Nikki Willis Jastrzebski was floating the Buffalo River with her husband Saturday morning when the sun hit the water at just the right angle to reveal something unexpected beneath the surface.
"I was literally just daydreaming down in the water," Jastrzebski said Monday. "I looked down and I could see the sun hit it just perfectly ... I was like, 'Oh my god, that's a wallet.'"
The couple doubled back on their canoe, and Jastrzebski's husband waded into the calm, two-foot-deep waters, reached down between a rock and branch, and retrieved the soggy billfold.
There were signs it had been separated from its owner for some time: The leather was rough and torn in places. A credit card inside expired in 2004. And its contents included an old Illinois drivers license and even a Blockbuster card.
There wasn't any cash inside, but Jastrzebski, 38, was determined to get it back to its rightful owner. A pair of motivations drove her: One, if she lost her wallet, she hoped someone would do the same for her. And two, she wanted to know the story behind its trip from Illinois to the bottom of the Buffalo River, where it eventually came to a rest in Newton County between Steel Creek and Kyle's Landing.
Jastrzebski's first step was posting a photo of the wallet on the popular Forbidden Hillcrest Facebook page, where hundreds of people liked it, shared it and commented on it. Some lambasted Jastrzebski for posting an image that revealed a portion of the old credit card numbers. Others offered theories on why it was there, like perhaps it belonged to a missing person and the authorities should be called. Most seemed interested in the story and, like Jastrzebski, eager to find out more.
It wasn't long before she was able to fill them in.
On Monday, Jastrzebski scoured LinkedIn for possible matches with the name on the cards. There were several matches in different parts of the country, but an account executive based in the Chicago area looked promising. His profile even had a phone number. Jastrzebski called it right away.
"He was like, 'Oh my god, that was in 2003,'" Jastrzebski recalled, hours after speaking with the man and shortly before heading to the post office to mail back the wallet. "At that time they were visiting and decided they were going to go canoeing. Whatever outfitters they were using should not have put them on the river because it was apparently past flood stages. About 29 people were on the river and only one canoe made it back. The rest had to be rescued."
The man and his wife were among those that had to be helped out of the water. They ultimately made it out safely — he pulled out by a rope and she rescued from a gravel bar — but without the possessions, food and drinks they'd had with them. The wallet, it seemed then, was gone forever.
"From that day forward, he said his wife would never set foot in a canoe again," Jastrzebski said with a laugh, noting the man already has plans for what he'll do when his long-lost billfold arrives in the mail: "He said he's going to frame it and put it in his office."