Trapped On The Island

The following tale was written by Robert Knapp (1913-1994) as part of creative writing classes he took in his later years. The story is about an adventure with his brothers, Wayne P. and Lloyd Knapp. His mother, Emma (Primley) Knapp, is also featured. The story takes place on the Peshtigo River near their family home of Taylor Rapids, Marinette County, in Northern Wisconsin, circa 1925.

Robert and Wayne Knapp, brothers, circa 1920, Taylor Rapids, Wisconsin. Photograph used with Wayne Knapp Family permission.When my brother Wayne and I were kids, growing up in Wisconsin, we had lots of opportunities to explore the country sides. The Peshtigo River ran just a short way from our house. During summer months we fished this river, and in winter times, we played on the ice.

This story took place during the winter, or I should say early spring. In some places the ice had broken up. In most places it was still very much frozen over. One episode that comes to mind quite often, was the time Wayne and myself crossed the ice to a tiny island. It was on a Saturday. We had hurriedly finished doing our chores around the house. Plans were made as we worked.

“Wayne, you hurry with the barn cleaning, I’ll see about the fire-wood, then we’ll investigate that island before the ice breaks up!” Wayne was all for it.

“I’ve always wanted to see what was on that island, but never had the nerve to go over on my own!”

The river at this point had separated into two channels. One went on one side of the little island and one on the other. Just above where the river separated, was some very fast water. Here for a ways, the water moved too swiftly to freeze. We could hear the groaning sounds of the ice starting to break up further down the river. We had no idea of it effecting us. So we made it across to the island. There was about a foot and a half of snow to wade through.

Peshtigo River, Strong Falls, Marinette County, Wisconsin, summer, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossen

Strong Falls on the Peshtigo River near Taylor Rapids, Marinette County, Wisconsin, in Summer of 2006

Wayne seemed to be mighty scared! “I don’t like the sound of that ice cracking and groaning like it is, I think we’d better get out of here right now!”

It was close to fifty feet across the ice to shore. The noise of the cracking ice became louder and louder! But I told Wayne, “Shucks, We’ve heard that many times, that rumble don’t worry me none, come on lets have some fun exploring!”

When we got to the far end of the little island, we peered down river, sure enough the water was full of floating ice blocks! Hunks of ice four and five feet square were piling on top of each other. It was a fearful sight! I was plenty scared then!

I yelled to Wayne, “COME ON WAYNE, WE GOTTA RUN FOR IT!”

It was one of the biggest mistakes I’d ever made in my life! We ran as fast as we could, trying to make it back to where we had crossed over! But we were too late! The river where we had came over on was a mass of floating ice blocks! There was absolutely no way of crossing now! We were trapped!

“What are we gonna do now?” Wayne asked, “How do you expect to get back across that floating mass of ice?!”

We ran to the opposite side of the island but that was even worse, besides that would put us on the wrong side of the river. That water was as cold as the ice that floated on it! I didn’t know what to do! I felt terrible. Besides being scared out of my wits, I realized that it had all been my fault. If I’d just listened to Wayne we wouldn’t have been in this. awful predicament.

“Well, we might as well gather as much dry stuff as we can find to build as big a fire as possible! Maybe some one will see the blaze and help us out of this awful place!”

Peshtigo River, Strong Falls, Marinette County, Wisconsin, summer, photograph copyright Lorelle VanFossen

Down river from Strong Falls on the Peshtigo River near Taylor Rapids, Marinette County, Wisconsin, in Summer of 2006

While we were in the act of gathering dry wood, a man just happened to be coming home from the camp a few miles up river. He saw us kids. Lucky for us! He yelled something that we couldn’t make out, then he left! He knew that we needed help, that was plain to be seen! In going to his house, he had to pass our place. Evidently he had stopped and told the folks about what he had seen! However, we didn’t know that he had stopped till much later. By this time the sun was getting low. It was late afternoon!

We had nothing but our bare hands to work with. We managed to gather a huge bunch of dry stuff to make a fire with. I guess we figured we’d be there all night!

We’d just got the fire to burning good when our older brother Lloyd called to us from the far shore! He was mounted on Paddy, our Indian pony. we had never been so happy to see someone as we were then. Lloyd had brought a couple of lariat ropes with him. The man had told the folks that we were stranded on the island, so my brother was well prepared for the job he had decided would be necessary!

