than to put myself or anyone else into obvious danger, but familiarity breeds contempt I guess, or maybe some of us get older but stupid, rather than wiser. Fran and I bought a small, used pontoon boat recently, and the day afterward decided to run it up Bathhouse Slough to our place on Pollywog Slough near Dam 5A. I figured I might need gas, but the gas dock was closed down. I eyeballed into the tank and figured I was fine, and ran up the north side of Latsch Island, past the fine menagerie of boathouses, and under the three bridges.

The way the boat bucked and slid sideways as we passed next to the abandoned railroad bridge gave me a bad feeling, and after we got through, I stuck a stick down into the tank (it has only a rudimentary empty/full gauge) just to be sure we had enough gas. Oh, oh, only about an inch - I figured it might be wise to turn around and get downstream of the bridges, just in case. I got the pontoon headed downstream, and the motor promptly quit. I had not yet acquired paddles, a boat pole, or an anchor. The sensation of being a pure idiot washed over me like river water.

But now the only other boat we had seen on a Monday evening appeared underneath the bridges heading toward us, and the sensation changed to one of pure joy and relief. We signaled, they threw us a line, and got us moving back upstream again barely 100 yards from the highway bridge.

So thank you, Travis and Wanda, for making a lucky idiot out of me, and should you get into trouble out on the river, may there be someone as kindhearted and competent as you just coming around the bend.



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