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Location: DownByTheRiver, Central Iowa, United States

Husband of the world's most wonderful wife, father of the world's four most brilliant children, grandfather to the world's eight most beautiful granddaughters and two handsomest grandsons

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"A Man Needs A Little Excitement In His Life..."

The River Rat Ranger now tells the story of Wednesday, May 23rd. On Tuesday I'd gone under a bridge and a biker on a huge old Harley, gear strapped on, his lady behind him slowed down to observe this now grizzled river rat traveling down MY highway. He raised his fist in salute and roared on. Our paths had crossed at that point. The image of that fist raised to the sky stayed with me. I awakened to the bird chorus at 0540 and for once things seemed to click. It looked as though I was going to be "on river " by 0830. Then, as I took down the tent down I noticed the attachment for the guy rope at the back had pulled from its seams. So down into the Possibles bucket for the East German Army sewing kit. The tiny folded bit of green cloth held needles, pins, safety pins, a man sized thimble, and military looking thread for every purpose from darning socks to repairing web gear. As I sat on my bucket stitching the tent, I noticed a tear was developing above the leg pocket of my deteriorating Russian Army pants. So I sewed it up. And the new matching one on the right leg. None of them were pretty, but the one on the tent held just fine the whole trip.

The day was sunny and beautiful. I must confess I ate my trail mix early and finished off the last of the summer sausage. I took off my hat and laid it beside me on the seat and stretched and enjoyed the awe inspiring view up into the seemingly endless sky with its fluffy non-threatening clouds. I went under highway 149. Then straight for a bit... then the river bent to the left. I heard noise ahead, somewhat sinister. As I swept around the bend, there was a large snag, or drift on my right. A snag is a dead tree that fell into the water somewhere upstream and was carried along by high water until it stuck at a shallow place. More trees, tree limbs, and other floating debris came along and got caught in it. The flotsam stays and more trees catch, etc. Often snags are the foundation for new islands or redirect the river channel to change its shape.

As I rowed around to the side another snag appeared on the left bank seemingly reaching out for me. The roaring of water as though a rapids became louder. The channel cut hard to the right and sped up. I was pushed along toward the right, then left. The whole river had become a gigantic snag dam. The way ahead was blocked by a tree lying cross ways from one drift to another and the river, narrowed now and faster churned and bubbled mostly under and somewhat over it. I tried to spin Shermona around and row against the current. Major error. I hit the crossdam sideways.

Let me quote from no less expert than John A. Richardson, professional River Rat, in the July 2007 Fur-Fish-Game magazine....
"One of the most dangerous places on any stream is where a fast flow takes the boat directly into a drift pile....If you get caught in the current and cannot avoid a collision, don't try to kick the boat sideways. It can roll under the drift and take you with it. It's better to hit it head on. If you ever believe that the boat is going to sink or roll, forget about the equipment. Get out of the boat and climb onto the drift. You may not stay dry, but you won't drown. A man needs a little excitement in his life, and you can worry about the equipment later." (Copyrighted 2007, J.A. Richardson and F-F-G)

In other words, the boat hits the log, starts to slide up on it, the upstream gunnel dips into the current which turns it into an undershot waterwheel and boat and all in it tumbles UNDER the snag and is trapped. So... I hit... sideways... the boat slid a little way up onto the log.. the gunnel dipped. I shouted a demanding prayer... "No God!... NO!!" As though an invisible hand cupped it, the boat leveled and sat upright with the water streaming under and around it. I got very humble and very thankful very fast. How far did the boat tip? My new bush hat on the seat beside me tumbled over the 6" of gunnel above the seat and was swept away. Not a drop of water got over the side.

Now I sat helpless in a strange world. A snag dam is a living thing. Its voice is the roaring and splashing and bubbling of the river. It groans as the trees and driftwood grind and rub each other. The smaller trees move... slowly undulating. There are sudden snaps and cracks and pops as limbs and sticks break. It's as though you've been swallowed by a giant organism and it's trying to digest you.

