The Platte River Rats

by Mr. Pat Madigan

Troop 101 Home Page
"See you Tuesday afternoon," said the two men, dressed in the leader's uniforms of the Boy Scouts of America and wearing life vests, to the large crowd of people standing on the river bank. They launched their sleek 17 foot Grumman aluminum canoe in the swiftly moving waters of Wyoming's North Platte River just below where Douglas Creek enters the Platte. They were the last of 13 canoes and 39 Scouts and Leaders of Sea Explorer Ship 101 and Scout Troop 101 of Cheyenne, Wyoming to enter the water that Saturday morning in early August of 1975. Downstream, four days and 92 miles away, lay their goal, the Sinclair Recreation Area. This was not the first trip down the river for the "Platte River Rats," as the Scouts of 101 are sometimes called, but it would prove to be the one most remembered by all involved.

It started in the summer of 1967 when a 15 year-old Life Scout and his Scout Leader father put together a Trailcraft canvas canoe kit. Paddling around Lake Absaraca at Cheyenne's Lions Park was pretty tame when compared to the wild tales, which grew wilder with years, that were told of the raft trip down the North Platte in June of 1949. The famous "Blizzard of '49" had aided in producing the biggest run-off in history when four University of Wyoming students from Laramie launched a surplus five man Air Force Life raft upon the swollen waters of the Platte. From the bridge of Wyoming Highway 230 to Saratoga, a distance of 60 river miles, lay some of the finest fishing waters in the United States. But it was not the fishing the young Scout heard about. He heard tales of rapids, white water, wet sleeping bags, melted sugar and cans of food with the labels soaked off. With youthful enthusiasm and perhaps wisdom beyond his years, he asked his Dad, "why doesn't the Troop take a canoe trip?"

So in the Summer of 1967, preparations were begun for the first Platte River canoe trip by the Scouts of Troop 101. The thirteen boys, three adults and six canoes, including the canvas Trailcraft and 4 aluminum Starcrafts borrowed from the Longs Peak Council left Cheyenne on a Friday morning in August with all their food and equipment in one truck and three passenger cars. Starting from the Kenneth Day Ranch, 10 miles above Saratoga, late that afternoon the Troop arrived at the I-80 bridge over the Platte shortly after noon on the following Sunday. Although they had not seen any of the fabled "white water," the few riffles and the thrill of the accomplishment were enough to instill in them the desire to do it again. And do it again they have, more than once.

Over the past eight years, a canoeing program had become firmly established in Troop and Ship 101. Starting as soon as school is out in the Spring, the Scouts "hit" the waters of Lake Absaraca in the unit's canoes. Under the watchful eye of Mrs. Nancy Miller, the canoeing and rowing merit badge counsellor for the Troop, the boys begin to learn the fundamentals of handling a canoe. The proper strokes, how to board, how to launch, how to change position, when to use what stroke, and how to rescue a swamped boat, are all taught. Canoeing on a smooth lake is vastly different from paddling down a rock filled river, which unfortunately comes under the category of "on the job training." So off to the North Platte for some training.

The 1975 trip required much more preparation than any of the previous trips. Twenty-six Scouts and Leaders and nine boats had been the largest group to go down the Platte in the past. Now 44 people, 14 canoes and all the food and equipment needed to sustain them for four days had to be gathered up, packed, transported to the Douglas access, down the river 92 miles and home again, for the vehicles a total of 492 miles. It was like moving both the Army and the Navy.

In mid-July the Scouts had planned their menus for all the meals during the trip. With a sack lunch for Saturday noon, eating out in Saratoga Sunday evening and someplace else Tuesday evening on the way home, it left only eight meals to break down to loaves, pounds, jars, dozens, and quarts, for filling hungry tummies 312 individual times. For example, 20 loaves of bread, 15 pounds of bacon, 18 dozen eggs, 6 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of peanut butter, 2 gallons of grape jelly, 15 gallons of orange juice, 28 gallons of Kool-Aid, 10 gallons of hot chocolate, 100 hot dogs, 9 pounds of spaghetti, 25 pounds of ground beef, 15 dozen buns, and 5 pounds of pancake mix. The final tab for all groceries, including meals at Saratoga and on the way home, came to nearly $600.00.

Buying all the groceries was just the beginning, now it had to be divided into the separate meals and boxed and labeled for ease in storage, handling, and locating. Meal preparation goes much faster when all the ingredients are in one convenient location.

