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A bit of Turtle River calamity

Polly Scotland poses for a photo after a recent canoe ride on the Turtle River. The Headwaters Canoe Club is hosting a ride on the river on May 14. Submitted photo.

TURTLE RIVER—The accident happened in less than five seconds.

My husband, Lee, and I were on an exploratory tour of a three-mile section of the Turtle River, from Bemidji's Three Island Park, past Castle Highland Golf Course. (We are hosting a ride on this section of river for the Headwaters Canoe Club on Tuesday, May 14.)

The Turtle River was swollen with the snow melt from the April 9 surprise "snow cyclone bomb." High water moved through the narrow stretch of this route as Lee and I glided past the snow-lined riverbank, rocks, and logs at lightning speed.

We snaked our way toward the cross-country ski bridge, dodging several obstacles—until we didn't. After one quick left, we paddled hard right to escape the clutches of a massive cedar tree obstructing the channel. The powerful current shoved us sideways into the tree. Instinctively I clutched one of the protruding branches. I tried to push forward, but my life jacket was hung-up on another branch. In an effort to free myself, I accidentally let go of my paddle. The swift current flowed beneath the canoe and caused me to lean. The canoe tipped. I shrieked as I hit the icy river.

I flailed in shoulder-deep water as I grabbed the gunnel of the water-filled canoe and dragged it toward shore. I saw Lee chase my paddle downstream. After he rescued it, he collected our unsecured water bottles and dry bags, then fought the current back to me.

Together we managed to reach shallow water, right the canoe, drain our boots and paddle towards an exit. Lee found the road and walked a mile back to our car as I stayed warm by shivering, hopping and wiggling.

After we warmed up, we assessed the situation. Lee managed to save my paddle but lost his glasses.

Two weeks later, we returned to the scene of the accident and the offending tree. We don't want other canoeist to tip-over on the May 14 ride.

We tied a rope to our canoe, wrapped the rope around a tree, which I controlled—holding the canoe in place. Using a hand saw, Lee slayed the tentacle-like branches of the cedar tree, sending the offenders downstream. When Lee sawed the last branch, he lost his balance and succumbed into the river again.

Even though Lee was drenched, we pressed onward to finish the tour.

Initially the route was a calm flowage draining into an expansive swamp. But then more challenges appeared. There were three portages over bridges that were too low to safely slip under. The river narrowed when it passed though the golf course property. A thick forest kept the channel so cold, that one portage was over a lengthy sheet of ice and snow.

We hit a large rock and I screamed, thinking we were about to tip again. We managed to recover, but I scared two fishermen who were spearing nearby.

When we came to a culvert running underneath Highway 71, we pulled off the river. From the ground, Lee peeked into the culvert, which initially looked passable, but narrowed inside, making it catastrophic to enter. We didn't complain when we dragged our canoe up the steep embankment to the highway and walked back to our car.

We're ready to lead the way along the Turtle River. Want to join us?

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