The Pelican Case

Prologue

If you’re looking for an adventure-proof case to hold valuables during your next hunting or fishing trip, look no further than a Pelican case, which are not only guaranteed watertight to a depth of one meter for 30 minutes, but it also come with a lifetime ‘Guarantee of Excellence,’ meaning it’s guaranteed for lifetime against breakage or defects.

In 2014, Dan was using a Pelican 1450 case (color black) to transport about five thousand dollars’ worth of cameras during our kayak fishing trip down a remote 60-mile stretch of the Lower Pecos River. On the morning of the fourth day, the river rose 30-feet on us, and that led to one hell of a test of Pelican’s Guarantee of Excellence. In the end, the flood took all our things, including the Pelican case that held Dan’s cameras, but sometimes things turn out differently than expected.

Part 1. The Flood (June, 20 2014, 8:00 AM Lower Pecos River, Mile Marker 37)

It’d been raining on us non-stop since we broke camp earlier that morning and Ryan was now up on a narrow limestone ledge behind our camp, catching dry bags as we tossed them up to him. The day was dark from the thick clouds and dense rain, and the river canyon reverberated with the steady sound of rain falling on the limestone all around us. Although the river hadn’t yet come up, we noticed muddy water was starting to cascade from the high bluffs in both directions.

Two hours earlier we’d received a satellite phone call warning us that we were now under a flash flood warning and, unfortunately, the next public take out was over 20 miles downriver. That, coupled with our unfamiliarity with the stretch of river below us, made for a difficult decision, but we ultimately decided to tie our kayaks down and bug out of the rising river. We each hastily prepared a go-bag after deciding to stash the rest of our things–mostly in Pelican cases and dry bags— deep inside a crevice cut into the ledge where Ryan now stood.

The narrow outcropping sat ten feet above the river, and the crevice was carved another foot higher or so into the limestone wall behind the ledge, which meant it would take a twelve foot rise in the river for the water to reach our things. The odds of the river rising that high were slim and we figured we could come back in a few days to retrieve our things. One of the items thrown into that crevice was a Pelican case, model 1450, which contained Dan’s cameras.

Once Ryan stuffed the last of our things into the crevice, with our boats tied to a small mesquite tree, we headed upriver, where as luck would have it, we came across a jeep trail several hundred yards from our camp. Before climbing up the trail, we looked back at our campsite and saw the water was now waste deep. The boats were still tied to the trees near the camp, but they were bouncing around the muddy current, the ropes and mesquite trees straining against the flow of the rising river.

Part 2. Canebrakes (June, 20 2014, 10:00 AM Lower Pecos River, Mile Marker 39)

Once we climbed up the trail, we lost sight of our camp, but it’s safe to assume that the rushing water reached the ledge within 30 minutes of our departure, and then the muddy torrent started to pry the dry bags and Pelican cases from the crevice. Since one of the first things that Ryan shoved into the hiding place were the Pelican cases, it stands to reason that the cases were the last things to be flushed from the gap and into moving water.

Once ripped free, the cases were bounced around in the tsunami like flow, thrown by force into (and through) mesquite trees. One by one, the cases floated past several Pecos landmarks, starting with Lewis Canyon, where a family that’d been stranded by the flood remembers seeing the Pelican cases floating by.

Then the real test begins as the Pelican cases get slammed into house-sized boulders that sit between Lewis Canyon and the Weir Dam; then they’re violently sucked under by powerful hydraulics as massive amounts of water pour over the rocks and holes and outcroppings that line that stretch of river. Once past the last of rapids, the Pelican cases likely encountered their first large canebrakes.

The dictionary defines a canebrake as a dense growth of river cane, but on the lower Pecos the term is used to describe the giant floats of cane that occur when dense patches on the river cane are ripped from the banks by flood waters, and carried downriver where they start to aggregate and grow in size. As they get bigger, they start scooping up other debris like small trees, logs, mud and even man-made things like tents, folding chairs and kayaks. They also scoop up dead animals.

Each time the Pecos narrows and bends, the ensuing bottleneck traps more river cane and then the rushing water compacts it into large canebrakes. One of those canebrakes has entombed Dan’s Pelican case, which by now is long separated from the others. Eventually that same water pressure pushes the canebrake through and once spit out of the last rapid, the river widens and the canebrake is given room to start the process of dissipating. But by now it’s the size of a football field.

A canebrake the size of a football field floats past the Highway 90 boat ramp several hours after we’re helicopter off.Within hours of the river’s rise, the giant canebrake containing Dan’s Pelican case floats past the Pecos River High Bridge on its way to the confluence with the Rio Grande. From there, it’ll continues its journey down the river, past Seminole Canyon (and the Fate Bell Shelter), eventually making its way into Lake Amistad, where the currents push the cane into one of the northwest facing coves that make up that section of lake.

Once trapped in the cove, the canebrakes are essentially trapped there by the prevailing winds and can now begin the slow process of decay. It can take a year or more for a large canebrake to dissolve, the exact duration depending on several factors including wind, rain, temperatures and the size of the canebrake.

