PIN ON THE STONY RIVER. by Nora Whitmore

Pin on the Stony River

{EDITOR’S NOTE: Enjoy this harrowing adventure from our friend Nora, a Midwestern paddler who gets out in all types of boats and in all types of conditions, which invariably leads to dealing with a MAJOR WALLACE. Nora, who also is a certified instructor in both paddling and rescue, and her friends escaped this misadventure with thumbs up, thankfully! Read her fantastic boater blog at and spread the word!}
Photo by Tony Vavrika

I’ve heard about the Stony River for many years now.  Anyone who has ever ran it has loved the river!  I’ve watched over and over a beautiful video taken by my friends a few years ago and have always wanted to run it.  This spring has been the most unusual for whitewater in Minnesota. Barely anything ran and what did run, ran at a medium/low to low level if it got up to runnable at all.  Most of the creeks didn’t run at all.  The Stony River is fed by marshy wet lands so it doesn’t flash like many of the creeks up here.  Through the magic of Facebook our artist friend Joi Electa hooked us up with another artist Heidi Pinkerton, who went out and looked at the gauge.  It was 1.3 and Dan said it was runnable at that level.  No hair boating Nora just low scrapy fun.  He had done it at .8 and said he was still able to make it down but not to expect much.  I told him all I wanted was an easy day on an easy river with good friends and a low level easy run was good for me.  Sunday was planned gnar day on the Lower St Louis.

The start of the run on the Stony River

Andy on the bottom of the first rapid

   The crew for the day ended up being Dan, Dave, Andy, Ken, Tony and I.  From the cities it was a 4 1/2 hour drive north…5 1/2 for me from home.  We made good time and put on just before noon.  The  River was a tad bit lower than the day before.  The first sluice was low water but fun bumping down.  We rock dodged and just a short distance further we could see the first horizon line.  Trying to make it over through the rocks was difficult.  My boat spun backwards around rocks but I made it into the eddy.  The water was low.

Dan on Always Right

  We looked at the first drop.  Wow!  Bare bones nasty.  The line was about 3 feet wide and good luck keeping straight on line with the pushy shallow water above.  If you missed the line it would be pins and pitons.  Dan was the only one to run it and he styled it!  The rest of us had no regrets walking.

Triple Drop

  Back on the river it was boulders everywhere.  The most beautiful scenery you ever saw! White pines, moss covered rock and root beer water!  Breathtaking!  Fun easy rapids you had to pick your way down through the deeper water.  Triple drop was a scrape down and I could see where it would be nothing but big fun at higher water.  Every rapid ended in a huge recovery pool.

  We were approaching what is called the Box.  The biggest rapid on the run.  There was one small rapid leading down to an eddy and then the river funneled through two high rock walls into the Box.  Dave told me to run the small rapid  left of center and eddy out before the Box.  Both Dan and Dave said it wasn’t  much of anything just read and run.  Entering in it appeared to be an easy rapid…nothing threatening.  There was a little ledge towards the bottom and when I got close I saw a rock tooth sticking up.  Since I had right momentum going I pushed it a little further right to try to miss the rock.  I had slithered around and over many, many rocks on the river that day and  I wasn’t too worried.  Until I stopped dead.  It was the most sudden stop I have ever had combined with the shock of knowing you’re pinned.  The rock underneath the river was the perfect shape to catch my boat and stop and hold it against the tooth.  Water was piling up on my back within inches of my head.  I was pinned in my boat and it wasn’t moving.   One of the most dangerous, deadliest,  scenarios that can happen to a paddler.  Dave hit the whistle.

