The true tale of a canoe named Serendipity

“Chance is always powerful; let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.” – Ovid
Thursday, June 21, 2018

Yellowstone Newspaper photo by Chris McConnell

A Billings police officer arrests one of the thieves who stole my canoe from the Buffalo Mirage Fishing Access Site near Park City in Sept. 2016. “Serendipity” is seen on top of their vehicle in the First National Pawn parking lot after they were spotted driving down Broadwater Avenue the following morning.

Yellowstone Newspaper photo by Chris McConnell

My paddling buddies Jeff Nelson and Django are seen during a break on the Yellowstone River between Columbus and Park City on Sept. 16, 2016. Four hours after this photo was taken, my canoe was stolen from the Buffalo Mirage FAS and recovered by blind luck the next morning in Billings.

Although the predicted 500-year flood never happened on the Yellowstone River this year and the Clark’s Fork only had minor flooding, the rivers are still up. Other than a day trip and an overnighter on the Yellowstone in April, and my yearly Smith River trip in late May, my canoe trips are on hold until early July or until the water drops below 20,000 cubic feet per second at the USGS Billings gauge.

The transitional section of the Yellowstone River between Big Timber and Laurel – where it changes from a mountain to a prairie river – has been my stomping ground for the past

15 years. It’s the section where the cottonwoods are thick; the eagles, osprey, herons, pelicans and swans abundant; and the river braids into three and four channels at times, assuring no two trips are the same. Columbus to Park City (23 miles with no public access in between) is my favorite day trip or short overnighter.

In 2013, I bought my dream canoe, a 16–foot solo river–tripper designed for Western rivers that can handle Class II and easier Class III rapids. It’s large enough to hold my chocolate Lab, Django, and up to a week’s worth of gear, while remaining maneuverable enough to tackle technical Class II runs and the large wave trains common on the Yellowstone.

In the five years I’ve owned the burgundy canoe, I’ve spent about 50 nights camping on rivers, plus a few dozen day trips. I mostly paddle the Yellowstone and Smith River, but have run a few in Western Montana and Idaho. In all that time, it had never been further away from me than my garage or storage unit.

That changed in a matter of minutes on Sept. 16, 2016.

On that Friday, I took a trip from Itch-Kep-Pe FAS (Columbus) to Buffalo Mirage FAS (Park City) with my paddling buddy, Jeff Nelson. He and I have spent about 40 days on the Yellowstone over the past decade or so, including three camping trips (plus Smith River trips each of the last two years). He is a conductor for BNSF out of Sheridan, Wyo. and his schedule allowed for the early-fall trip.

We couldn’t find anyone to help shuttle our vehicles, so we left his truck at Buffalo Mirage and loaded his gear into my vehicle and we drove up to Itch-Kep-Pe.

It was an awesome day on the water. The temperature was 75 degrees with a light wind: perfect weather for an early fall paddle. The river was at 2,500 cubic feet per second at the Billings gauge, a mellow level where I could go down the middle of just about everything without fear of swamping. If a flip did happen, the consequences were low. The river was as clear as it ever gets.

We had a leisurely trip and took about 6 1/2 hours to paddle the 23 miles with plenty of stops for Django to swim and investigate. We were off the water at 6 p.m., Jeff deflated and loaded his kayak and I put my cooler, life jacket, paddle and dry bag in his truck.

Since my canoe couldn’t fit on his truck, I had to leave it so he could shuttle me to my car. I flipped it over at the far eastern side of Buffalo Mirage, which was the universal river symbol for “this belongs to somebody.”

There were four people there when we left: two older guys fishing up river a bit and two younger ones messing around about 200 yards from where we loaded. I made a mental note of the two cars in the parking area and we headed up to grab my car.

I was gone less than an hour.

When I turned off South Park City Road onto the gravel, the Harvest Moon had just crested the horizon. I stopped to grab a quick cell phone photo, reflected on the idyllic day and continued the final mile to my canoe.

Two minutes later I drove past the now-empty parking lot onto the river rock and down to where I left the canoe.

It was gone. I was devastated.

Jeff and I actually had talked it through before we left about how difficult stealing a canoe would be without a car rack or straps to tie it down, the general decency of the human race – especially among those who frequent rivers – and the short time I’d be gone.

I determined four things could have happened: they stashed it in the woods to pick up later, tried to take it down river, simply chucked it in the water, or somehow loaded it on a vehicle and took off.

I scoured the woods until it was dark, then drove to Riverside Park and waited a half hour in case they tried to take it the 5 1/2 miles downstream (with no paddles). Then I drove home for the long, sleepless night.

I decided to take Jeff’s kayak from Buffalo Mirage to Riverfront Park in Billings the next morning as fast as I could paddle, hoping to find it in an eddy if they had cast it off.

I lived in Billings at the time on 12th Street West between Grand and Broadwater. I planned to be at his parent’s house off 56th Street at 8 a.m. so he could take me up and drop me off, but I was a little late leaving my house. I typed their address into my GPS and turned left out of my driveway, following a route I wouldn’t normally take. Thirty seconds later, I was at the intersection 12th and Broadwater and turned west.

Then the next four seconds happened:

0:01: I surveyed the road ahead like everybody does after turning onto a new street.

0:02: I saw a car with a canoe on top coming at me.

0:03: I recognized my canoe.

0:04: I spun around in the middle of the street and the pursuit was on.

It was a rush of adrenaline and my mind raced as I decided on a course of action. If I cut them off and confronted them, would there be a fight or would I get shot? It was the two younger guys from the access and they were rough characters. There was a female in the back seat, too.

My hands were shaking as I dialed 911. I was on the phone for 10-15 minutes as I followed them, taking sharp corners at speed and cutting through neighborhoods. The 911 dispatcher told me to back off, not engage and to keeping feeding them my location. I fell back and used all my imagined detective skills to tail them and remain unseen. The officers were closing in as the suspects pulled into First National Pawn on Broadwater.

I pulled into the far end of the parking lot and waited. Two Billings’ squad cars pulled in from different directions 10 seconds later. I talked to the first officer, and described the interior of the canoe and the situation. He told me to wait where I was. That’s when I took the picture. The thieves had “tied” the canoe to their car with barbed wire taken from a fence they tore down at Buffalo Mirage.

The second officer came over a few minutes later, and told me the driver had a warrant and would be going to jail, then asked if I wanted to press charges. I declined and said I just wanted my boat back. Twenty minutes later, all three were cuffed and stuffed, and I had my canoe back. I assumed law enforcement had found drugs or other stolen property when they searched the car.

If I had got to the intersection five seconds later or had I gone to Grand Avenue instead, my canoe would have been a goner.

I couldn’t then, and still can’t, fathom the odds of finding it at that exact moment some 12 hours and 20 miles from where it was stolen.

I have since told local law enforcement this story and they laughed at my “benevolence” for not pressing charges and assuming the suspects would “learn their lesson.” In fact, Laurel Police Chief Rick Musson recently told me he hears that sort of story over and over. I should have pressed charges, as it would have been felony theft due to the value of the canoe.

Addendum: Barely a month later, I saw a photo in the Billings newspaper of the driver of the car face-down in the street getting arrested for hit and run after fleeing the scene on foot. During the chase he had tossed a gun and was a pawn shop.


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