The White Water Ordeal
In southeastern Minnesota there is a quirk of nature. Nearly 450 million years ago, shallow seas covered this area and sediment accumulated on the sea bed to become limestone hundreds of feet thick. When the sea retreated, erosion carved through the bedrock, creating limestone bluffs and deep ravines. During the last ice age, glaciers swept south across the state, but they left untouched a small area that is known today as White Water State Park. The spring-fed Whitewater River and Trout Run Creek meander through the 2,700 acre park. The Whitewater River got its name from the Lakota Indians because the water turned milky white in the spring as high water eroded the light-colored clay deposits along its banks.
The park is located 7 miles north of St. Charles on State Highway 71 and as you approach the park, the road begins a steep winding descent to the valley floor. The limestone bluffs tower above and block out the direct sunlight during most of the day. Over 50 species of mammals and more 250 varieties of birds inhabit the river valley including wild turkeys and bald eagles. The waterways are home to both rainbow and brown trout.
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On a Labor Day weekend back in the late 1950's, my friend Dick Powers and I decided we needed a break from our college studies. The weather promised to be mild and we decided to go camping and hunting in one of the inaccessible ravines just outside the White Water Park boundaries.
Friday afternoon we packed out camping gear, some food, and our rifles and shotguns into Dicks old Pontiac and headed towards the park. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the park. We followed a side road that branched off of Highway 71. The paved road turned to a gravel road and finally a trail barely wide enough for a car to pass. The trail ended at a creek even though the trail continued on the other side.
Our goal was an old hunter's cabin located further down the trail. We decided not to press our luck in attempting to ford the fast flowing creek. It turned out to be a wise decision because in wading the creek we discovered how deep it was and we both had to wade in water up to our waists. Dick and I made three trips apiece across the creek because we had to wade holding our gear shoulder high. We locked the car, made the last crossing and then gathered everything for the final hike to the cabin.
It was nearing sunset when we reached the weather-beaten hut. We quickly stashed out gear inside and then scrounged for some firewood for the pot-bellied stove. Using kindling and then adding bigger chunks of wood, we soon had a good fire going inside the stove. Neither of us had any cooking skills and we settled a simple meal of pork and beans. I knew we would be sick of pork and beans after tomorrow night.
By the time the beans were heated, it had grown dark and we flicked on our flashlights. Not dwelling on ceremony, we served ourselves generous portions and wolfed down the fare. If nothing else, the pork and beans were filling. We washed down the meal with a few swigs of lukewarm water from our canteens. I washed out the pot as best I could and flung the dirty dishwater out on the ground in front of the cabin.
Being nighttime, there wasn't much we could do except go to bed and get an early start in the morning. I decided to close the cabin door to keep the mosquitoes at a minimum, but in attempting to close the door, it dragged along the floor. Shining my flashlight up at the hinges, I noticed the top one was broken. Nevertheless, I was able to close the door with an effort. We laid out our sleeping bags on the old bunks took off our boots, and slid into the bags. Before turning off his flashlight, Dick reached for his backpack and pulled out a Magnum 357 pistol. I had no idea he owned such a powerful handgun. After checking to make sure the gun was loaded, Dick gently placed the weapon on top of a rickety table situated between our bunks. “Just in case,” he murmured and switched off his flashlight.
Both of us were restless because it was a bit early to be going to bed. I lay still trying to stop my mind from the invasion of impressions of the day's trip and the hike to the cabin. I began to notice the forest sounds that drifted into the cabin. There were rustling and scurrying sounds, insect chirpings and the flap of wings of some nocturnal creature, probably bats I thought. Then we both heard a scratching noise coming from underneath floor. All of these noises made both of us a little edgy, but I consoled myself with the thought that these were normal sounds and noises to be expected in a forest environment.
At last I drifted off. I had no idea how long I had been asleep, but I was suddenly awoken by a terrific bang as the cabin door flew open. My heart was in my throat and I yelled at Dick to wake up. Dick was already awake and he grabbed his Magnum 357 and fired all six shots through the open doorway. The sound of the gunshots was deafening and then there was silence. We both had switched on our flashlights and shone them around the open doorway. There was absolute silence. The chorus of night sounds had ceased. I listened hoping to hear the sound of wind, but there was none.
Dick quickly reloaded his handgun and we both put on our boots. I slipped my 22 rifle from its case and loaded it. Cautiously, we crept to the door and peered outside. There was nothing. I shone my light on the ground where I had tossed the dishwater. The ground was wet but there were no footprints, no animal tracks, no sign that any living creature had been here. We had no desire to explore the surrounding woods.
I checked my watch. It was 4 am. We decided to stay awake until sunrise. Again, I closed the cabin door with an effort. This time Dick noticed the broken top hinge. I broke out the coffee pot and stoked up the stove with more wood. I didn't really need the coffee to stay awake, my brain was already on ready alert.
We drank the coffee and began speculating on what had happened. I told Dick, that if it had been a human or even a large creature such as a bear, it would have been killed by all the shots that had been fired. A thought occurred to me, what if it had been a person? We would have a homicide on our hands.
I didn't mention this to Dick, but he must have been thinking the same thing because he suddenly blurted, “Glad I didn't kill any one,”
Daybreak finally arrived. We ate a light breakfast of sweet rolls and decided to explore our surroundings. We grabbed our rifles and set out pretending that we were hunting. Actually we were looking for some clue to explain how the cabin door had suddenly flown open. We circled the surrounding woods and then trekked along the trail, keeping our eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. We kept on the trail because the woods were gloomy and seemed forbidding. Evey minute or so we stopped and listened, hoping we wouldn't hear anything strange. I thought, what if we hear a loud strange noise, or worse, see some large creature stumbling through the dense foliage towards us. I had to force myself to stop imagining such worse case scenarios.
Dick finally turned to me and suggested we head back to cabin. “I don't feel like hunting,” he said apologetically. I told him I didn't either.
We walked back, our pace a lot faster than when we started out. After we got back, I told Dick I didn't want to spend another night in the cabin. My nerves were still on edge from last night's fright. Dick agreed and we got our gear together and without looking back at the cabin, we trekked back to the creek, made the ford in only two trips and loaded the car.
Dick started the car and we drove back to the main road and out of White Water State Park. I have never been back to the park and I have no intention of ever doing so. Dick and I went our separate ways after college and I lost track of him. Now I am a senior citizen, but I still think about that awful night and how scared I was. I'll never know what caused that cabin door to burst open, I'll never know if it was a human, or more likely a large creature, and in a way I am content not to know. Even so, I believe the primordial fear I experienced that night is why my hair turned gray prematurely.