Coming up with 13 canoes is not as hard a job as it might seem. Nine of the boats are owned by the Troop and parents of the Scouts. Three of the canoes were borrowed from Boy Scout Troop 116 in Cheyenne and the fourth from Bill Kocis, Water Safety Director for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Finding the means to transport the 13 canoes became another matter. In 1972, the Troop received a donation of a home made boat trailer. After some minor modifications with a cutting torch, 20 pieces of steel tubing and channel iron, and an arc welder, it became a canoe trailer capable of hauling eight canoes. Of the five canoes left, three were placed on racks firmly mounted on passenger cars and the last two tied on the rack of a travel trailer.

Each Scout and Leader carried his own spare clothes, sleeping bag, jacket, poncho, etc. in a duffle bag which had previously been lined with two large plastic garbage liners. When properly tied off, the plastic bags do a fine job in keeping your possibles dry from the water in the bottom of the boat or the sudden summer rain storm. Add to the pile of duffle bags, three life vests and paddles, plus spares, the numerous boxes of food, cooking utensils, Coleman stoves, charcoal, coolers, grills, a chuck box and the 39 assorted sized Scouts and Leaders and it becomes a formidable amount to transport 492 miles.

After months of planning and anticipation the convoy assembles early on a Saturday morning at the Lions Club Scout Lodge in Cheyenne's Lions Park. In short order all the gear is loaded, tie downs on the boats are checked, goodbyes to anxious parents and wives are said and the 13 vehicle convoy begins the 134-mile drive to the North Platte River. In the group are three pickups, fully loaded, a pickup camper, a Jeep pulling a fold-up trailer and eight passenger cars. One station wagon, the three pickups, one of which is pulling the canoe trailer, and the Jeep with the travel trailer will stay with the canoes during the entire trip, paralleling their course down the river and meeting them at pre-arranged camping locations with all the food and equipment.

In 1972, O'Neil Berg, father of two of the Scouts volunteered to come along on the trip and haul some of the heavier gear in his pickup. His assistance proved to be the difference between a successful trip and a disastrous one. Starting from the Douglas Creek access that year, it took the Scouts of 101 seven and one-half hours to cover only 10 miles of river to the Sanger Ranch. Most of the time there was not enough water to paddle the canoes, so they had to be walked around the slippery rocks and pulled over many. The last canoe came off the water just after sunset. Mr. Berg then shuttled the entire group to the Bennett Peak Campground, arriving with the last load at 11:30pm. The older Scouts had prepared the chili supper for the younger boys, fed them and had them safely tucked in their sleeping bags when the Scoutmaster reached the camp on the last shuttle. "Be Prepared' is the motto of the Boy Scouts and on that night in mid-August the Scouts of 101 had lived up to their motto. Since then support vehicles have accompanied the troop on all their river trips.

Upon arrival at the Douglas Creek access area, each boat crew unloaded the canoe that had been assigned to them. Crews had been formed during the training period on Lake Absaraca, and boat positions earned on the basis of experience, ability and strength. The most coveted position in the canoe is that of sternman. He is the helmsman and the captain of the boat. The bowman serves as the lookout. As the eyes of his sternman, he watches for sub-surface rocks and snags, keeps a close watch on the boat ahead and provides the essential propulsive power when needed. Alerted by the bowman, the sternman will guide the canoe into, through, and around treacherous sections of the river, calling out orders when he needs extra power to maintain control. The midshipman or passenger is an additional paddle and will often alternate positions with the bowman, and may be the radio man. An experienced crew can actually pivot a canoe in fast-moving water to avoid an obstacle.

The canoes are placed along the bank of the river in the line of order they will follow while on the river. Essential equipment is loaded and secured against loss in case of a swamp, life vests are checked out and fastened tight, paddles in hand the crews stand beside their canoes, eagerly awaiting the word to launch. The Skipper of Sea Explorer Ship 101, Pat Madigan, briefly reviews the life guard positions, canoe interval of 100 yards, emergency signals, and other necessary river information, all of which had been covered during training. With a blast of the whistle and the command, "Scouts, man your boats," the lead canoe enters the water and the adventure begins.

