Crushed and blended might have been the way that area local’s Les Craig and Duane Barkeim would have preferred their drinks after a day-long paddle from Montevideo to Granite Falls. Instead, the two almost ended up simply crushed and blended themselves when high river flows and heavy winds nearly forced the pair over, or through, the Granite Falls Dam.
Craig, 81, of Granite Falls and Barkeim, 72, of Hanley Falls, described weather conditions as ideal the morning that they set out on a 20 mile river trek this past Friday at 9:00 a.m in Montevideo’s Lagoon Park. As relatively experienced paddlers and Navy veterans who look the part, it was the type of trip they had done many times before without incident.
Barkeim said that the trip started to get hairy when the wind began to pick up around the time that they passed Wegdahl. As they Swiftly moved down the Minnesota River in a ‘72 Glas-tec canoe, the boat’s lack of a keel and high profile made the craft more susceptible to the whims of the winds and current, which according to the DNR was traveling hastily at around 5,000 cubic feet per second.
And, yet, the two managed––or at least until a seemingly pent up blast of wind caught the canoe’s bow and overturned the craft shortly past the boat access located downstream of Gatchell’s farm and before the railroad tressel. “When it hit, there was no mercy,” said Barkeim, who estimated that the gust was 30-35 mph––a not unlikely figure given that 34 mph was the maximum wind speed recorded at the Granite Falls airport on the day.
Despite the initial shock to the system, the pair said the temperature of the water was not overly uncomfortable during the resulting 2.5 mile river float. More troubling was that along with their cooler, in which they had packed their lunches, were their two paddles, now floating quickly down river.
That both were wearing life jackets is a major reason each is still alive. The two said that the current was strong enough where it would have been futile to abandon the craft and swim for shore.
Unable to get back into the canoe while immersed in the river channel, the brother-in-laws worked to situate the overturned but afloat canoe in a manner where they could guide it toward the bank. Only mother nature wasn’t having it, and every time they approached the land's edge the current pushed them back toward the main channel of the river. “We were talking back and forth trying to figure out what to do. We would try one bank, drift for a while then try the other,” Barkeim said. But the results were always the same.
Page 2 of 3 - Craig and Barkeim kept level heads as the lights of Richter Field began to show in the distance. Thoughts of the approaching dam began to take a predominant role in the consciousness of the pair, but Barkeim had an idea that seemed promising.
“I told Les there is an island just up stream from the dam, perhaps we can hit it.”
And so the two guided the craft on a direct course with the land mass. For a second, it seemed as if it was to be their saving grace––but then once again the current got a hold of them and ever so effortlessly moved them over and away from the island, leaving almost nothing between them and the dam.
It was at this moment that a wave of sheer terror washed over them, as they realized that all that stood between them and imminent death was a cable line of buoys about 80 yards prior to the dam.
“I said our only chance is to grasp the cable,” recalled Barkeim. “And that’s what we did.”
Abandoning the canoe, which was subsequently pulled over the dam, the two grabbed hold of the cable and began pulling themselves from the river with each heading toward an opposite side of the bank. Barkeim recalled grasping the cable and his body shooting out like a surfboard before he was able to get himself situated on the line. Looking directly back, he could see the whirl pool created by the dam’s turbine. If he let go, he would have effectively been pureed. Had Craig lost his grip, he would go the way of the canoe.
Hollering for help, the pair’s pleas were overheard by water plant operator Mike Makarral who was out on the dam’s catwalk. Makarral called in the emergency and within minutes members of the Yellow Medicine County Sherriff’s Department and Granite Falls Police, Fire and Ambulance were on scene and heading down the banks to assist the men.
Barkeim said that by the time he approached shore he had reached total exhaustion, and that the hand of the emergency crew member that reached out to help with the final push felt like nothing less than a Godsend.
“When I saw his hand, that was about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I actually blacked out from the time that I got out of the river up until I found myself sitting in the ambulance.”
Both Craig and Barkeim were looked over by ambulance members before it was determined that there was no need for hospitalization. The canoe would later be found cracked in half on the banks of Memorial Park. Police also later located a paddle and lunch container.
Page 3 of 3 - Returning home, they were treated to warm drinks and a fair share of ribbing and finger wagging from family members. Asked if they would ever venture the voyage again, Craig seemed as if he’d be willing. But for Barkeim, never again.