Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2007
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after hours:
Seeking Peace On A Roaring River:

Gren Yuill
(1) Gren Yuill steers his life by one paddle.
(2) Mild rapids on Seal River.
(3) A large moose wanders across the river,
getting quite close to the campers.
(4) Yuill’s son Kevin drinks from the fresh water river.

photo: Courtesy of Gren Yuill

Gren Yuill has had a few close calls while canoeing some of the most remote waterways in the northern hemisphere, but none have been more horrifying than the accident he witnessed on the Seal River.

The Seal River, which flows east through the Canadian tundra into the Hudson Bay, is known for its powerful current and its breathtaking scenery. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for Yuill, son Kevin, brother Dave and nephew Duncan. Before the accident, the family had navigated the thunderous rapids—including a 60-foot drop—for 10 days without a mishap.

The last set of rapids was appropriately nicknamed “Death Rapids.” Fueled by youthful bravado, Kevin and Duncan took the lead. Yuill and his brother watched their sons paddle away and began their own descent. Suddenly, they noticed an empty canoe thrashing in the water but couldn’t see Kevin or Duncan.

They capsized, Yuill realized with dread.

A standing wave hit Kevin and Duncan’s canoe. The force caused the bow to plunge into the water, and the cousins were swept downstream. Terrified, Yuill and Dave tore through the rapids as fast as they could. Twenty-five minutes later, they found their sons.

“Luckily they were standing chest-high in water,” Yuill said. “They thought we’d capsized and drowned as well.”

The canoe was damaged and most of the equipment was gone, but Kevin and Duncan escaped with only bruises.

Not every adventure has been that harrowing, but Architectural Engineering Professor Gren Yuill has a taste for hobbies most wouldn’t dare try. He’s tried hang gliding, skydiving, flying and hunting. He doesn’t think of himself as an adrenaline junkie—just someone who seeks refuge in places off the beaten path.

Yuill said he became an outdoorsman in childhood. Every summer, his family visited relatives who lived in the wilderness of Manitoba, where he learned to hunt, fish and camp.

“It was complete wilderness all around,” said Yuill, who grew up in Winnipeg. “I got used to the country and loved it.” Until the Seal River incident, Yuill’s most frightening adventure was running out of gas on his second solo flight during flying lessons he took as a university student. Yuill said his instructor, who was “a good pilot but a lousy teacher,” forgot to teach him to make sure the gauges were functioning before takeoff.

“I barely cleared the trees to land on a lake,” he said.

For a short time after college, Yuill and a business partner ran a skydiving school. He also learned how to build hang gliders by reassembling a wrecked glider he bought for $25.

Yuill has given up those hobbies—he says they seem inappropriate for a senior citizen— but he still visits Canada every fall to canoe and hunt moose. He and Dave run Wild River Outfitting, a tourism business Yuill started with a friend in 1975. It’s more for fun than profit, he said.

The brothers choose one group of hunters to join them for an annual two-week camping and canoeing trip. Dave is the official guide, and Yuill teaches travelers how to call moose.

He learned by listening to cassette tapes of experienced callers and has perfected his technique by listening to moose in the wilderness. It’s illegal in Canada to use tapes to call moose, so hunters have to learn to perfectly imitate the sound, he said.

“It’s sort of like a cow mooing but much less musical and much harsher. It sounds like they’re in agony,” Yuill said before demonstrating a call.

It’s a difficult skill to master, he said. He hunted moose for six years before he killed his first one.

The other secret to moose hunting is calling the bulls at night, he said.

Yuill said his yearly hunting trip satisfies his need for solitude. The only signs of civilization on the 110-mile flight to his hunting territory are a set of railroad tracks and one power line.

“I love the feeling of independence,” he said. “I can’t understand how people can live in a crowded environment continuously.”

The feeling is infectious.

“At the end of our hunt, people start talking like they could stay there forever.”

-Ashley Washburn