My thought was of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But now my breathing had slowed and my pulse slowed and I had time to look around. Perhaps 10 meters up stream on my right (I was facing the right bank) a huge log lay with one end up in the air and the other close to the water. I secured my gear as best I could, coiled the bow rope on the deck to the left of my feet, the stern rope to the right. I coiled the anchor chain between my feet with the grappling hook on top. Then I bowed my head and prayed to the chorus of the snag dam. "God, I need strength, please help me." I pushed away from the log with my left oar and began rowing straight up into the current. My readers should know that time after time during my trip I tried rowing upstream. Old Man River was more of a man than I was. I simply could not do it any time I tried except that one day in the fastest current I faced. I got further and further. Closer to the log. Closer. Grabbed a limb, slid back, and rowed again and at last was beside the log. Wrapped the bow line around a limb in the mess of drift under the log. Tossed the grappling hook over. It caught. And sat there panting, praying "thank you" out with each breath. If you look closely at one of the pictures, you'll see the grappling hook hanging over the log, holding Shermona.

I scrambled up and quickly slowed to a crawl, realizing how much that short row had taken out of me. At last I stood by the base of the log leaning on my walking stick, looking at the endless jam of trees and drift. I hope you will not be disappointed in me that I toyed with the idea of calling Mrs. RRR on the cell phone and abandoning the Quest and having her come an get me. But sanity returned and after hauling my gear up to dry ground and pulling the boat up over the log, I set off to find my way around. I am blessed with an exactly 2 1/2 foot stride. So I knew by the time I'd stumbled through woods and swamp that it was 1150 feet to a sand bar beyond it where Shermona could be refloated. Next I had to clear a path for the portage wide enough to get the boat through. In one spot I had to use my Swiss Army knife to cut through the limbs of a dead, flood floated tree to make a path wide enough. Then the portage began. The task seemed physically impossible to a tired old man. But first I organized. Everything was divided into piles of a trip each, the first being with an oar across my shoulders with a 6 gallon water jug at each end. Many of us are familiar with meditation. If we think of a Hindu or Buddhist doing it, we think of them sitting cross legged, hands cupped palm upwards on thighs putting their minds into neutral. But many do not know that such meditation is only one type of three in Eastern tradition. Another type is meditating while walking or running. I have no interest in offending God by worshipping the Buddha or Vishnu or whoever but the knack for going into a worshipful trance while walking is one that is very helpful to the soldier, hiker, or any other Ranger. It saved my life at least once in Vietnam. The movie The Tribe will give you some idea of what I mean.

So I prayed. And put one foot ahead of another and with the snag dam beside me groaning and bubbling and the birds singing and bugs buzzing about me stepped and stepped. And drank water. And prayed. And hummed and sang. And put one foot ahead of the other and by 1700 the job was done and a new camp established below the Monster Snag. The picture on an earlier blog of all my gear was taken at the end of that portage.

Sometime during these walks I missed my hat. This is why I carry a number of triangular bandannas. They make good hats. I tied one around my head and flipped the front tail back as you must do and remembered my friend the biker, wearing a similar one, and raised my fist to the sky in salute. And quickly found that mosquito headnets made for use with hats are not as effective with bandannas. The campsite was in the sand. I made enough more tent stakes for a complete set. Supper was garlic potatoes and pancakes. I called Mrs. RRR and told her about the day.

The last entry in my journal for May 23 says "Beautiful campsite. Water half gone.".

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sandbar Camping

The River Rat Ranger takes a break from his float trip journal to express his opinion on sandbar camping. There is one main advantage to it and one main disadvantage. And they are both the same thing – sand. Sand is smooth, soft underfoot, easy to drive tent stakes into, easy to dig in. And it is at the same time a gritty mess. It WILL get into your food, your clothes and your bed despite all you do to avoid it. It adds a whole new dimension to eating my favorite breakfast food, grits. Nonetheless, it can be handy. A fistful of sand will scour the cooked-on food out of any fry pan or pot. Just be sure to rinse it out with boiling water, remember where that sand has been.