Half an hour after leaving the Douglas access, Jack Rutan, Scoutmaster of Troop 101, removed the two watt Citizen's Band walkie-talkie from its water proof cover and in short order had made contact with the lead canoe, which was now a mile farther downstream. Arrangements for a rest stop in 30 minutes were quickly confirmed and contact broken off.

The lead canoe has the most important position on the river. They must be able to "read the river" and pick the right path for the boats following. A mistake in judgement could serve to dampen the enthusiasm of all who come behind. Bowman in the lead canoe was Phil Brimmer and the stern position was held by Kevin Madigan, both Life Scouts.

The first rest stop was just below the A Bar A bridge. The water level had been perfect to this point, and the lead canoe had picked all the right channels. After 10 minutes of enthusiastic comparison of this riffle and that riffle, it was load and launch. This was the last rest stop for the next day and a half that the group discussions did not revolve around, "who swamped?"

Barely 10 minutes below the A Bar A bridge, the number six boat hit a submerged rock, was caught by the current and swamped. This was the first canoe to swamp since 1969, when John Accardo swamped his canoe and earned the nickname, "sponge." Although John swamped his canoe only once, he managed to fall out of the canoe at least seven times, usually in calm water, during the 60-mile trip. The ironic part about the number six swamping was that the sternman was Tom Accardo, "Sponge's" younger brother. The next boat to swamp was the "Budweiser" canoe in number nine position with Bart Accardo, "Sponge's" youngest brother, as sternman. The oldest of the four Eagle Scout Accardo's, Tony, went four trips without a swamp. The swamping of the two canoes, within a matter of minutes, was the beginning of a series of 12 swamps that would occur during the next day and a half.

The rest stop that followed the first swampings was more animated and enthusiastic than the first stop. The wet Scouts wore their soggy clothes as if they were badges of honor and found themselves to be the center of attraction. Their ranks were to be considerably swollen by the time the Troop reached the Bennett Peak Camp Area for the first overnight camp. Starting down river again, five more swamps took place before arriving at Bennett Peak and two of the fiberglass canoes had holes punched in them from the sharp granite rocks of the river bottom. One canoe would be repaired and back on the river by Sunday afternoon, but the second canoe was to finish the journey on the rack of the canoe trailer. This was to further strengthen the opinion that aluminum canoes are the only kind to take down the Platte.

The last swamp on Saturday afternoon occurred just after the canoes had passed two rubber rafts full of fishermen. The men in the rafts offered two of the Scouts a lift. The youngest Scout was told by one of the fishermen that now that he was in the raft, he could take off his life vest. The Scout replied very firmly that he could not remove the life vest at any time while he was on the water and told him why. "Mr. Mad told us if we were ever caught on the river without our life vest on and fastened, that he would skin us alive and nail our hide to the nearest tree." The life vest stayed on and firmly fastened. Whether it was the threat to life and limb made by the Scoutmaster during training, or the memory of the young boy who lost his life on this very same stretch of water two months earlier because he had removed his life vest, is not known. The fact remains, a lesson in water safety had been taught, and most important, it had been learned.

The support vehicles had arrived at Bennett Peak with all the gear about two hours ahead of the flotilla of canoes. Assistant Scoutmasters Hank Hausler, John Hansen, Committee Chairman Keith Allen and their wives, Mrs. Pan Wood, wife of Assistant Scoutmaster Kirk Wood, who was in canoe number ten and Mr. Berg had started preparations for the night's camp. As soon as the canoes and river equipment had been stowed for the night, the Scouts began cooking the evening meal of spaghetti and meat sauce, french bread with garlic butter, milk, and "Zingers" for dessert. The first pot of spaghetti was slightly overcooked and could have been used to patch the fiberglass canoe. Despite the bad start, the rest of the cooking went well and the small army was soon fed. The last time spaghetti had been cooked for an evening meal was at the Pick Bridge camp area in 1971. A young Colorado couple had landed by the camp just as supper was being served. Starting from Saratoga that morning, they had floated all day with only a couple of candy bars to sustain them. Despite a weak protest that they were not very hungry, they managed to do away with two platefulls of spaghetti each, some French bread and several glasses of lemonade before their ride arrived to pick them up.

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and the smell of bacon soon filled the air as the breakfast of pancakes, bacon, orange juice, and hot chocolate was prepared. Just before starting out for the day's trip to Saratoga, a Wyoming Game and Fish Commission Game Warden came by on his check of the camp area and Ship and Troop 101 were duly registered in his log of boaters and fishermen who use the North Platte River Recreation Area.