 With ice cold water pounding on me I tried to grab my spray skirt.  I lunged forward and on the third try I got it and pulled.  I started pulling my legs out but with the water pounding on me it was difficult but I got them out.  I hooked my toes under my cockpit rim to hold me and now I was literally sitting on top of my boat in the middle of the rapid.  I knew I was safe then.  Until I had gotten out of my boat it could have shifted over at anytime and drowned me.
  OK.  I took stock.  The boys are now rock climbing up river with throw bags to get me.  Looking around I knew if I left my boat it would be very hard to retrieve it. I knew at the moment I was safe and had time to work with it.   I tried to move the boat but it wouldn’t move even a fraction.    Ken had stayed in his kayak below me and I caught his eye and threw my paddle to him.  Paddle was safe.  Then Dave threw a great shot with the throw rope to me.  By then I had found a rock behind my boat to stand on.  The water coming over the boat was ice cold and still pushing me hard so I had to hang on with one hand and try to tie something off on the boat with the rope.  All I could find was my back band rope.  Well better than nothing.  My heat and strength was leaving me very fast.  My hands in my gloves were not working very well and I was starting to shake.  I wanted the boys to throw me a bag with a carabiner on it but communication for me was difficult.  They knew I wanted a biner so they slid one down the rope to me.  I was getting even colder and weaker.  I didn’t have the ability or strength to clip the carabiner on the end of the bag so I just clipped it onto the back grab handle.  That was it. It wasn’t on good enough to try pulling but it was on the boat.  I couldn’t do any more at that point.

  Now I was looking at the swim.  Shallow and down over rocks.  This was going to hurt and I was praying to keep my feet up so I didn’t get a foot entrapment. The other deadliest scenario for a paddler.    I then slipped off the rock, assumed the swimmer’s position and as soon as I hit the bottom swam hard since a swim through the next rapid called The Box would be a trip to the hospital…at least.

  On shore I was shaking from head to toe.  Adrenalin, cold and exhaustion.  Now we all stood looking at the boat.  We took count of the rescue equipment we had with and experience.  Dave and I had taken swift water rescue classes and all of us had years of experience.  It was decided that half would go across and try to work from that side of the river since the boat was closest to river right. Ken stayed in his boat in case it came loose so he could catch it before it went into the Box.

   We were able to get a rope under it  but each time we tried to pull it wouldn’t move even a bit.  The depression it was in was an incredibly perfect fit for my boat.  We tried a couple of other rope moves but without having one tied off on the handles it just slipped off the boat.  The guys talked together on the other side of the river and then paddled back.  It was getting late in the afternoon.  The boat would have to stay there.  Dave had a GPS so it was decided that Dave and I would hike out while the other four would paddle out.  We would all meet at the Y in the road.

  We stowed Dave’s boat and my paddle and started the hike.   Dave pointed out the direction and said it was just over a mile to the road…through the woods over ravines and ridges.  We bush whacked and pushed through brush.  Climbed over logs and slipped in the wet snow.  After a bit Dave went to check his GPS.  It was gone!  Oh my!  We were lucky for that inch of wet snow as we followed our  tracks back until we found it.  Dave looked at me and said he was surprised I didn’t see it when he dropped it.  I usually see everything!  I’m pretty sure that was a flag about how my condition was at  that point.

  We hiked on.  Dave was having some trouble with the GPS. The area of Minnesota we were in was the center for iron mining in the state and compasses didn’t work in this area.   He also mentioned that the batteries were low.  Hmmm.  The directions weren’t making much sense to me and it was very disheartening when we came upon tracks in the snow…ours.  We had circled.  The compass on the GPS wasn’t working so we couldn’t get it to point where we needed to go.  We had to walk and see by where we were from the last reading where we were headed.  Getting closer to the road we came across a trail that took us to the road. It was a two hour hard hike out.  I won’t lie when I say the thought of maybe having to spend the night in the woods with a search party out looking for us was heavy on my mind.

    Left or right to the Y?  GPS said right.  So we walked down the road.  Again the GPS said, no, now the Y is behind you…so we walked the other way.  Vroom, a car came around the bend and yippee!   It was the boys looking for us.  It was getting very late.  Everything would be much better in the morning.

   We got motel rooms in Ely and ate at a micro brewery called the Boathouse.  Excellent food and beer!  And I made one odd request of my waiter.  “Do you have an old pool cue with maybe a broken tip you have laying around”?  I wanted to tape a carabiner to the end of it with a rope to clip into my boat from shore.  The guys all assured me there were enough sticks in the woods that would work…did I say that beer was good?