One major problem with camping in sand is the useless teeny wire tent stakes that come with almost all tents. Long ones are needed. The picture shows boughten and homemade. The purchased type on the left are heavy steel and can be driven into rock. They are the only thing that will work in rocky conditions such as Big Bend National and State parks in Texas. They cost 50 cents at Sprawl Mart and about a buck in campground stores. Their major disadvantage is the weight... a full set for my Wenzel Starlite weighs more than the tent, poles, and ground cloth! Homemade such as are pictured weigh much less, are made on the spot, and cost nothing but your time. However, it is illegal to cut green trees in some wilderness areas. They work well, though and look “woodsy”. Beware the ones shown in camping handbooks that are made with a notch cut out near the top instead of utilizing a side branch. They always, always, ALWAYS break right at the notch as they are driven in. Also, many ultralight tents have only tiny loops for the stakes and the notched type won't fit. But the side branch style can be driven in next to the loop with the “hook” going down into it.

One good plan for keeping as much sand as possible out of food and gear is to pull the boat up onto the bar and flip it over. Yes, it will be sandy, but a few buckets of river water will sluice the sand off and you now have a stable convenient mostly sand free table to cook on and roll up bedding, etc. This is where the jon boat shines compared to a canoe. Also, try to curl up under a canoe during a gale force hailstorm sometime. You'll be a jon boat convert forever.

A few words about picking out a sandbar. First, make sure it's sand. In Midwestern rivers there are as many mudbars as sandbars. Step off onto a fresh, wet mudbar and you will be lucky to escape at all and for certain it will swallow your rubber boots. Secondly, be certain it's high enough above the water. Even small rivers can rise several feet during the night. You don't want to have to swim out of your tent in the dark of night and try to catch your gear before it floats away. Or your boat. Which is why when the likely sand bar that pops up round the bend at dusk is fairly low to the surface of the water, tie the boat to a tree on shore or a large log. As all my gear is in buckets or my waterproof bag, I endeavor to run the bow or stern line (on boats it's “line” not “rope”) through all the handles of the buckets, strap of the bag and the handles of the water carriers, tying it to the last one. Now, should the river rise rapidly and you're suddenly wet and struggling in the dark, the only gear you have to worry about is yourself and your tent. You'll be wet. You'll be miserable. But you'll be alive and have everything you arrived with. The tent will pull easily from the wet sand. Tumble into the boat with it. Drag your other stuff aboard and count your blessings.

Always fasten your boat wherever you camp. “Johnny Sneakum” is alive and well in rural America and nothing seems quite so funny to such a character as to push a camper's boat into the stream and watch it float away. Bow and stern lines can also be cut or “borrowed” so I have a light anchor chain permanently padlocked to the bow and lock the other end to an immovable object. The two padlocks are keyed the same and the key NEVER leaves my person if I have to wear it on a string around my neck.

Sandbars are also wonderful places to build fires. Just scoop out a depression in the sand and you have a fireplace out of the wind. There is one more advantage. In most states in America, the banks on each side of the river are privately owned. It can be criminal trespass to camp on them. But sandbars, being in the river bed are usually considered public property. On smaller streams the landowner also controls the river bed and thus the sandbars, but the water belongs to the public. Most states allow “reasonable” trespass for the purpose of seeking out portages, checking out rapids, etc. This may not include the right to camp by the letter of the law, but the float tripper has a couple more things going for him. One is that the landowner has to be able to get to where you are and order you to move. The other is that very few float trip canoes, jon boats, or inflatable rafts have lights, making operation after dark not only dangerous, but illegal. Speaking as a part time sheriff's deputy, no cop wants to drag campers from a sandbar, take them in, house them in the jail overnight, inventory and secure their gear, be laughed at by the judge in the morning, and get chewed out by their boss. The worst that could be likely to happen is that the irate landowner will call the sheriff and be told that if the camper is still there the next morning to call him back. Or if the deputy or DNR man actually is dragged out to the campsite, they will tell you to move on come daybreak and likely be envious of you and want to chat. I've befriended DNR men all over the state. Once had one for a backup at a shooting incident. They like camping. They like river rats and they're usually rangers themselves. Only once in my life have I ran across a landowner who stridently said I couldn't camp on his land. My son and I talked gently and respectfully and took the time to get to know him and he invited us to stay wherever we wanted.

