Editor's note: In March 25th's Star Tribune, Frank Bures of Minneapolis wrote about his sudden canoe accident and near-drowning last spring on the Mississippi River. Today he recalls recently meeting his rescuers.

The day after I almost drowned in the Mississippi River last year, my fingers ached from the cold. My head felt thick, but at the same time my thoughts raced. I pored over the details: the way the canoe had tipped, slowly, then quickly; the shock of the freezing water; the struggle to get to shore. The sudden knowledge that I wouldn't.

Then the red canoe, with two young men.

The rope.

The second chance.

I ran this chain of events on a loop, cataloging my mistakes and miscalculations. I tried to piece together a version of the story in which there was a good reason those two arrived at that exact moment. But no matter how I moved the pieces of the puzzle, they refused to take that shape.

For weeks I felt in limbo between two timelines: the one where I'd lived, and the one where I hadn't. My mind toggled back and forth. It took nearly a month before I could accept the arbitrary terms of my survival. By then, the episode began to feel like something that had happened, rather than something that was still happening.

One thing I never forgot, though, was my rescuers. I knew their first names — Hunter and Jake — but nothing else. Who were they? What were they doing on the river at 7 a.m. in March? How did our paths converge at the last possible minute?

“They knew the risk that a drowning person will swamp a rescue boat. After discussing this, they agreed if I got too close, they'd drop the line to keep all three of us from dying. ”
Frank Bures about his rescuers

Whenever I biked across the river, I looked down for a splash of red. But they were never there. At home, the Internet just told me there were lots of hunters named Jake.

A year later, I published a story about the experience in the Outdoors Weekend section of the Star Tribune. The whole affair — the foolishness, the hubris, the dumb luck —felt embarrassing to put out in the world. But if it saved a life, I thought, a little embarrassment was worth it.

Besides, there was a small chance someone who read it might know my rescuers.

The story went viral. It raced through the swollen streams of social media, racking up huge page views. E-mails started to pour in, from friends, from strangers, from people who'd lost loved ones to cold water and from those who'd nearly lost themselves.

Then, an e-mail arrived:

Hi Frank,

Hunter and I read the story you wrote in the Star Tribune today. We also think about this experience quite often, we've wondered if we would cross paths with you at some point. After all, South Minneapolis isn't that big. Would you want to grab a drink sometime? Would be great to meet under better circumstances.


Jake and Hunter

Not long after that, we met at a bar within a mile of the river. I arrived early. Sitting in a booth, I felt oddly nervous. A few minutes later, the two walked in, and we embraced like old friends.

They were taller than I expected. Jake, it turned out, worked for the federal government, though last year he'd still been in grad school. Hunter was a hydrologist with the state Department of Transportation.

We sat down and ordered drinks while they told me their story. For a few years, the two had been paddling the Mississippi in sections. After a long pandemic winter, they were eager to get out on the river. They'd planned to go later in the day, but Jake had to get back for a meeting, so they decided to go at dawn. As they were getting ready, Hunter, a whitewater kayaker, grabbed his "throw line" for rescues.

"I figured we had it, and it's cold water," he said. "So I threw it in at the last minute."

Hunter picked up Jake around 6:30. By 6:45, they were at the Bohemian Flats landing near the University of Minnesota. Once on the water, they had a tailwind and sped downstream.

Near the Lake Street bridge, they saw something up ahead. They thought it might be a log, but as they got closer they could see it was a canoe.

At first, they couldn't see anyone in the water. Then they saw me, but couldn't tell if I was alive. When they got closer, they could see I was trying to make it to shore.

"When I saw you," Hunter said, "I thought, 'He's not going to make it.'"

They knew the risk that a drowning person will swamp a rescue boat. After discussing this, they agreed if I got too close, they'd drop the line to keep all three of us from dying.

In the bow, Jake threw the rope. When they turned toward shore, he handed the line back to Hunter. By then, I was close to the stern. I saw a loop of rope drilled through the end of the boat.

"I can just hold this," I said. There was a flash of alarm on Hunter's face, but the boat stayed steady, so he picked up his paddle and pushed toward shore.

When my feet finally touched the mud, I climbed out. They hurried downstream to get my canoe. I took my phone out of its dry bag and called my wife, then ran down the shore to get my canoe.

About halfway there, we met as they paddled upstream. They asked if I was OK. I said I was, and that my wife was coming.

We exchanged first names, then parted ways. Later, they regretted not staying to make sure I was actually all right. But I was running down the shore, and it seemed like there was nothing left to do. So they went on their way.

“ It took nearly a month before I could accept the arbitrary terms of my survival. ”
Frank Bures

The day felt different now. They talked the incident over as they paddled downstream, the magnitude of it sinking in. Then they went to shore, portaged up the steep bank, and jogged back to get their car. They talked about it for the rest of the day. Back home, they read about the two college kids in Iowa who died the same morning in cold water.

"We knew it was a close call," Jake said, "but reading about the crew team later that day, it was like, 'Oh, wow, this truly can kill people.'"

The experience affected them deeply, even as they struggled to make sense of it. Hunter said some people heard the story like a lesson in heroism. But he didn't see it that way. They didn't feel like heroes. For him, it was more about strange timing, or maybe something like fate.

"For a couple weeks," he said, "if not a couple months, I thought about it quite a bit. One thing I couldn't get over is how we ended up being on the river at that time. It was just this random sequence of events that lead to us getting up at 6:30 in the morning on Sunday to go paddle, which is not a normal thing for me to do."

"What are the odds that we would have been there?" asked Jake. "It just didn't make sense. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. It just seems like we were supposed to be there."

None of us knew quite what to make of the convergence, but I felt a deep gratitude for it. We stayed at the bar and talked for a long time: about canoeing, about the river, about their jobs and their families. Hunter had a 2-year-old and another on the way. We talked about things you don't get to do when you drown in a river.

Finally, it was time to leave. As we stood up, Hunter made a suggestion.

"We should go paddling some time."

"When it warms up," Jake added.

I thought about the river, about the water, about the way things come together.

"Yeah," I said. "I would love that."

Frank Bures is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis. frankbures.com