Utah kayaker Michael Stone had visions of swaying pines and clear sailing as he drove to Lake Itasca late last month to embark on a bucket-list trip as a Mississippi River “thru-paddler.”
The 2,350-mile trip to New Orleans has become increasingly popular for outdoor thrill seekers and Stone brought an unconventional twist. He would tow a trailing kayak that bulged with 600 pounds of food and gear — an enormous cache he carefully prepared for extended self-reliance.
But within two weeks, the 59-year-old paddler became stranded in the wilderness. He was imperiled by hypothermia and frostbite when a pair of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers rescued him with a canoe on the eve of the Minnesota fishing opener.
“I would have died,” Stone said in a phone interview late last week. “It was life or death.”
Stuck on a mud flat in a boggy stretch of the Mississippi headwaters as darkness was approaching, Stone was in the early throes of freezing to death when he reached for a solar-powered cell phone that was low on juice. He hated to ask anyone for help, but he texted a “Mayday” to his wife, Lori, in Salt Lake City.
“His message was ‘Help, help. I’ll be in trouble if nightfall comes,’ ” she said.
This was the third instance since starting his trip on May 1 that the semi-retired engineer was at serious odds with the river. His rig had proven burdensome in the shallow depths of the snakey, marshy river channel, capsizing twice and causing long camping delays to dry everything out. He also found himself walking for miles in the river when it was too low to paddle, and he cut his hands badly while clearing downed trees and brush from the stream.
The distance that most conventional paddlers cover in two days had taken Stone two weeks. He was in a river swamp miles north of Bemidji on a shallow flow choked by wild rice and cattails. Both kayaks were marooned and the surrounding muck would have swallowed him if he had stepped out.
As a cold front intensified, Stone was getting battered by wind laced with snow and sleet. His hat and gloves had blown into the river, and he was missing a shoe. His trailing kayak was out of reach and he was losing dexterity in his hands.
It was after 7 p.m. on Friday the 13th. DNR Conservation officer Brian Holt was looking ahead to the next day’s fishing patrols on Bemidji area lakes. That’s when a State Patrol dispatcher called on him to find a “kayaker in distress” somewhere between Pine Point Landing and Rice Lake, also known as Manomin Lake.
Holt called lake resident Bud Burger, requesting to use his private access to begin the search. With binoculars, Burger could see two kayaks a mile across the lake.
Holt and a second DNR conservation officer, Paul Parthun, set out in a canoe that was equipped with paddles and poles to push over low spots. The wind was gusting over 20 miles per hour and the temperature was dropping, on its way to an overnight low of 25 degrees.
“I don’t think he would have survived,” Parthun said late last week. “He was so cold, he couldn’t do things. He couldn’t eat a candy bar.”
Parthun and Holt found Stone huddled in his kayak under a sheet of plastic. He was holding an umbrella, trying to block the wind before a gust turned it inside out and slapped it into the mud. Stone was aware of his surroundings but paralyzed by the cold. The officers radioed for an ambulance to meet them at Burger’s dock.
Parthun said the rescue was the most physically exhausting work he has ever done as a warden. He and Holt were paddling and poling against the wind and against an opposing current. They were both drenched in sweat when they returned to shore.
“We were fighting darkness,” Parthun said. “We wanted to get him in as quickly as possible.”
Stone couldn’t walk without assistance. He was shaking uncontrollably as the officers helped him to the ambulance. At a hospital in Bemidji, he was treated for frostbite and released at 3 a.m.
Barry Lyons, a DNR employee in the Bemidji area who cared for Stone, said the heavy gear situation was a “recipe for disaster.” Lyons is affiliated with an informal group of so-called “River Angels” who live along the Mississippi and lend assistance to thru-paddlers.
“He told me he has no doubt he would have died that night,” Lyons said.
Monday, Lyons hauled Stone and his kayaks back to the Mississippi, dropping him off below the dam in Bemidji. By Friday, Stone had paddled just beyond Cass Lake and was committed to finishing his run to the Gulf of Mexico by late September or early October. In deeper water, his two-kayak setup was working well, he said. When Stone reflects on the rescue, he remembers seeing one of the officers breathing heavily and lowering his head as they reached shore.
“They really worked it,” he said. “They were exhausted.”
Lori Stone said the DNR kept her in the loop throughout the ordeal. She was told at one point that the state was ready to launch a helicopter to assist in the search.
“Praise the Lord he was OK,” she said. “I just feel very blessed by everyone’s help.”