The first rest stop sunday morning was on a sand bar just below the bridge on the Brush Creek road. Contact was made by "CB" radio with the support vehicles and arrival time at the Wyoming Game and Fish area two miles above Wyoming Highway 130 bridge was confirmed with Mr. Allen and Mr. Berg. Then it was back in the canoes and on down the river for more thrills and five more spills.

Just below where the Encampment River enters the Platte from the west, the river splits into two, and sometimes three, channels. The lead canoe had been told to bear to the left so that the fleet would be in the right place to land for the scheduled lunch break. Two miles above the Game and Fish area, the channel narrowed to about 20 feet in width, and half way through the narrow passage, a tree had fallen from the east bank, and was blocking most of the river. This caused the canoes to bunch up and Mr. Kirk Wood in the number ten boat was forced too close to the overhanging tree and striking it, was overturned. Bowman Karl Wood was swept under the tree and down the river along with the canoe, while midshipman Kyle Amen grasped the overhanging tree and held on for dear life. Mr. Wood had also caught the tree and managed to pull himself ashore. Mr. Madigan, in the last canoe, beached across the river and unlimbered the torpedo buoy and lifeline. Telling Kyle to grab the line or buoy when it reach him, "Mr. Mad" made the throw accurately. With feet bouncing off the surface of the swiftly moving water and looking much like a flag in high wind, Kyle was not about to let go of that firm tree to grab any flimsy rope. Before "Mr. Mad' could recoil the rope and make another throw, Mr. Wood had reached Kyle by crawling along the tree and pulled him to the shore, but not before the strong current had stripped off one of Kyle's shoes. Meanwhile the loose canoe and Bowman had been cornered by those downriver and following a brief rest to calm shattered nerves and dry out a bit, it was back in the canoes and down the river to where lunch would be waiting.

With a meal of lunch meat, cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, cookies and Kool-aid out of the way, it was back on the river for the 12-mile trip to Saratoga and the overnight stay at the city park on Veterans' Island. This usually calm stretch of water was to provide the last four swampings for the trip. About a mile above Saratoga, the river made a sharp turn to the left, dropped about 3 feet and took a sharp turn to the right, causing a whirlpool effect. Canoes who did not stay to the right, in shallower water, found themselves caught in a swift side current and were flipped over. One canoe with George Riner as sternman, Gary Riner, bowman, and Mike Hausler, midshipman, went over in the deep water coming out of the turn. When George and Gary surfaced, Mike was nowhere to be seen. Grabbing the bow and stern of the canoe, they swiftly rolled it right side up. Sitting there calmly in the canoe and holding firmly to the thwart in front of him, was Mike, just as if nothing had happened. The canoes were quickly emptied of water and the last mile to Saratoga covered by a group of giggling Scouts as they thought of Mike. As the long line of canoes passed through the golf course of the Saratoga Inn, golfers on the 2nd and 8th tee boxes patiently waited for the last canoe to move clear before teeing off.

Saratoga State Park, with its mineral hot springs, is just across the river from the city park. The minute that all the canoes are on shore and gear stowed for the night, there is a mass exodus by both Scouts and Leaders for the "Hobo Pool." The waters of the spring quickly soak the soreness from stiff and aching muscles, particularly the "old ones" not used to the strain of two days of hard paddling.

The Sunday night meal would be eaten in the restaurants of Saratoga and then the Scouts are free "on the town" until 10 o'clock. On one trip, when the troop stayed over on a Saturday night, two Eagle Scouts, Dave Rutan and Dennis Madigan, dress in Scouts uniforms of knee socks, shorts and red shirt-jacs decided to attend a teenager dance being held. Using what they thought were the proper accents, the two boys told everyone they were Boy Scouts from Canada who were canoeing down the Platte. This made them the center of attraction and they had a great time. Dennis had just returned from the National Scout Jamboree at Farragut, Idaho and a tour through a section of Canada where he had camped overnight with a troop of Canadian Boy Scouts. The same night, a local merchant stayed open past his usual closing hour to allow a group of the Scouts to continue their pool games, much to the delight of all concerned. On another trip when the stop at Saratoga was made at noon, a group of the boys decided not to buy hamburgers, and instead purchased the "makings" at a grocery store, went accross to the drug store for milk shakes, and proceeded to fix lunch.

