MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Two 23-year-olds managed to avoid a potentially deadly situation when their kayak overturned on the Mississippi River over the weekend.

The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said the two were near the Sauk Rapids bridge when their kayak overturned at about 11:30 a.m. Sunday. One of them managed to swim toward the shore. The other became stuck in a hydraulic whirlpool and was pulled under the surface of the water several times.

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“I just like being outside on the water, it’s peaceful, calming, ” Leo Johnsen said.

Johnsen and his girlfriend, Anna Rosburg, decided to spend their Sunday on the mighty Mississippi River.

“We kayak quite a bit and it’s definitely one of my favorite hobbies,” he said.

But his latest trip downstream nearly cost him his life. Johnsen said the river felt a bit faster and higher than usual, but it wasn’t until he hit a choppy spot beneath the 9th Avenue Bridge that he realized he was in trouble.

“I just went into it and I actually floated there for a second because it churned so fast. You sit there in that spot and then it sucked me in,” he said.

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Johnsen was trapped in a hydraulic whirlpool, somersaulting underwater.

“A couple seconds maybe that I’d surface, gasp for air, and then it would suck me back under then start spinning again,” he said. “I did some research on hydraulics and it said that when you relax it’s kind of your best bet at getting out and I did relax, but that’s because I was kind of losing consciousness and I didn’t have any more strength to keep swimming. So I think when I relaxed it kind of just, it spit me out.”

Kayakers nearby who saw it happen pulled an exhausted Johnsen ashore. His girlfriend, who was also tipped out of her kayak, saw him go underwater but floated so far down river she never saw him get rescued.

“I actually think the experience was more traumatic for her because she watched as I was drowning and she couldn’t do anything because she was floating down the river,” he said.

Johnsen would later flag down a driver to help him get to the hospital. He said law enforcement eventually found his girlfriend, who was walking along the river to get help.

The brush with death made Johnsen realize how important it is for kayakers, or anyone traveling down river, to scout their route.

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“I had been through there many times, I just hadn’t hit that exact spot. And it doesn’t matter if you’re experienced or you’re familiar with the area, it’s still important to look and know what you’re going into,” he said. “Just going ahead and seeing what’s coming, seeing what you’re getting into because the water levels change, the speed of the river can change, and it can change daily.”

Jeff Wagner