There is only one more trespass issue. That is if you should happen to stumble across someone's pot plantation or meth lab site. In this case you may be threatened with violence. It has never happened to me, but I've heard of it. The cell phone is your best defense in these situations. In fact, it has changed the whole face of backwoods travel. Johnny Sneakum never knows anymore if the person he is harassing is already in contact with the law. Many times just the sight of a cell phone is enough to back down belligerence. If you are a purist who doesn't want to carry one, buy one that doesn't work on a garage sale and gut it, using the inside as a storage place for waterproof matches.

Need I add in closing that you deeply bury all garbage and human waste and put out your fire totally, burying the burned sticks and ashes and leave only tracks and take only memories? It's the Ranger Way.

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Day Three... The Rain Cometh

A float trip down a river for the RRR is not an adventure, it is a quest. But on any real quest there are many adventures. The RRR continues the story of the river trip with the story of Day Three.

Tuesday, May 22. Again the light and birds awakened me. And again the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats welcomed me as I low crawled from the tent. I was glad I was wearing my long sleeved canvas shirt. Shermona, upside down near the tent served as my breakfast table and kitchen. I sat on one of the padded lid buckets and made my milk, Gatorade, grits and coffee. Doing the dishes was easy. One indulgence I allow myself boat camping that I cannot backpacking is to bring along a couple rolls of paper towels. I use the macho blue shop towels available from auto parts stores. They are expensive but as tough as cloth and even somewhat reusable. So I dipped one end in hot water and with a small squirt of liquid camp soap washed my cup and cook pot and used the dry end to dry them. One more blue towel partially dampened served as washcloth and towel for what Dolly Parton calls a “Possible Bath”. You first remove your shirt and wash from the top of the head down as far as possible. Then replace the shirt and drop the trousers and wash as far up as possible. Then, after looking all around to be sure you are offending no one except the wild creatures, you quickly wash Possible.

The two blue towels and the ones from supper the night before, plus all the cooking trash of empty bags, etc. went into the bio-degradable plastic bag that lined the toilet bucket. The last act before loading the boat and hitting the river was to bury the bag far back in the woods in a hole dug with the entrenching tool. Riverside wooded areas that have been flooded make this very easy. The swirling waters scoop out depressions around the roots and trunks of fallen trees and one need only drop the bag in and cover it up.

At first the Day Three sun was hot and bright. I wear only a tee shirt under the life vest on such days so I had to use sun block. I have the remains of a “No-Ad” brand bottle of SP30 that youngest son and I “borrowed” from Mrs. RRR years ago when we took the first of the River Trips. The gnats and skeeters being the worst I've ever seen this year, I ran a bead of SP30 down each arm and squirted DEET onto it and rubbed the lotion into the exposed skin. I came home from the trip darkly tanned, but not burned.

But the sunshine did not last. Long before noon, thick gray clouds were threatening. I got my rain pants and poncho and rubber boots close and ready and waited for the storm to hit. But the threatening weather seemed to bring out the wild life. I've never seen so many birds. It made me wish once again for a waterproof spiral bound edition of Peterson's bird guide. I saw the usual blue herons, geese and ducks, but hundreds of others that I could only guess at. Beaver and muskrat shared the river with me. Raccoons trundled along the shore, fishing and looking for crawdads and minnows and shellfish. I saw otter slides and their dining places piled high with shells. Deer came down to drink. As they often do before a rain, owls stayed awake low on tree branches and shouted back and forth with me as I mimicked their liquid hooting. Fish jumped in the river. Carp nuzzled the shore spawning. Squirrels danced over snags looking for edibles and sipping from the river.

You would think that such experiences would make me joyful. Instead, the magic that starts to happen on about the third day was beginning. It takes that long for a human used to high speed four lane highways and alarm clocks and schedules to begin to slow down to the 2 m.p.h. speed of the river and the pace of walking animals. The man or woman on a float trip without sail or motor is no longer an observer of nature, but a player. You enter the wilderness, but the wilderness also enters you. The pre-storm anxiety that had infected the wildlife, causing them to scurry about eating and drinking and chatter nervously was affecting me also. I kept glancing over my shoulder at the darkening sky and doing some scurrying of my own with the oars. Foolishness, but foolishness based on what I was absorbing from my fellow creatures.
There was a sudden silence. The wind died. The tree leaves which had been turning “inside out” from the gusts of wind down the river channel drooped. The only sound was the continual and suddenly more intense buzzing of the gnats and the ever closer grumbling of thunder. The world turned bright pink, blindingly, with a near flash of lightening and the thunder crashed almost instantly and the rain poured like from a faucet. I sat stunned and deafened for a moment and scrambled into my rain gear. Then, as silly as the cliff swallows swooping desperately along the water, I began rowing like crazy. I stopped, panting, chuckling at my foolishness. The rain poured, often so hard that the drops seemed to bounce and explode off the surface of the river. The gnats who had gathered under my hat brim to escape the downpour tried to feast on my face. I brushed them away and rested on the oars watching, learning. I found myself praying, not asking or anything... just talking to God about His creation, His sky, His weather. “The skies declare His handiwork and the firmament His glory”, the Bible says. It was a phrase I found myself repeating almost like a mantra for much of the rest of the trip.