The river from Saratoga to the Sinclair Recreation Area is very lazy and provided little, if any, excitement. The straight smooth stretches provide the opportunity for a lot of horse play not allowed on the upper waters. The Scouts enjoy tying two canoes together to form a catamaran, and then chanting like the galley slaves of old, race each other down the river. Rest stops become more playtime, as life guards are posted and it becomes swim time, or the Scouts will walk upriver, wearing their life vest, and wade out into the water, to float back down, a most relaxing past time, especially if they can find a little riffle. Sometimes the Scoutmaster, in the last canoe, will round a bend in the river to see the air filled with water, as the Scouts use their paddles as shovels to see who can get the other canoe the wettest. If the wind is from the right direction the bowman will often fashion a sail from a pancho by standing on two corners and holding the other two corners at arms length. This can move the canoe down the river at a lively pace, but when the wind shifts, lookout!

One of the side benefits of the canoe trip down the Platte, is the wild life seen by the Scouts. Not uncommon to see are deer standing knee deep in the river tranquilly drinking. The sight of a six point buck, horns in velvet calmly watching the silent canoes glide by, is one that will long be remembered. On one trip just above Eagle's Nest Rock, the canoes passed barely 10 feet from a large golden eagle. The startled bird took to the air and soared above the Scouts for nearly two hours, while lunch was eaten in the shadow of Eagle's Nest Rock. The ducks and ducklings on the river also provide some fun as the Scouts, to no avail, try to encircle the floating Mallards with their canoes.

Only once since 1967 has adverse weather forced the canoes of 101 to leave the water. In 1969, four miles above the Interstate 80 bridge, a strong wind came up and literally blew the canoes off the water. The force of the wind produced white caps on the water and gave the river the appearance of flowing upstream. Following the wind came a brief but fierce thunderstorm. As the group of Scouts and Leaders huddled in the driving rain, one of them saw that one Scout was not wearing his pancho. When asked where it was, the boy said it was in the bottom of his duffle bag in the canoe. The rule on the river is simple, the pancho goes in last, on top of the duffle. When told by his Scoutmaster to go get the pancho and put it on, the leader received a reply that has become a classic for the canoers of 101. Standing soaked to the skin, shivering in the wind, water streaming down his face, with the innocence of youth he said, "But I'll get wet!" Ten seconds later all that could be seen of him was from the waist down as he dug deep in his duffle bag for the pancho.

The arrival of the canoes at the Sinclair Recreation Area on Tuesday afternoon was the end of the trip for 1975, but also the beginning of the 1976 adventure. However, the '75 trip was not yet over, still to come was the "Pollywog Initiation." Scouts, and Leaders, who were making their first Platte trip are called "Pollywogs," and would not become full fledged "Platte River Rats" until properly initiated. The minute the last canoe is on the bank, the orderly group of boys and men turn into a herd of maniacs as "rats" pounce on "pollywogs" and drag, carry or throw them into the water, not once, but five or six times and the initiation turns into o free-for-all. Standing on the bank above the melee was Eagle Scouts Dennis Madigan, life line and torpedo buoy in hand, now an Assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 101 and recently commissioned as a Lieutenant in the United States Army. The Trailcraft canoe that Dennis and his dad, "Mr. Mad," had built eight years before was back in Cheyenne in "Drydock," having suffered mortal wounds on the '72 trip, but the spirit of the plunky little craft still lingered on in the laughing voices and yells of the Scouts and Leaders as they played in the waters of "their" Platte River.

The arrival of Troop Committee Chairman Keith Allen with a half dozen iced watermelons signaled the end of the trip. After countless pieces of melons, relieved parents loaded their sticky faced and tired sons into cars and station wagons, all the equipment was loaded for the last time and it was Cheyenne bound for 101. Mrs. Cay Rutan, wife of Scoutmaster Jack Rutan had once laughingly referred to Scouts of 101 as "The Cheyenne Yacht Club," and among the Leaders the term had stuck. When "Mr. Mad" and sons Kevin and Dennis arrived home late that Tuesday night, Mrs. Eleanore Madigan asked how the "Cheyenne Yacht Club" had fared on the trip. The reply she received was, "they are all safe and sound, and it was the best one ever!" Any trip that all hands return from "safe and sound" has to be a successful trip.