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The Wreck of the Prospector by Mike Ivey

As I write this, the canoe season is fast approaching, and by the time the rivers open, I'll be ready to get back on the water.

I've scarcely dipped a paddle in Wisconsin waters since last April, however, when I nearly drowned on the Yahara River.

Yes, the mighty Yahara.

Not only did I suffer the embarassment of the dumping in one of the tamest rivers anywhere, I nearly totaled my brand new 17 foot, 52-pound Souris River Prospector, wrapping it around a piling at the County N bridge in southeastern Dane County.

So if the best stories are those you live to tell about, then this one bears recounting.

Three friends and I had set out in two canoes for a leisurely five-mile paddle south of Stoughton. The Yahara runs slow and wide here, finally narrowing to a dam near the town of Dunkirk.

We portaged around the dam, then put our boats back in, figuring to get a thrill in the fast water before taking out at the bridge a half-mile downstream. After negotiating the spillway, however, we suddenly found our path blocked by a "sweeper," a downed tree branch capable of trapping a canoe - or a canoeist.

Three basic rules of river paddling are: a) watch out for sweepers, b) scout any potential hazards before running them, and c) never play near dams. I ignored all three, figuring the Prospector with its upturned bow and smooth-bottomed hull was capable of clearing a simple fallen tree.

But within seconds the sweeper had us turned sideways and pressed against the branches. In a panic, I violated basic rule No. 4 by leaning upstream instead of down, allowing the river to pour in over the exposed gunwale, filling the canoe and dumping my bowman and I into the chilly April waters of the rain-swollen Yahara.

Clinging to the downed tree, water rushing past us, not wearing our PFDs, we watched in horror as the big blue canoe turned upside down, slipped past the sweeper and floated downstream to a fateful rendezvous with the County N bridge. Fortunately, we were able to scramble over the sweeper and pull ourselves up on the riverbank as our friends watched in disbelieve from the safety of an upstream eddy.

You don't really appreciate the power of moving water until you try to budge a wrapped canoe off a stationary object. For a time, I considered just leaving the boat, a monument to the stupidity of amateur canoeists. But considering the historic significance of the name Dunkirk, I wasn't about to abandon this canoe like British Army equipment on the beaches of France in May 1940.

So with a winch around the portage yoke and lines at both bow and stern, we finally rescued the Prospector. Amazingly, it popped back into shape, a duct tape repair from being usable in an emergency.

The next day, I car-topped the battered Prospector to Carl's Paddlin' in Madison, Wis., where owner Carl Busjahn told me the boat was repairable, thanks to the Souris River epoxy resin construction system.

"They flex before they break," explained Busjahn. "That's why it didn't get broken worse than it did."

Based in Atikokan, Ontario, on the northern edge of the Quetico Provincial Park, Souris River manufacturers about 350 canoes a year. President Keith Robinson prides himself on making durable, lightweight canoes that are still affordable for recreational paddlers.

"The epoxy resin is pretty amazing stuff. You can go over a rock or wrap around a bridge and it flexes very nicely," he says.

Jim Fahey of Argosy Composites did the actual repair work through Carl's. Despite needing 52 patches, he says the boat wasn't that badly damaged.

"I've seen a lot worse," said Fahey, who has been repairing canoes for over 30 years. "This one wasn't even worth taking before and after pictures."

So freshly recoated and looking nearly new, the Prospector should be on the water sometime this spring. Then it's back to Dunkirk to face my Waterloo.

(Mike Ivey is a business writer at The Capital Times in Madison.)

This article was published in the June 1999 issue of Silent Sports Magazine and reprinted with the permission of the author. Photos by Jan Wood


Mike Ivey's Souris River Prospector on a bridge at the Yahara River.  Photos by Jan Wood

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