Dedicated local paddlers encounter life, peace and adventure on the waterAl Larson and his river companions have racked up 2,500 river miles paddling South Dakota waterways.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Like modern-day voyageurs, Al Larson and his river companions have racked up 2,500 river miles paddling South Dakota waterways.
Larson and Steve Nicolaisen, both Mitchell residents, and Jeff Clark, of rural Mount Vernon, form the current core of the South Dakota River Riders, an informal group of outdoor adventurers that has been quietly canoeing South Dakota rivers for more than two decades.
Larson started canoeing as an Explorer Scout back in 1965.
“Then I did a stretch in Vietnam and when I got back, I took it up again.”
He still paddles the same vintage Alumacraft canoe he bought for $75 at a garage sale in 1972.
“It’s not for everybody — there are no conveniences — but the right person would really love it,” said Larson, 63.
It’s about doing something different, taking streams less traveled.
“We’re going to places where nobody goes,” he said, summing up the lure of the rivers.
“It’s just the feeling of freedom, I guess, when you’re out on a river,” Larson said, ticking off the names of the waterways he’s traveled — the Grand River, the James, the Cheyenne, the Belle Fourche, the Big Sioux, the White, the Niobrara and the Little White — all Missouri River tributaries.
Larson and Nicolaisen agree that they are captivated by the purity and simplicity of canoe travel. In September, the group finished a leisurely seven-day trip from Chamberlain to Platte on the Missouri.
They saw no people and nothing but scenery for five days. Which, of course, is the whole idea.
“There’s so much to see, and few South Dakotans get to see these ancient lands,” Larson said.
The River Riders began with eight members in 1991, said Nicolaisen, and it has traveled with expeditions as large as 14 members and seven canoes.
While the current entourage is all male, the River Riders is an equal opportunity touring club that has been enjoyed by husbands, wives, sons and daughters, said Nicolaisen, or “Nick” as he is known to his fellow Riders. He figures at least 20 women have been on expeditions through the years.
Women canoeists, said Nicolaisen, with nary a hint of condescension, tend to have a preference for trips during the warmer summer months, and the opportunity for an occasional stop at a campground — one with a shower, if possible. That’s entirely possible when traveling a river like the James, he said, but not so with more remote locations.
Larson said the River Riders have canoed all the rivers in South Dakota at least two or three times, and some Colorado and Wyoming waters, and they’ve drifted some Nebraska rivers when South Dakota’s rivers were low. The longest group trip was a 90-miler through the Badlands on the White River, said Larson. Nicolaisen has done a seven-day, 180-mile solo trip from Mitchell to Sioux City.
When the River Riders started, there were no high-tech amenities like self-inflating mattresses and GPS receivers, Larson said. That, of course, has all changed.
“On this Missouri River trip, I had a cell phone signal all the way,” said Clark, a mechanical engineer at Toshiba in Mitchell, where Nicolaisen also works.
While the idea of a cell phone may not quite mesh with the original vision of wilderness isolation and selfreliance that precipitated the first voyages, it’s not a bad thing to have for emergency backup.
“It’s nice to know you have it. We make sure we call our families and spouses at least once to let them know we’re OK,” Clark said.
Only four paddlers took this year’s 37-mile trip down the Missouri from Oacoma to Platte. The original itinerary had to be shifted from the Little White River due to low water.
The fourth member of this year’s group was Clark’s son, Jacob, 12, a seventh-grader at Mount Vernon.
As the expedition’s rookie, or “camp jack,” much of the grunt work fell to him.
“I had to collect firewood, dig the poop holes (latrines), and other stuff,” he said. Jeff Clark said he was proud of his son, who handled his jobs without complaint.
“Al and Steve were grandpa figures for him,” he said. “They taught him things and he soaked it up.”
“After three of four days or so, he started bossing us around,” Nicolaisen said with a laugh. “It would be, ‘Come on, we’re supposed to be on the water by 7. Let’s go.’ ”
Newbies are indoctrinated with some River Rider rules, among them: Always leave campsites cleaner than before; help other canoers; and keep an eye on the canoes to the front and behind.
Jacob said his school friends were amazed that he missed a week of school to take a canoe trip, but he’s determined it won’t be his last. He hopes to bring a friend on his next trip.
All of which leaves hope that there will be young blood to continue the River Riders tradition.
Through the years, the group has shared life experiences, raised families, and learned that while you have to paddle your own canoe both literally and figuratively in this life, it’s best to do it in good company.
Larson’s son, Jay, now 26 and attending school in Seattle, began traveling with the River Riders at 12 and continued until he was 19.
Nicolaisen’s son, Taylor, now chief meteorologist for the Fox affiliate in Rapid City, took about eight to 10 trips through his formative years.
“He still joins us when he can,” Larson said.
The expeditions are planned From left months in advance and each pose in , Steve Nicolaisen, expedition’s boss, or “ramrod,” assigns this 2003 shot above Jay the the responsibilities. Larson was ramrod and medic on the group’s fall trip.
Danger and mishaps
Larson learned about the importance of good expedition planning the hard way. One of Larson’s earliest canoe trips was to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota in 1989, and it nearly finished his canoeing career before it started. Larson said he was huddled close to the fire for warmth one night when, in a bizarre mishap, another camper tossed a log on the fire.
“It hit and tipped the kettle, and sent boiling water down my leg and into my boot.” The shock of the episode coupled with the cold weather sent Larson into a brief round of hypothermia.
His bad luck wasn’t over. In the Boundary Waters, canoeists do “portages” — a word derived from the French, which means “to carry”— as they move their canoes overland between lakes or around rapids.
On one portage, Larson’s bad leg slipped and got caught between two rocks.
“I broke my leg,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a compound fracture, but it hurt.