Of course the rain stopped. All rain stops. The sky became merely cloudy. The sounds of nature returned. Sometime during all this I had eaten my trail mix and a couple thick slices of summer sausage. My canteen beside me stayed cool from the water accumulated in the bottom of the boat evaporating through its cover. I sipped and steered with the oars and watched the ever changing panorama of the river bottoms glide by. The anxiety was gone. The fear of storm and shipwreck evaporated. As the time passed I naturally looked for a place to spend the night, but without the desperation of before. Sure enough, just at the right time a sand bar appeared on the left, or should I say?, port side. Shermona ran aground easily. I gathered the rain gear I'd shed and walked about my new little island picking out spots for cooking, tent etc. I had one worry. The sky still looked like rain and the process of rigging the tarp as a fly had been a time consuming hassle with a tree to tie to and here would require double guying of my walking stick/push pole. In the picture you can see it stuck in the sand as I tried to figure the easiest way to do it. Then I had an inspiration. I'd spread the tarp on the ground to keep the sand off my bed as I prepared to shove it into the tent. Why not make the tarp part of the bed? So with the tarp spread out I first unfolded the East German Army closed cell foam sleeping mat on it, then unrolled my sinfully indulgent self-inflating air mattress, and on top of them rolled out my blanket bag – the French Army wool blanket fastened with blanket pins. I folded the tarp up over the sides and ends and folding the whole bunch lengthwise, slid the whole “burrito” in through the door opening wiping the sand off as I did. Once inside the diminutive tent it flopped open. The rain problem was solved. Water could and did run down the inside of the tent later, but the tarp kept me up out of it and I slept dry every night. Once, when the rain poured so hard it misted through the nylon roof of the tent, I pulled my poncho over myself and again the rain ran down to the sides.

It was time to cook supper. According to my journal I cooked instant brown rice with chunks of summer sausage and made pancakes. This time I got the mix correct. On the pancakes... Parkay margarine and dried maple syrup crystals. Oh readers... what a meal. My journal also states that for the first time I got out my new Coleman ultralight backpacking lantern and that it started a little finicky, but worked fine. The padded carry bag Mrs. RRR had sewn for me worked fine. The mantle was not broken nor the globe cracked. Fishing my cell phone from its waterproof bag, I called Mrs. RRR and told her about the day. Then I called Grandpa Ranger and let him know how far I'd gotten so he could share the trip vicariously. That done, I sat on my cushioned bucket reading some passages from the Bible and from the AA Big Book. Darkness fell and the gnats left. Even the mosquitoes diminished. Owls hooted. Bugs and swamp creatures sang their songs. All was good. I worked my feet into my new burrito bag and fell asleep to their music. It was the end of Day Three.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Big River Trip Continues

