In the spring of 1979, Dennis Weidemann was a typical Iowa State student, attending classes (most of them) and working at Happy Joe's pizza parlor. By the end of that summer, he and three friends had left that world far behind, paddling two old canoes from the tranquil farms of Minnesota to the polar bears of Hudson Bay.
That 1,400-mile voyage of reckless youth has been chronicled in Wiedemann's new book, "This Water Goes North." From the bow seat, Weidemann weaves a
richly diverse tale of treacherous rapids, humorous escapades, desolation, bootleggers, polar bears, and the indomitable spirit of youth.
With leaky tents, little backcountry experience, and no TV cameras or big-time sponsors, the unlikely explorers embarked on a two-and-a-half month adventure that every kid dreams of, but few take.
During the first three weeks, the foursome traversed the winding Red River, camping at farms along the way. Leaving civilization behind, they braved Lake Winnipeg, a frigid 300-mile beast with a bad temper. After another 400 miles of untamed backcountry, they reached the remote post at York Factory, just 120 miles from Churchill, white bear capital of the world.
Whether surviving rushing rivers and battling sudden storms on a dangerously cold lake, or playing hockey-basketball and drinking whiskey with Mounties, these young explorers share a dream that still lives, and will surely inspire others.
Remsen. As a young boy, Hank was fishing on a lake in west-central
Minnesota with his dad, Herbert, who asked a seemingly harmless question, "Do
you know where this water goes?" Hank answered, as most Iowans would,
"To the Gulf of Mexico." His father replied, "Nope. This water goes
north, to Hudson Bay." That's the day Hank's dream was born.
Dennis Weidemann first met Hank at Happy Joe's Pizza Parlor in Ames, where he was the young manager and Weidemann was then a sophomore at Iowa State. During a slow night in the kitchen, Hank mentioned his plan to take a canoe north up the river all the way to Hudson Bay, Canada.
"Everyone thought he was nuts," says Weidemann today, "(but) I thought spending all summer in a canoe beat the heck out of working."
With that, four intrepid explorers -- three Remsen Union alumni (Hank Kohler, Rich Wiebke and Hank's brother Keith) and Wiedemann, who grew up in La Porte City, a small town near Waterloo, set off on their memorable journey north.
"Growing up in Iowa," says Wiedemann, "none of us had backcountry experience. The only equipment we owned was standard weekender stuff -department store tents, summer weight sleeping bags, ordinary tennis shoes and clothes that a college kid might own. No GPS, Gortex, or Thermo socks. Hank's
battered old canoe was purchased at a garage sale, still painted with
stars from a 1976 bicentennial parade. After piling our equipment in Hank's garage one Sunday afternoon," he continues, "we came to a crossroads - we could either procure sponsors or head out on our own and hope for the best.
We opted for the Kmart version of exploration."
"My decision might have been different on those nights we froze because we couldn't afford good sleeping bags, but now that I am warm again, it seems right."
Hank and Keith's sister, Mary Brinkman, lives in Aurelia, having recently retired from her teaching career in that school district. She is very close to her brothers and also very proud of them. Mary thinks that the trip affected her brothers in a very positive way, helping them to become the people they are today. "A person can't have experiences like that without being changed," she wrote to Wiedemann recently.
According to Mary, their father Herbert played a big part in promoting the adventurous spirit exhibited by Hank and Keith in 1979. She says their dad was always taking the Kohler kids fishing and exploring, and always encouraged them to bring friends along on the outings.
Fast forwarding to 2008, Hank and Keith Kohler both live in Ames, where Hank now owns and operates the Happy Joe's Pizza Restaurant where he and Weidemann met. The 6'9" Keith Kohler, who played basketball at Morningside College in the late 1970s, works for the Soil Tilth Laboratory at Iowa State Univesrity. Their fellow R-U alum and canoe adventurer Rich Wiebke now lives in Salt Lake City.
Author Wiedemann now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, but he will be in Cherokee this Thursday, Oct. 30, from 5:30 -- 7:30 p.m., and the public is invited to come meet him at The Book Vine, located at 204 West Main Street, to hear more about his trip of a lifetime and perhaps purchase a signed copy of "This Water Goes North," if you're so inclined.