“All we had was aspirin and duct tape, nothing like the deluxe first aid kits we carry today.”
With limited resources and no help immediately available, the leg became infected.
“We kept paddling,” recalled Larson, “because we had to. There was no other way out. We didn’t have cell phones back then and there was no one to call, anyway.”
He was hospitalized for three days when they made it back to civilization.
Larson said nearly every canoeist has flipped through the years, but no one has been seriously hurt.
Clark recalled one emergency when the river’s current swept Steve and Taylor Nicolaisen’s canoe into the branches of a cottonwood tree which had fallen into the river.
“It was what we call a ‘strainer,’ and they had to fight hard to get clear. We know we’re on our own, so we all work together to help each other,” Clark said.
“It was scary,” Nicolaisen said. “It was too dangerous for anyone else to help us.” They eventually pulled themselves up on the tree, emptied the canoe and worked their way to shore.
Wildlife viewings of animals such as deer, coyotes, ducks, geese, beaver, pelicans and eagles are common along the river, and coupled with spectacular scenery, that makes for great photo ops.
Though no one has been bitten to date, all three men agree that rattlesnakes are their greatest health worry, since getting medical help would be difficult.
On one trip through the Badlands on the Little White River, Nicolaisen said several group members were walking in high grass near the river when they heard the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake.
“We stopped where we were, and slowly backed out,” he said. “Nobody wanted to get stung.”
Until this year, Larson squeezed his trips into vacation time from his job as a corrections officer at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
He retired in 2011, after the brutal murder of friend and co-worker Ronald “RJ” Johnson during an April escape attempt at the prison. The tragedy convinced Larson it was time to leave.
“That could have been me in that room,” he said.
The expeditions are nothing fancy: Just a bunch of guys and their canoes, and the group is not equipment-obsessed. Larson, as stated earlier, paddles his Alumacraft; Nicolaisen, an old Grumman aluminum canoe; and Clark, a 17-foot squareback Osagian canoe.
“Aluminum’s better if you’re hitting river rock,” said Clark, who learned that lesson on his first river trip.
“We had two groups who kept getting separated,” he recalled. “One group wanted to hurry and get to camp. The other group was being slowed by an incredibly heavy homemade plywood canoe. It was my first trip, however, so I didn’t know that wasn’t normal.”
“It hit some rocks, sprang a leak and they kept getting farther behind,” Clark said. The do-it-yourselfers would paddle for 30 minutes, then stop and bail. Paddle, stop, bail. Repeat.”
Eventually the hapless crew made a fix that lasted. The canoe did not.
“I think they burned it later in some kind of ceremony,” Nicolaisen said with a laugh. “That thing weighed a ton.”
The unexpected can happen, but the strangest discovery had nothing to do with shoreline flora and fauna, Larson said.
“I remember we were on the White River — in the middle of this vast rangeland — and we looked up and saw this bowling bag sitting on the shore.
“Outwardly it appeared to be in perfect condition, and the most bizarre thing was that there was no one and no house in sight for as far as you could see.” “That looks kind of unusual,” said Nicolaisen, confirming the obvious. Canoe partner Robert Thompson was the first to reach and open the bag.
“You won’t believe it,” he yelled.
“What is it?”
“You won’t believe it,” said Thompson, continuing the tease. “What is it?” “A bowling ball and pair of shoes,” he said, laughing. Thompson was given the partially sand-filled bag, moldy shoes and bowling ball as a trophy, Nicolaisen said.
Larson theorized that a rancher’s wife, weary of her husband’s bowling expeditions, took the bag and dumped it into the river. Adding to the puzzle was the bag’s location miles from the nearest bridge or road.
Nature’s beauty and fury
On the Missouri, the current varies with water releases by the Army Corps of Engineers, Larson said.
“When the corps isn’t releasing water there’s not much current,” he said. When there is a release, the paddlers get a natural assist.
Most trips are sedate and leisurely, though water can be rough in wind, and weather conditions occasionally can be bitterly cold. Shared camaraderie dulls the hardship.
A tough day is forgotten once tents are set up, a campfire’s roaring and paddlers kick back with some liquid refreshment, some poetry, games, and if someone has brought along a guitar or other musical instrument, a few songs.
It is self-, rather than mass-produced, entertainment.
Nicolaisen, the group’s historian, chronicles all trips, and reading from past trip logs has become an entertainment tradition.
Some comments are about the human comedy and some, like this except from a 2008 trip down the Belle Fourche River, comment on the grandeur of nature:
“I forget how beautiful an area that part of the world is. When you’re on the water, you’re so low, all you can see is the shore and banks of the river. But when we were up on the river hills, driving to the rancher’s place, we were high above the river, seeing it winding far below. We figured we could see at least 50 miles in every direction. It was truly awesome and humbling and made me feel like I was the luckiest man alive to see and do this in a place of beauty like this.”
On that same trip, said Nicolaisen, the River Riders narrowly averted disaster, thanks to kind advice from a concerned local.
“A rancher saw our campfire and rode down on horseback followed by a couple of his dogs. He told us, ‘There’s a big storm comin.’
“Well, it didn’t happen the next night, but the whole river flooded and it was bad. It would have washed away us, our tents and canoes,” Nicolaisen said. As it was, they were able to get off the river in time. Nicolaisen’s journal entry explained the severity of the flood:
“The Black Hills, Rapid City and surrounding areas got hit hard by a severe winter storm. Right where we’d just been. Thirteen inches of snow in Rapid. Twenty-three inches in Spearfish. Some supposed 1,000 power poles broken from the ice and wind. Hundreds of homes without power.”
They took a weather radio on this year’s trip, Nicolaisen said. The River Riders are planning a family “fair weather trip” down the Niobrara River next July. Those interested should call (605) 996-5501.