The RRR returns to his journal for the big River Trip. When we last looked at the story. It was Sunday May 20th. I'd found a spot by a field at the top of a tall scramble up the bank. I learned several things that night. First, the Wenzel Starlite tent might be CALLED a 1 and ½ man tent, but they would have to be 1 ½ very small men. It was so tiny that I could not turn around inside it. So when bedtime came I was obliged to lie on my back with my feet facing the doorway and wriggle in as though putting on a pair of pants. I could see right away there was going to be a problem for a man my size... 6'2” and 270 lbs... to follow the manufacturer's instructions and not allow myself or any gear to touch the roof or walls in case of rain.
But in the meantime I was cooking supper. I made noodle soup and decided to thicken it by adding three powdered eggs. Mistake. The bubbling soup foamed up and over the edge of the pan and put out the stove. This is not good thing in the encroaching darkness as mosquitoes diving in to the attack. Then I compounded my problems by putting too much water into my biscuit mix bag and making a watery goo instead of biscuit dough. I should say that I had put enough biscuit mix for one meal into separate zip lock freezer bags. Theoretically, I only had to add a little water and knead the bag and squeeze out the dough. Obviously it does not always happen exactly that way. So I poured the watery gruel into a hot greased fry pan and cooked it quickly into a sort of cracker like mess which served the purpose in the soup that had remained in the pot. I made sure to mark my territory in three spots around the tent to discourage other large predators and slithered into bed. That was the end of Day One.
I was awake by 0600. The birds were telling me exactly what they thought of someone who would still be in bed at such a late hour. The mosquitoes were not nearly so enthusiastic this morning. There are only two sure repellents for the little vampire bugs in my experience. 100 percent DEET and smoke from a fire. I didn't want to build a fire. I try to avoid it when “borrowing” a campsite on private property. So liberally doused with DEET, I prepared breakfast and broke camp. Mrs. RRR and I discovered in desert camping that it makes sense to have an almost liquid breakfast so that only one pot needs cleaned. While the little Coleman stove sputtered away still burning out the previous night's spillage, I mixed a cup of powdered milk in my Sierra cup. Colin Fletcher always used a Sierra cup, so I must also, right? Then my juice... powdered Gatorade. Wiping the cup clean, I put in two pouches of Quaker Instant Grits.
Grits! What are grits? I can hear my yankee and foreign readers asking. While my southern purists are demanding, Instant! Who would eat instant grits? Well, my rebel friends, they're a whole lot quicker and easier on the trail. My other readers should know that grits are a variation of “cold flour”, the original trail food. It is the predecessor of all instant cereals and such foods. Everything from Malto-Meal to Hamburger Helper to Bisquick can trace it's ancestry to cold flour. Grits are a staple of life in the south and almost unknown elsewhere. Both sides of the civil war marched and fought on cold flour. It was part of the provisions of every exploratory company in the west and in every wagon of wagon trains and in every cowboy's saddle bag. Hominy, first cooked, then ground like flour and some sugar or spices sometimes added is what cold flour and now grits consist of.
So I added boiling water and mixed to the right consistency. And what is the right consistency? Go to any Waffle House diner of which I've already waxed eloquent on occasion in these pages and order a dish of grits. Tell them the River Rat Ranger sent you. Then add butter. And you're snacking like Kit Carson, Joe Walker, Major Drummond, and Lewis and Clark did. John Wayne has nothing on you.
Once the grits were down; my favorite breakfast is Cheddar Cheese and Country bacon, one pouch of each with Parkay squeezed on; I began to make coffee. I am a coffee snob. Not a purist, mind you, but a snob. I had with me a pound of Columbian Supremo roasted whole beans. I set the tiny backpacker's coffee grinder on coarse and ground and shook and ground and shook. The shaking seems silly till you remember the historically ludicrous but detail accurate film, Dances With Wolves. The young officer makes coffee for the Indians the first time by grinding the beans in an old fashioned wood and cast iron coffee grinder and hops about shaking it as he does so. At last my coffee was ground. I tipped the fresh ground delight into my cook pot. The water had stayed cold because I dipped the fleece covered canteen into the river the night before making it an evaporative cooler. I lit the stove and sat the pan on and very quickly the mixture started to bubble. I raised it a couple times when it began to foam, then set it off the fire and splashed in a dollop of cold water to settle the grounds. THAT, my readers, is coffee. I've tried instant. I've tried the coffee bags. NOTHING is like fresh ground Columbian Supremo boiled in a pot in the out-of-doors.
Then I had to get the gear down to the boat. I took a long piece of parachute cord and put through the handle of each bucket and swung it out and let it drop down to the boat, slowing the drop by braking the cord as it ran through my hands. Ranger Advice, readers. Wear gloves or wrap your hands with rags during this operation. Nylon parachute cord burns like a hot iron when it whips through your grasp. After each piece of gear was safely down I let go of one end of the cord and if I pulled the other end slowly and carefully, got the rope back without scrambling down and back up. With everything stowed in Shermona, I was on the river by 0900. Three hours from wake up to cast off seemed to be the story for the whole trip. Once more I wished for a companion to share the duties.
At 1130 I dug in the food bucket for lunch. There was one ziplock bag of homemade trail mix for each noon meal. It consisted of 16 almonds, 4 dried apricots, and ¼ cup raisins. Of course I craved more fat and protein. The large summer sausage that had waited frozen in the deep freeze since Christmas had stayed cold in Mrs. RRR's careful wrapping of old newspapers and plastic grocery sacks. By 1530 (3:30 PM to non Rangers) I had reached Glendale Access, a public boat ramp and camping area. The area had flooded earlier and was still swampy, I was greeted by a cloud of determined gnats and mosquitoes. The DEET helped, but I put my experience of night One to use and dug out my long sleeved canvas shirt. From then on, I put it on before landing at night and took it off after pushing off in the morning.
As Glendale Access looked easy to find on the map, I called Mrs. RRR on the cell phone hoping she could drive over and join me for supper. Fortunately she wasn't home yet, because when I walked up to the bridge you can see in the background of today's picture, I saw a road closed sign which would have caused her a very difficult detour. I was disgruntled, but made myself a big supper. 4 Cheese instant potatoes with pieces of summer sausage simmered in the water before the taters were stirred in. I was very fatigued after and continued my trip routine of wiggling into the tent and falling asleep, only to wake up later and gradually get myself into the blanket bag as the night grew cooler. You can observe from the picture, that I tried solving the problem of not touching the tent walls by rigging my REI tarp over the tent as a fly. Later I discovered a simpler way.
It was the end of Day Two.

