Caked in mud and covered with bug bites, a shivering group of six friends from the Quad-Cities huddled together in the dark this past Sunday, stranded in the woods of northeast Iowa.

The leisurely float they planned down the Yellow River had gone haywire.

Wearing swimsuits and carrying snacks, water and inner tubes, the women embarked on their outing about 11 a.m., thinking they had only three hours to travel.

Several hours passed, however, and they had not yet reached their endpoint.

"We just thought our second car was a lot closer," said Wendy Saathoff, a 37-year-old mother of two, who manages the taproom at Great River Brewery in Davenport.

The river levels also were lower than they expected, which slowed their journey.

"It's a little embarrassing," she said, noting this was not their first trip in the wilderness. "We've all floated before, kayaked before and backpacked before; it just takes one mistake for something like this to turn into a pretty bad situation." 

Finally, they decided to ditch their rafts and hike toward Great River Road. After tearing through thick brush full of stinging nettle for 2½ hours, they hopped back in the river.

As three of the women swam ahead, Saathoff and two others jumped back on shore to escape the cold water. 

Just before dusk, one of them had managed to climb atop a bluff, where she found a sliver of cellphone service to call for help.

The Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office received the call at 7 p.m. and requested backup from other agencies to assist in a search-and-rescue mission near Effigy Mounds National Monument, according to a news release.

Upon arrival, the Decorah Fire Department deployed a drone. Thanks to the aircraft’s thermal imaging camera, it was able to locate three of the women within 10 minutes.

After pinpointing their location, volunteer firefighter and quadcopter pilot Zach Kerndt attached a radio transmitter to the aircraft and delivered it to the group.

“It felt like we were in a movie,” said Saathoff, whose trio received the communication device. “It was just surreal.”

Using the radio, Saathoff said they informed authorities that their three other friends were downriver from them.

“It creates a means of communication,” Kerndt said, referring to the drone. “We were able to tell them that there was help coming.”

Aboard utility terrain vehicles, first responders with Harpers Ferry Fire and Rescue picked up both groups of women and transported them to safety around 11:30 p.m. 

Saathoff, whose hands had turned purple, said she and two others were treated for hypothermia.

Without the drone, Kerndt said, "It would’ve been really hard to find them."

"In years to come, I could see almost every fire department having one," he said. "It gives you another view on things that you don't normally get to see."

Having survived this nightmarish adventure, Saathoff said they will be better prepared for their next trek on the Yellow River.

"We're absolutely going back," she said. "We're not going to be scared." 

She mentioned plans to kayak and camp along the waterway someday. 

"That place is gorgeous," she said. 

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Jack Cullen is a reporter uncovering offbeat stories about people and places in the Quad-City area.