The next morning we were in high spirits and the day promised sunshine.  Waffles and coffee and we had a plan.  Dave with fresh batteries in his GPS and I were going to hike in.  Dan, Tony, Ken and Andy were doing the paddle in.   The hike only took an hour with a functioning GPS but with the warmer temperatures and full gear on Dave and I were near heat stroke when we got to the river.  The paddling group had just arrived maybe two minutes before us and Tony already had a proper big stick.  Dan Gorilla taped the rope and biner on and held onto Tony as he leaned out to try to hook the grab handle.  A couple of tries and they rearranged the tape.  Tony leaned out once again and SNAG!!  The rope was binered to the boat.  WhooHoo!!   Tony gave a couple of tugs and it moved this time.  They quickly set up a Z Drag and with one pull the boat popped right out of it’s overnight bed!!  Whew!  They tied another rope to the boat and tossed it over to Dave.  We lined the boat over and I was on a rock as far out as I could go and caught the rope and brought the boat in!!  We were one happy crew!!

The spot where I pinned.

  Then it was time to take an inspection of my boat.  The damage to the boat was very minimal.  A dent in the bottom and three big scratches.  That was it!!  On the inside I didn’t know what to expect.  My water bottle, throwbag, float bags, foam outfitting and everything was still in the boat!  The seat pad had came off of two rivets and that was the extent of it’s overnight stay in the Stony River!  Truly amazing!  What I had feared the most was that the boat was too damaged to paddle and I would have to walk it out to the road.

    Everyone was happy with a job so very well done we then looked at the next rapid…The Box.  It was low and steep and you could see a lot of rocks.  I looked at one and said “That’s a pin!  I’m walking”.  Physically and emotionally I was done for the day.  Tony, Dave and Ken agreed and were walking.  Dan, who has become an amazing paddler in his L’Edge ran first and really nailed it.  Andy who has also been just amazing in his L’Edge followed…and pinned on the rock!  I swear my heart stopped as I watched him working his boat free of the pin.   He finished the run off endering out of the hole and a big smile on his face.  Wow!  We all paddled to the lake and finished out the run.  What a weekend!  Personally I couldn’t get off that river fast enough that day and I swore to myself  I would never run it again.  Then as I down loaded the photos my heart changed.  It’s a beautiful river…it was just short changed this weekend on the water.  Next time I’m shooting for over 4 on the gauge…I hear it’s a hoot at that level!

  Looking back on the whole ordeal there were a lot of things that worked out so beautiful.  The crew for the day was the best!  Everyone worked well together and we all seemed to fit into the solution in different ways.  I got a first hand lesson in how fast hypothermia in freezing cold moving water can take a body down.  You read about it but it’s scary just how fast it happens in real life even with a dry suit on.  Personally I will carry more in my boat and on my personal self on runs that people consider low water easy.  Anything can happen anywhere at any time.   I wasn’t  the only one who had left some of my rescue gear in my truck that day.  Gorilla Tape!  Good stuff!

  I was spooked after that had happened and cautious the rest of the run…yes I was nervous but understandably.  I paddle many, many hours and it is to be expected that sometimes things like this just happen.  I don’t know of any paddler that hasn’t had a bad day on the river.   Will this affect my paddling?  I probably won’t care for low water runs much…but then I wasn’t a fan of low water runs to start off with. Mentally I’m OK with it and looking forward to my next run…this weekend!

  I’m also impressed with the beating my new boat has taken.  My Jackson Villain took a hard piton in Chile and the dent had popped right out within hours.  This years Villain has a new grab handle.  I was wondering how it would hold up with a Z Drag attached and the huge amount of pressure it would take to pull it out of the rapid.  It was rock solid!  The boat had a large dent on the bottom and three big scratches.  The dent was mostly popped out by the end of the paddle.  The next day it’s barely there.  The factory outfitting all stayed in the boat, hip pads, foam, etc.  Nothing came loose or tore off after a night in the river.  All my gear was binered in and stayed on the boat.  Nothing tore loose.  That’s one hell of a boat!

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