Mark and Don’s Excellent Adventure

My best friend when I was in nursing school was Don Nelson. We had both been in the Army, and we liked each other immediately when we met. We had similar interests. Don was a couple inches taller than me, stockier. The biggest difference between us was Don was married and had a kid or kids. His wife, Kelly, might have been pregnant when we met. At any rate, they would end up with two girls, Trista and Lindsey. We became such good friends I became Lindsey’s godfather.

Don Nelson, RN

It was during our senior year of school that Don came up with the brilliant idea to go canoeing on the Little Elk River. As you can kind of tell from the map above, it’s a twelve minute drive from Randall to Little Falls on the highway. If you can see it, the Little Elk is the thin squiggly blue line to the right of the highway. Don figured it’d take three hours or so to canoe that distance on the river.

Don picked this place for a couple reasons. His parents, my parents and Kelly’s parents all lived in the Little Falls area. We could go up there for the weekend, see our parental units, and go canoeing. It was perfect. Except Kelly had no desire to go canoeing. She would visit her parents.

Seeing how we were going to be canoeing for a only a short amount of time, our provisions were minimal. One can of Coke. One pack of cigarettes. One lighter. That was all we took. We didn’t even have life jackets. It was probably 8:30 AM. We put the canoe in the water–Don was in the bow, I sat astern, and we were off. It was a warm, sunny day; the perfect day for an adventure like this.


The Little Elk was peaceful, scenic and serene. It’s called the Little Elk for a reason. It’s not big, as in wide, big. It flows mostly narrowly through the woods and fields northwest of Little Falls. We floated with the current, lit up cigarettes, and reveled in the beauty all around us. And two things happened: Don’s lighter died, and I knocked over the can of Coke, which I had strategically placed by my feet on the canoe bottom. No big deal, we were only going to be on the water for three hours.

The fact that the Little Elk flows through the woods implies the presence of a lots of trees, and there were a lots of them–some of which had fallen, to become submerged or partially submerged logs. Some became bridges, spanning the banks of the Little Elk.


We laughed as we ducked our heads to go under fallen trees, paddled to pick up speed to slide over others. Neither Don nor I were expert canoeists, but we merged our limited skills. We managed to navigate all the obstacles in front of us, and we were also fortunate. We were laughing and having a blast.

And then we hit something like unto this:


We hit treefall hell. There were fallen trees everywhere; above the waterline, below the waterline, at the waterline, damming the flow of water. It was as if an army of amphetamine beavers had been unleashed in that area of the woods, and very quickly, our canoe trip was no longer fun.

It took a couple of hours, but we eventually got through the fallen tree obstacle course. It would’ve been a great time to celebrate with a cigarette, but we didn’t have a lighter that worked anymore. We did take a breather, and off in the distance we espied a barn. Rested up, we set out for it.


We would see that barn for something like the next four hours.


It would be close.


Then far away.


It was off to our left.


Then off to our right.

Randall and Little Falls are about ten miles apart. Please refer to the map, if needed. It’s almost a straight line shot. However, the Little Elk River didn’t flow in a straight line. It twisted and turned, cutback and switched back in a curving mess for something like 500 miles in that ten mile distance. We were probably into our third hour on the river when Don started saying, “Right around the next bend, the Mississippi River!”

There were only two problems with this: One, the Mississippi River was never around the next bend. Two, Don wouldn’t stop saying it. Don is an unquenchable optimist. It’s one of the things I admire about him. But on this day, I seriously thought about smacking him in the head with my canoe paddle. Really hard.

We kept paddling toward the Phantom Barn. We called it that because it would take forever to reach it. Don decided we needed to try to outthink the river, so we tried portaging around some of the more obvious curves, to try to shorten our adventure. We would pull the canoe out of the river, carry it a short distance, put it back in the water again.


There was only one problem. We had no idea if we were actually cutting any time off of our trip. So we decided to stay on the river. We knew it would eventually merge with the Mississippi, we simply had to endeavor to persevere.

The Phantom Barn was still visible, but now we were closing in on it. And then we saw the car.


We wondered what the car was doing out there in the woods, all by itself. Perhaps it had run away from home. Maybe it was lost… Don wanted to go check it for matches or a lighter. While we were deliberating what to do, a very, very shapely leg appeared from the backseat, and draped itself across the front seat, then the car started rocking and shaking. And we knew why the car had been parked in the woods.


A young couple had chosen it as their make out place, and they had clearly progressed beyond the hugging and kissing stage in their relationship. We watched them for a moment, standing in the canoe so we could get a better view. I wanted to see what was attached to that leg… Then we decided to move on.


The Phantom Barn eventually disappeared from view. The Little Elk River continued on and on. And on. And then we hit another area of massive treefall. We were forced to portage. The banks of the river were quite high where we were stuck on the river; not the most advantageous place to disembark from a canoe.

Don was able to scramble up the bank. He then reached down for the bow of the canoe to pull it up to the top of the bank. Don was becoming frustrated. His three hour tour had become a six or seven hour nightmare tour from hell, complete with obstacle courses, and his goddamn lighter had died. He yanked the canoe in an upward direction with a lots of force, and something like unto this resulted:


I was unceremoniously dumped into the river. I was fortunate in that I didn’t lose my glasses. The water wasn’t terribly cold, but I was now drenched, and I had no dry clothes to change into. We had no idea how much longer our canoeing adventure was going to last; the Little Elk was probably longer than the Nile–and the sun was starting to go down. We still had roughly three hours of sunlight and warmth, but we were canoeing through a forest of mature shade trees. It didn’t take long for me to start shivering, despite all the exercise I was getting.


I’m going to say we canoed for another fours hours for sure. Maybe five. It was pitch dark when we finally reached the Mississippi. And windy. A strong headwind came up out of nowhere and blew in our faces. There would be no leisurely coasting into town to complete our trip. We had to paddle like hell to make any headway against the wind.

I think our canoe trip took twelve or thirteen hours, and I felt like I had died when it ended. Actually, I couldn’t feel anything. I was half frozen from being dumped in the Little Elk. My once soaking wet clothes were now merely damp, but I think I damn near died from hypothermia, despite paddling my ass off.

We eventually made it to Don’s car. We secured the canoe to it, and even more eventually we made it to Kelly’s parents’ house. Kelly thought we had spent the last ten hours in a bar, so she was furious when we finally pulled up in the driveway. She started tearing into Don and me for being lying bastards and getting drunk–

“Hey!” I said very loudly “Do I look like I’ve had any fucking fun today?”

And when Kelly saw how miserable we both were, she smiled.

Don and I never went canoeing again. Ever. I think once was enough for us–it certainly was for me. We did other stuff, and stayed close friends after nursing school.

Don and Kelly divorced. Don and Beth got married. They built a beautiful home on the Mississippi River. And they bought a huge pontoon. Lea and I cruised the river several times with Don and Beth. Good times.

But never in a canoe.

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