campfire tales Nanook's Campfire Tales
Dam Running on the Nashwaak

"It's not natural."

That's what I tell myself each time I approach the ruins of the old Boss Gibson dam on the Nashwaak River by Marysville.

As soon as I come around the bend and spy the eroded pillars of concrete on the right bank, I know that within a minute, my boat will plunge into chaos. There is no normal, no natural path through these jumble piles.

gibsonturn (160K)
The Gibson Dam ruins lie around this turn.

You see, the dam ruins date back to the huge lumber runs of the 1850's, and the skeleton of the dam stood largely intact until the late 1990's. When the pile-drivers and wrecking balls finally knocked down the dam, the chunks of concrete and rebar were bulldozed downstream into jumbles of jagged edges with deep holes between.

Now we know that, if a river is left to its own devices, it will make its own path of least resistance path down a rapid to the pool below. A canoeist may follow this natural path, and enjoy an exhilarating ride down to the calm water past the last rock.

But once the dam-busters have their way with the river-bed, there is no logic to the flow. No matter how skilled the canoeist is in reading a rapid, there are no rules to follow in the rockpiles.

In the freshet high water, a boater may glide over many more of the rocks in the channel, and is more likely to stay afloat throughout the run. I've negotiated the rockpiles at this old dam site many times myself.

Nashwaak River
The former Gibson Dam was removed to favor fish passage. I'm not sure the needs of canoeists were considered.

But this time was different. It was late June, and the water level had dropped to near summertime low. So the sheer number of rocks poking up was considerable, and daunting too.

It wasn't far past the entrance into chaos before Dave and I had no choice but to breach on a rock. There was nowhere to go.

The boat yawed all the way over to the gunwale, water poured in, and Dave and I poured out. Oh yes, and everything that was inside the boat poured out too ... coolers, fishing rods, tackle boxes, and more, including my spare paddle.

I remember the jolt as I banged my forearm against the rock. I had to release my grip on my paddle as my fingers went numb. I feared as I fought for balance in the swirling current that I would stand up and look at my arm and see it dangling, broken. But I was able to flex my fingers, and the numbness eased away. Phew.

Nashwaak River
By Neills Farm, Nashwaak

I swear, there's nothing heavier than a canoe when it's full of water and bent against a rock in the unforgiving current. Thankfully, my boat was pinned against more than one rock along its length, so it maintained its shape. It did not break its back and did not splay itself inside out against just one rock, gutted. I've seen that before, it's ugly.

I saw Dave grab two of our three paddles before they washed downstream. I gotta give him credit, he knew we had to save them first. The third paddle, our spare, one I had owned for nearly 35 years, bobbed away down the current with just about everything else. You'd think I knew enough to tie in my gear, but ... I know, no excuse.

gibsondam2 (234K)
The jagged remnants of the dam make it dangerous for paddlers.

Dave was obliged to stand out in the current holding on to the paddles while I fought with the boat. With a supreme effort, I was able to tilt it upstream so some of the water inside could spill out over the gunwales.

At the same time, with the same effort, I slid the boat sideways up on to the rock, smartly so as to keep it from buckling on the stone. With heave after wrenching heave, it twitched, and I managed to finally slide it off the rock.

Then I had to wrestle the boat, still half-full of water, across and over the rock-piles to shore. Several times, I felt my feet lose contact with the river bottom as I flailed my way across. I despaired I might lose my canoe altogether. But finally, I gained the shore, tipped it over, and drained it.

gibsonrockpile (106K)
A canoeist has little chance to run the rockpile below the dam in summertime low water.

All this time, Dave was obliged to stay out there in the current. Every time he tried to start toward shore, he was hampered with the paddles he held in his arms, unable to keep his balance.

He teetered patiently in the current, until I was finally able to venture out far enough to toss him one end of my long rope. He was at last able to flounder to shore. Yes, we both had a lifejacket on. Thank goodness, the water was summer-time warm.

So once on shore, we took stock. We had one intact boat, two paddles, and one fly rod left. We could see various items bobbing downstream and out of sight. So off we set, down the rest of the rapid.

We couldn't have made more than ten paddle strokes before we flipped her again, striking a rock that just wouldn't let go. Pinned again.

nasheve (76K)
The lower Nashwaak is calm and scenic, except in drought.

Well, I won't bore you with the details. It was just as bad as the spill seconds before. At least we were closer to shore this time. We'd already lost to the river just about all there was to lose.

After wrenching my boat off the rock and draining it again, we walked it on ropes along the shore the rest of the way to calm water, and resumed our paddle towards home.

biffsunset (149K)
Walking bridge, mouth of Nashwaak

We managed to catch up with much of our gear as we paddled along. A friendly fisherman retrieved our coolers as they sped by, and returned them to us in the pool below. I found my hat bobbing in a shoreline eddy just downstream.

I realized that it's not worth it to attempt the rapids at a ruined dam site ... in low water, at least. That's not a trivial lesson either, as there are four such broken dams on the length of the Nashwaak River alone.

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