Over the course of the next two months, the cane surrounding Dan’s Pelican case heats up and begins to rot, bringing with it the smell of decay and petulance. The cane starts to become waterlogged and as the shoots become heavier than the water surrounding them, they start to sink one by one, slowly over the course of months, with the outer parts of the canebrake coming apart first.

Part 3. The Find (August 2, 2014, 11:00 AM, Lake Amistad, Val Verde County, Texas)

It’d been fifty days exactly since the flood on the Pecos, when on a bright Saturday morning, Brandon Beck and Woody Taylor, both from San Antonio, were fishing their bass club’s monthly tournament on Lake Amistad. Although normally held out at Diablo East Marina on the other side of the lake, a pro tournament that day forced the smaller fishing club to launch from Box Canyon Marina on the far west side of the lake. The two men were fishing the canebrakes near Amistad’s 28-mile marker when something caught their eye; it looked like a black briefcase nestled just inside a large canebrake.

At first the two men had visions of drugs or cash in the briefcase, after all, Amistad is a border lake known to be used by drug runners. They moved the boat in for a closer look and as they neared the canebrake, they realized it’s actually a large Pelican case. Just out of the men’s reach, they used the trolling motor to back the boat into the thick cane, and when Brandon gots the boat close enough, Woody used a fish net to pull the case closer and bring it into the boat.

The Pelican case smelled so bad from sitting in the rancid canebrake for almost two months that the men had to rinse it off in the lake. That’s when they saw that a ring of mineral deposits had formed around the case at the water line, which told them the case had been in the water for a long time.

They opened the Pelican case which revealed two cameras and some lenses packed tightly into the foam cut outs. Amazingly, everything within the case was dry. The camera equipment appeared to be expensive and so they searched the case for identification, and when they found none, they realized they had quite the mystery on their hands.

Once back at their hotel room that night, they powered up the cameras in search of clues, and to their amazement, the camera came to life. The men scrolled through the photos, hundreds of them, mostly of kayakers on the river, and they rightfully assume that the case had been washed into the lake from the river. One of the photos showed four men posing in front of a large wooden sign. It read: Pandale Crossing, Cabins – Campgrounds, and it lists two phone numbers. When Brandon calls one of the phone numbers, a local outfitter answered and said he didn’t know who the cameras belonged to but that he’d heard four kayakers had to be helicoptered off the river during the big flood in June. There were several other kayakers rescued that day as well, the man informed them.

Still nowhere closer to knowing who the cameras belonged to, Brandon began an online for answers. He used a couple of key search words related to the flood and quickly found an online newspaper story about Scott Gartman, who was with us the day of the flood. Scott is also a photographer. Then Brandon turned to Facebook and quickly found four profiles for Scott Gartman, but only one had a photo of a man sitting in a kayak. Bingo. He sent Scott a FB friend request and then waited.

Part 4. Contact (August 2, 2014 San Angelo, TX 7:00 PM)

Scott Gartman was sitting in his home that Saturday night having dinner with his family when he got a new Facebook friend request from someone named Brandon Beck. Scott mentioned it to his wife but since he didn’t recognize the name he ignored the request and went back to eating dinner.

An hour later, his wife is in the kitchen cleaning up when she also gets a friend request from Brandon Beck. She remembered Scott mentioning him earlier in the evening and decided to accept his request. She is floored when she received a message from Brandon saying he’d found Scott’s cameras.

Although Scott is also missing some camera equipment from the flood, it turned out that the cameras found on Amistad that day were Dan’s, something that didn’t take long to confirm once Scott and Brandon spoke on the phone. Scott told Brandon about our trip and explained that the case belonged to Dan. He also agreed to drive to Del Rio the next day, a six hour trip, to pick up the Pelican case.

Then Scott called Dan and informed him of the find.

Scott Gartman (2nd from right) takes back Dan’s Pelican case after it was found on Lake Amistad by bass tournament anglers almost two months after the flood.

Epilogue

The Pelican Case 1450 that contained Dan’s cameras went through a lot during its violent journey to Lake Amistad. At its crest, the river rose 30 feet and flowed at a historic 150,000 cfs, and if that wasn’t enough, once it reached the end of its journey in Lake Amistad, the case sat upside down (the seal underwater) for almost two months, entombed in a dank and soupy canebrake, with ambient temperatures averaging over 100 degrees the entire time.

Despite all that, when we returned to the Pecos last year to finish the trip we started in 2014, Dan used the same Pelican case to transport his cameras, only this time, we’re happy to report, he walked off the river with the Pelican case in hand. Half way through the trip, though, as we paddled past the campsite where we got flooded off in 2014, I mentioned to Dan that we were blazing new ground since we’d never seen the remaining stretch of river because of the flood.

“We haven’t seen this stretch of river,” Dan replied, “but my Pelican case has.”

In the end, Dan’s cameras were untouched by the flood water and he got back thousands of photos and video he taken on our trip, all of which he thought he’d never see. We’ve used many of those photos in the numerous pieces we’ve since published about the flood, and he still uses the Pelican case to this day. It sports a prominent mineral ring around the outer mold line just below the seal, a constant reminder of its time in the water and the fight against an angry river.

Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish

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