A chance meeting in college sparked a romance that led not only to marriage but a life of adventure for Susan and Jake Nieten.
The two met during finals week in May 1996 while attending Anderson University. It was Susan’s sophomore year.
“I think a friend of hers liked my brother,” Jake said. “She dragged Susan over to my house to hang out with my brother and me.”
The two connected almost right away although Susan said she waited two days for Jake’s call and a chance at a second meeting.
That second encounter quickly turned into many more, and within a few weeks, the couple was embarking on their first joint camping venture to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It was the first of many more adventures that included marriage in 1999, a multi-day canoe trip on the Current River in Missouri’s Ozarks, backpacking in the Rocky and Smoky mountains, kayaking in the Everglades, whitewater rafting in North Carolina and Colorado, and camping in Virginia, Michigan’s upper peninsula, Wyoming, Kansas, North Carolina and more.
The backpacking duo, still hungry for the next big thing, turned their attention to the Yukon wilderness of Canada.
“Soon after we married, I bought Jake a collection of Jack London’s short stories for Christmas,” Susan said. “Since then, intrigue slowly began to take root in our imaginations as we explored London’s Yukon, where so many of his stories are set.”
With zero funds, the couple began planning their own Yukon River adventure.
“The first draft had blue 50-gallon barrels tethered together with a platform and a tent,” said Jake, owner of Tech Heads, LLC. “After numerous sketches and after researching Archimedes’ Principle of Buoyancy, aluminum pontoons with living quarters built on top seemed to be a better fit for the Yukon River than some jank plastic barrels for our pontoons.”
Susan, an English and drama teacher at Noblesville High School, heard about a unique grant opportunity for teachers called the Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program.
Through the Lilly Endowment, up to 120 awards of $8,000 each are given to public and private educators to support creative projects every year.
“It’s for personal and intellectual renewal,” said Gretchen Wolfram, communications director for Lilly Endowment. “The projects aren’t always related to what’s taught in school. It’s a testament of the curiosity and quest for knowledge and adventure that teachers have.”
For Susan and Jake, it was a chance to fund a dream.
“I told her to do it (write the grant),” Jake said. “I thought the trip would be an ideal adventure for us, but we needed the funds, and this was a perfect opportunity to help with the funding. We hashed it out together, the trip plans, but she wrote it. I helped her proofread and contributed the conclusion that summed up the idea of our reasoning for such a trip.”
Susan’s winning proposal was “My Call to the Wild: A Journey of Self-Discovery Through Writing in the Land of the Midnight Sun.” The ultimate goal: to float the Yukon River through Canada from Whitehorse to Dawson City. That’s 3,000-plus miles of driving and 460 miles on the river in a boat.
Jake’s mother and father weren’t surprised when he told them he wanted to paddle and float down the Yukon River. Jake was 7 weeks old the first time he went camping, an activity that his family did often.
“Camping, canoeing and hiking seem to be Jake’s first love, after his wife Susan, of course,” said Shelia Nieten, Jake’s mother. “I have to admit, visions of mountain lions, grizzly bears and moose is what ran through our minds when he first mentioned the Yukon River trip.”
Susan’s mother also was uncertain upon hearing the plan.
“Since this is not something I would ever want to do myself, it was hard for me to understand why anyone would want to do this crazy thing,” said Donna Sharp, Susan’s mom. “The mom in me started worrying about all the unknowns and dangers. However, once I saw how much planning was going into the trip and how much they both wanted to do this, it was hard not to get excited. I enjoyed learning about all the preparations being made and seeing the progress on the boat, their home away from home.”
With help from friends, family and some sponsors, The Sundowner, Susan and Jake’s boat, was completed, loaded and hitched to the couple’s Expedition.
“We probably had a little more than we needed,” Susan said.
On June 25, Susan and Jake started the six-and-a-half day, three-night drive to Whitehorse.
“We didn’t expect it to be so slow,” she said. “But the boat only allowed us to go about 55 and then we had to go through the mountains in Canada.”
While in Whithorse, the couple befriended Glenn Babala and his wife, owners of Sports North.
After Jake excitedly discussed the details of the coming adventure while purchasing last minute fishing gear, Babala offered to let Susan and Jake park their truck and trailer at the store and drive Susan to the launch point. The Nietens had originally planned to park at the airport and pay.
“We do meet a lot of people canoeing down the Yukon River every year but not a lot in a boat like Susan and Jake had,” Babala said. “They seemed very excited about their venture, and it was nice to be able to share their launch with them.”
The Sundowner glided into the Yukon’s waters on Independence Day. Friends, family and other followers were able to track the Sundowner on a map as it made the journey.
“While they were gone I stayed close to the computer,” Jake’s mom said. “We could follow their signal on a map to see where they were as they traveled.”
“I carefully watched the little dot move on the map, looked up information about each place they were in, and worried myself silly when the dot didn’t move for days at a time,” Susan’s mom added. ”I imagined every scenario possible as to why they weren’t moving and cheered when they made miles of progress along their route.”
Despite overwhelming excitement, the trip was far more exhausting than Susan had planned.
“We didn’t know it would be so hard to pull over. Sometimes it would be hours before we could,” she said. “We saw lots of grizzlies and brown bears. We slept better than I thought we would. The night sky is different up north. It’s brighter so I wasn’t sure if that would be a problem.”
The bears were almost always more of a fear of Susan’s than the water until a terror-filled day on Lake Laberge.
“The water was calm then out of nowhere the wind picked up-not like white caps just windy,” Susan said. “We got turned sideways and I felt us teetering.”
Jake paddled hard to avoid getting sucked out to the middle of the 30-mile lake, something they were told to avoid at all costs. He said it was his least favorite memory of the Yukon. The entry in the blog Susan kept called it near-death.
“The trolling motor was just drained,” Susan said. “I don’t know how we did it.”
Exhausted, Jake said the couple took a break for a few days to relax and enjoy the trip.
“We fished and panned for gold and finally relaxed,” he said. “I also enjoyed the scenery and physical aspect of the entire trip.”
Sixteen days and 202 miles into the trip, Susan and Jake decided to retire and eventually pulled the Sundowner out near the village of Carmacks.
“Though we definitely could have made the 460 miles to Dawson City, it became quite clear that we were losing sight of some of our original trip goals,” Susan wrote in her blog. “Our venture quickly took on the feel of all work and no play.”
Together, the couple officially announced their arrival on dry land on the eve of their 12th wedding anniversary.
“We were glad they made it home safe and sound,” Sharp said. “We are sure their future contains more dream trips down other wonderful rivers, and we look forward to following along on their GPS.”
The Yukon River trip didn’t dampen or hinder the Nietens’ sense of adventure. It taught them great lessons and instilled the hope for future dreams.
“I did this trip with the person I wanted most,” Jake said. “She (Susan) is my best friend, companion and love of my life-till death do us part.”
—April Abernathy is a reporter for The Herald Bulletin. Story republished with permission.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing, and theology.