By Joanne M. Haas
Bureau of Law Enforcement
An hour after Conservation Warden Cody Adams woke early Saturday morning to see a 5-foot ravine where his front lawn used to be in flooded Crawford County, he was maneuvering his boat down the rapidly rising Wisconsin River clogged with fast-moving debris in search of more than two dozen canoeists whose safety after the night of heavy rains and storms was unknown.
And in the case of the canoeists literally minutes from slamming into a railroad bridge’s concrete pillars, it was a text book example of precision boat handling by Warden Adams – and maybe some luck.
Warden Adams’ repeated key piece of instruction for the canoeists he helped during what would be about a two-hour operation? "Hang on and be calm."
“I had heard a lot of hard rain all night,” Adams said after the on-river rescues. When he got the call from fellow Warden Mike Nice early Saturday morning about washed-out roads and water in places no one had seen before, they both knew they better get suited up and offer their assistance to the emergency officials in Grant and Crawford counties.
The wardens immediately became part of a multi-agency response to help those affected by the flooded conditions that greeted residents and tourists in this southwestern area early Saturday morning. Eight inches of rain pounded the Boscobel region overnight, causing widespread flooding and big-time problems with local roads.
But those were land problems. The Wisconsin River was another high-priority emergency situation the wardens could answer with their on-water rescue skills and boats.
Grant County emergency officials told Adams about 26 canoeists known to be camping on Wisconsin River sandbars as part of an excursion with Wisconsin River Outings of Boscobel.
“We had no idea if they were safe or not safe. Telephone signals were minimal on the sandbars,” Adams said.
The most important thing for the wardens was to move fast because the Wisconsin River’s current was dangerously strong in this rising water that was now loaded with plenty of storm debris.
“It looked like islands floating down the river,” Adams said. “Canoeists were caught. Many of them woke up to find their canoes washed out and not sure how to get to safety. This stretch of river between Avoca and Prairie du Chien is popular with tourists.”
Adams partnered with Boscobel fireman Jackson Fry for the response. Once Adams and Fry entered the river off Woodman Lake, they immediately found two groups of canoeists who had been caught off guard by the storms overnight.
“They were trying to pack up their gear and had moved to higher ground on the sandbar. I told them I would come back for them, but that I was looking for people possibly stranded near the railroad bridge.”
Adams kept moving in his warden boat with firefighter Fry. They came upon another group. These were whitewater rafters who refused help, saying they were aware of the situation but were going to go ahead with their plans. So Adams kept moving.
“We found five females in two canoes and one kayak,” he said. “They were very inexperienced and frightened because the water levels were coming up and the speed of the current was intense. We brought them into shore.”
But exactly how did Adams bring any canoeist to shore? Well, boat skills and a steady hand.
Adams had the canoeists stay in their vessels, which were loaded with their gear. They were instructed to hold the side of the warden boat. Firefighter Fry sat near the helm of the warden boat and reached over the sides to hang onto the ends of the canoe or canoes. This is as hard as it sounds. Adams’ warden vessel is a 17-foot Pro-Drive boat with about a 35-horsepower engine.
“This was the only way to do it because the canoes were loaded with gear. They had lots of tents, food and drink,” he said.
The wardens also worked together to keep the rescue operation moving faster than the water was rising and the debris was flowing.
In the case of the five women, Adams instructed one of the canoeists to paddle to shore, and he recalled he yelled to one of the women: “We will be back for you!” Adams met Wardens Mike Nice and Mike Williams, who carefully motored their patrol boat to the stranded canoe and brought the two women back to safety.
What about the kayaker who was with the two crews of canoeists? Adams instructed her to get into his boat with her kayak. "It didn't have any gear in it," he said. And the second canoe was hauled in by Warden Adams and Firefighter Fry the same way as previous hauls.
By the time Adams spotted the canoeists near the Woodman railroad bridge, they were about three minutes from striking it. “They (canoeists) were pretty scared. This was dangerous to maneuver,” Adams said.
Adams first had to get under the bridge with his boat. With only 6 to 8 inches of water clearance between his motor and the bridge, he wasn’t sure he’d make it— but he did. Once he reached the canoeists, he had them position their canoes at the sides of his boat and offered this one key phrase: "Hang on and be calm."
“We took it very slow on the way back,” Adams said. “If a canoe had bumped into any of those concrete bridge pillars, it would have tipped that canoe and filled it with water—fast.”
Adams said he personally pulled in about six people from the Chicago, Minnesota and Madison areas. He said there also was a group of 26 Boy Scouts who were safe and on land by the time he passed their location.
While Adams finished his sweep, fellow Wardens Ed McCann and Dale Hochhausen also made a follow-up survey from Millville to the Mississippi River to make sure no one was left behind.
Adams also said he saw a local man helping rescue other canoeists, but the man was gone once everyone was safe. Adams wanted to thank the man for his assistance, which was greatly appreciated, but he never got the opportunity. The rescues were done between 7 and 9 a.m.
“We really had no idea how many people were out there. Many people canoe this area. We were thinking the worst case scenario,” Adams said. “Yet, everybody is accounted for that we know of. And we will remain on alert as more rains are expected.”