BRAD DOKKEN: Driving into 'Lake I-29’ an encounter to remember"In one of those, “How the Hell Did I Get Myself into This Situation?” moments, a friend and I were returning to Grand Forks from the Twin Cities late Sunday afternoon when we hit a wall of traffic on Interstate 29 north of Fargo that would occupy our lives for the next two hours," outdoors columnist Brad Dokken writes. "We’ll be talking about what happened during those two hours the rest of our lives."
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
I’ve had my share of scary encounters on the water, but usually I’m in a boat.
This time, I was in my car.
In one of those, “How the Hell Did I Get Myself into This Situation?” moments, a friend and I were returning to Grand Forks from the Twin Cities late Sunday afternoon when we hit a wall of traffic on Interstate 29 north of Fargo that would occupy our lives for the next two hours.
We’ll be talking about what happened during those two hours the rest of our lives.
It all started near the Harwood, N.D., exit, where we took our place at the back of a traffic lineup that stretched as far north as we could see. The tie-up wasn’t unexpected; my friend’s wife had checked the online road report a few hours earlier: Water on the road and one lane closed, the report had said. Reduced travel speeds.
We should have known what was in store when we saw the billboard near the Harwood exit advertising the work of a local sign company. “Walleye Crossing,” it read, the eye-catching words suggesting the company would paint anything the customer wanted.
We laughed at the time, but the billboard turned out to be eerily prophetic.
We inched our way north on I-29 as the lineup behind us continued to build. Crews already had closed the passing lanes on both sides of the interstate. Eventually, we assumed, we’d encounter a stretch of road where water covered one lane for a few hundred yards or so, and that would be it.
Like a dark beer spilled on a pool table, the Sheyenne River stretched to the horizon on both sides of the highway as we crossed the bridge. Even so, we felt no particular concern, aside from the annoyance of being delayed.
We saw the reason for the delay about three-fourths of a mile later when annoyance gave way to fear.
It was like watching cars drive into a lake.
All we could see was water, and our only choice was to drive into it.
The center and shoulder lines were vaguely visible for the first 100 yards or so, but they disappeared as the water deepened. Occasional orange cones set where the center line was supposed to be and the vehicles in front of us were the only evidence of a highway.
A stiff northwest wind had whipped the floodwaters into frothy whitecaps, and the current flowing across the highway would have been strong enough to sweep me off my feet.
This is exactly where I wanted to be in a Ford Focus.
I tried not to think about what would happen if the little car stalled.
The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach got even deeper when the car started to bounce. For a moment, I thought the engine was sputtering, but it was “only” the rumble strip, alerting me I was too close to the shoulder of the road and a very deep ditch I couldn’t see.
“They’ve got to close this road,” I said, as my right leg shook uncontrollably.
My friend in the passenger seat was a calming influence as he helped navigate, prompting me to slow down when waves started splashing over the hood and assuring me to keep moving as we inched our way north.
Nothing seems to rattle the guy, and I was grateful to have him riding shotgun.
He even got a laugh out of me when he said it was a good thing we weren’t in Minnesota, a state known as the “land of licenses” by some nonresidents.
Surely, he said, we would have gotten a ticket for not having a current watercraft registration on the car.
Time tends to stand still during intense moments, and I’m not sure how long it took us to navigate the road, which must have been flooded for at least two miles. Twenty minutes, perhaps, maybe longer.
What I do know is the feeling of relief that came over me when we drove out of the lake and onto pavement that wasn’t submerged.
Officials closed the flooded stretch of interstate less than an hour later; they should have done it sooner.
Leaving the lake in my rear-view mirror, I thought about the line a bush pilot uttered in jest several years ago during an Ontario fly-in fishing trip.
“Once again, we cheat death,” he said as he taxied the plane up to the dock.
Fortunately, so did everyone who drove into a lake last Sunday on I-29.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.