Lloyd was a very powerful lad, but to throw a wet rope fifty feet across swirrling water, took much more than the average person his age could do! Several times he tried! Several times he missed! The rope would fall shy of our reach a couple of yards.

At last Wayne pushed a dead sapling tree over. He broke off all of the limbs, it resembled a large fish pole. Anyway, it was about twelve feet long, he gave this pole to me saying, “The next time he tosses that rope, see if you can’t hook it with the tip of the pole!”

Lloyd was about to give up, he told us later, but on his last powerful thrust, I caught the rope with the pole Wayne had fixed. Lloyd had fastened two lariat ropes together, one end he made secure to the horn of the saddle!

I made a desperate stab at the loop. I hooked it! In a short time I dragged it to shore. Lloyd let a yell out of him that could be heard over the roar of that fast water!


I quickly secured a bolen knot about my waist, leaving enough slack so that Wayne could could get a good grip! I’m telling you it took every bit of gut I had to jump into that ice water! We had no choice. It was either jump in or remain where we were and freeze!

On the far side, Lloyd headed up a steep bank, so that the rope would in fact lift us as well as tow us across. It was a terrible experience!

My first feeling after I hit the water was being burned! I grabbed Wayne with my right arm. I squeezed that poor little guy for all I was worth! We both struggled hard to keep our heads above the water! That river was so cold that it felt hot! But it didn’t take long till I realized the blasted stuff was anything but hot!

The little pony was what saved our lives that time. Lloyd said he would never have been able to pull us by himself!

It seemed to me like we were in the water for an hour. But I’m sure it was no more than just a few minutes. As we reached the safe side of the river, we were so cold that movement was really difficult. When Lloyd saw that we had made the crossing alright, he jumped off the pony and raced to our aid. He quickly removed the rope and helped us up the bank to where the pony stood waiting.

The saddle girth had loosened, and the saddle was within another jump or so of sliding off his back. Had this happened while we were making the crossing, us kids would have drowned without doubt.

Wayne and I were blue with the cold! Lloyd made us jump up and down to loosen our stiffened legs. Then he made us run all the way home! It was only about a thousand feet. We stumbled along as fast as we could go, which wasn’t very fast I’m sure!

Our Mother was so happy that we had survived the situation, that she didn’t ball us out right away! She had a red hot fire in the big heater.

We stripped off right along side of the stove. Those dry warm clothes really was a treat! It seems to me that it took at least two hours for us to get warmed through! But I’m quite sure it didn’t take that long. After we got dryed off and warmed up, my Mother started in on us!

“What in the world did you boys cross on that ice for in the first place?! You had no business on that silly island!!”

We tried to talk, but our teeth were still chattering so badly that it was hard to talk, Wayne made the first attempt.

“It’s all Robert’s fault, Ma. I told him we should get off before the ice went out, but he refused to listen. He said it would be alright!”

“Yeah, Wayne did say for us to get out of there, but how was I to know that the ice would break up all at once like that?”

Being so far from any professional help in those kind of predicaments, my Mother had plenty of right to be upset. Of course I didn’t realize these facts then.

From that time on, any time we heard the ice rumble in the spring, we kept our distance. We never wanted another experience of swimming that cold water again!

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Robert F. Knapp (1913-1994)

About Robert F. Knapp (1913-1994)

Robert F. Knapp was born Wausaukee, Wisconsin, in 1913, and moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s. His father, James Asa Knapp Jr., worked in the logging camps and rarely spent much time with his eight children. Eventually, James and the children's mother, Emma Beatrice Primley, divorced and Emma packed up the family and headed west. Robert grew up working odd jobs in logging camps, railroad camps, on farms, and taking what work could come his way until finding steady work and a home with his wife, Evelyn, in Monroe and Lake Stevens, Washington. He had four children and many grandchildren. Robert left behind a legacy of stories and poems written for a creative writing class throughout 1960-1980, writing of life growing up in Northern Wisconsin and the struggles to find work with a huge family to support through the Depression. Permission to reprint this has been graciously granted by the family of Robert F. Knapp with the hope that you will enjoy reading about the life and times of this amazing man.
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