Mitchell's River Riders close in on 30th year
Laden canoes will push away from a sandy South Dakota riverbank in May, ending a third decade of adventure and fellowship for Mitchell's Dakota River Riders.
A pair of River Riders first floated over whitewater rapids toward warm campfire nights in 1989.
Mitchell's modern-day Lewis and Clark, Albert Larson and Stephen Nicolaisen suspect they've logged perhaps as many as 3,000 miles, or the distance from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine.
Laughs and wisecracks spilled recently over a truck-stop table as four veteran Riders shared their nicknames and Rider rituals, plus a couple of stories.
Each anecdote splashed into the next, the years circling back like eddies on Nebraska's Dismal River.
That river was appropriately named, says Jeff Clark, who hopes to never again bump his way across the stumpy stream. Nicolaisen swears the Dismal's river-straining cottonwoods tried to kill him.
They have their favorites, too. Clark speaks fondly of unpopulated scenic beauty along the Cheyenne River. Nicolaisen favors the quick-turning Snake in Nebraska and the merry rapids of South Dakota's Little White River.
Larson, meanwhile, poetically describes after-dusk floats on the James River, his oars frozen, watching beaver slide down the banks to chew corn stalks.
Together, they've stared into Milky Ways and celebrated happy hours after setting up camps, serenaded by River Rider Wayne Gregory on guitar.
One spring on the White River, large chunks of ice tumbled from the banks behind them with a loud "Kaboosh."
Difficult times were plentiful, too, as when icy waters turned Clark's legs blue, or when thunder broke a patter of horizontal rain, or when Missouri River waves swamped one Rider's canoe twice, spilling food and rain gear. Those all make for good stories around a campfire, if not this year then the next.
As many as 12 to 15 people embarked on the big annual trips. Some years it was as few as four. Longtime members hope the celebration of 30 years will attract new adventurers.
In most years there's also a shorter float, and wives occasionally go along on those. Some wives shrieked five years ago when Asian carp flew out of the water to hit them.
Before every trip, a lone scout checks out the route, calls landowners for permission, and then becomes de facto ramrod. It's not always an honor. Jeff Clark was the ramrod the year a rancher galloped up on the Cheyenne. Clark stepped forward for an expected tongue lashing, but the horseman wanted to warn of a coming storm. They got out of there fast.
Good Samaritans have been plentiful, including a woman who informed them the Little White River had thawed, and another who brought cake — delicious cake.
Larson first interested Nicolaisen in canoeing back in 1985. Larson first settled into a canoe stern as an Explorer Scout in 1965. They'll keep doing these trips as long as they can. Larson is nearing 70.
Old-timers have settled into established roles. Nicolaisen keeps the diary, filled with journal entries for 68 trips, bearing titles like "The Whiskey Revival, 1996," "Belle Fourche & Cheyenne 'Belch 98,'" and "2012 Mighty Fo' on the Mighty Mo."
"We've slowed," Nicolaisen says. "We used to get in the water at 7 a.m. because we had such a big day ahead of us."
The goal then, Larson says, was to see how far they could get before dusk.
Now, Nicolaisen says, "We'll even have a layover day for exploring, where we won't even break camp."
For long trips, Nicolaisen crafts memorials modeled after the Verendrye plate found in 1913 on the hills above Fort Pierre. Placed by the Chevalier Verendrye, Louis La Londette, and A. Miotte on March 30, 1743, it represents the first written evidence of European visitors to South Dakota. Nicolaisen also buries his plates with the names of River Riders inscribed.
Jeff Clark is the engineer, with an actual engineering degree. Larson is the medic. The retired Department of Corrections officer learned to come prepared after a disastrous trip in 1989.
"A hot boiling kettle of water was knocked over into my boot," he said. Badly burned, he also suffered a broken leg and hypothermia before getting home.
"I was hospitalized when I got back," he says.
His medical preparations have come in handy. Larson prescribed alcohol and muscle relaxants when Clark arrived at the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with an aching back. Clark walked out of the woods feeling fine, he says.
Travis Degen, the new guy who joined last year, has since served as the jack-of-all-trades, digging latrines and bringing beer.
That's probably a joke. Everybody brings beer.
Someone shoves an old photo of a steel, top-truss bridge before me, explaining how it appears like a ghost on a desolate stretch of the Cheyenne.
"Not every trip is sunny skies and warm weather," Larson quips.
On the Little White they floated past a fisherman who yelled he'd never seen anybody canoe that river before.
"A little while later, we learned why," Clark added, mentioning "rocks."
During a five-inch rain on the James, the channel swelled to a half-mile wide, carrying them over barbwire. Along the Dismal, Nicolaisen stepped in actual quicksand and had to be pulled out.
There was also the time four young guys ran into their tent in the black of night to quickly zip it shut. They were surprised the next morning that not everybody had heard a mountain lion's "Rarrrh."
Down by Springfield in 2003, everybody who jumped in the water got a shot of whiskey. That was also the site of a leg wrestling tournament, Clark says, referencing an apparent inside joke. Someone challenged Clark to leg wrestling and then promptly lay down in bunch of sand burrs.
"There was no leg wrestling," Clark says.
Last year, the group made a shrine made from rocks and a skull near a familiar spot along the Missouri River.
"We never leave any garbage, not even a bottle cap," Larson says. All campfires are buried and all latrines covered.
"We enjoy having younger people come with us," Larson says.
He hopes someday they'll be talking about those old guys who started it all way back when. Someone may even tell a story.
The ideal size for a trip — well, they're all ideal, Larson says, but it gets harder to organize when there's more than eight.
Anyone interested in taking a future trip is encouraged to contact Larson at 605-996-3045 or Nicolaisen at 605-996-5501.
Riders dedicate a week off work. Food costs about $150. Bring good rain gear, a sleeping bag, a decent tent, and a self-inflating mattress to lift you off cold ground. Suntan lotion and insect repellant are a must.
"It isn't bad weather," Larson says. "It's bad equipment."
Except for maybe the wind, Nicolaisen suggests. Larson was canoeing with two small boys once and was unable to make headway against the headwind. He motioned for Nicolaisen to help, but he spoke in quiet tones to his partner, "Just let him suffer awhile."
Later, they turned back, threw Larson a rope and towed him.
The extra time on the river didn't matter to anyone.
As Larson says: "When you don't have to be anywhere, it doesn't make a difference."