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Ranger Recovery

The RRR continues with more news for his anxious readers. The suction pipe arrived that was mentioned in the previous blog. Unfortunately I have not been able to install it. Not for lack of enthusiasm... but once more sickness has reared its ugly head. A small sore on my leg and toe became infected. This turned into cellulitis. This infection of the subcutaneous tissue thrives in edema, which is like a petri dish for it. As I am on loads of blood pressure medications including Cardizem which causes edema... I was a prime candidate. But other problems encouraged the growth also. My diabetes which decreases circulation to the feet and lower legs and slows down healing there. Hepatitis C which knocks down the immune system. And lastly, I have a long history of cellulitis. The first time was in Vietnam. Perhaps a sand flea bite when I was on the beach on R and R in Australia, perhaps from a bug bite in 'Nam, or any of a dozen little problems could have caused it. That story is worth a whole posting in itself. Suffice it to say that it was an “interesting” occurrence that could have cost me my right leg.
I have had it a number of times since. Once after surgery to the back side of my left knee. A wheel kick during a Tae Kwon Do sparring match had caught me there and folded me up like a jack knife some years earlier. A calcification developed and had to be removed. The incision was closed with staples. I decided it was silly to pay to have a doctor's office assistant take them out so I removed them myself with a needle nosed pliers. Cellulitis resulted. Again, days of sitting with my leg elevated, taking potent antibiotics and waiting for healing. Another time I had it in my face after nicking myself shaving. In the face it's called Aurosipilis, which I have not spelled correctly, but I'm getting no help from Open Office spell checker.
I believe personally that having it once sets you up to have again during your life. I've had that theory pooh poohed by doctors, but my old Merck Manual backs me up. Anyway, I sit here now, on day two of treatment. My leg up on a pillow, wrapped with a wet towel which is wrapped with a garbage bag which is wrapped with a heating pad. The whole sandwich sits on a chair and I sit at the computer with the keyboard in my lap.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Suction Pipe Follies

... or, how the River Rat Ranger saves time and money by fixing his own garden tractor.... My grass gets its major trimming from an ancient Cub Cadet garden tractor. How ancient? The serial number is under 700,000 which puts the elderly Model 682 back a quarter of a century. They were red for some years back there because they were owned by International Harvester, the now defunct farm implement company bought out by Case Tractors. My H Farmall is an IH, as were most of the tractors on the farm where I grew up.

Naturally the Cub Cadet belonged to Grandpa Ranger, my father, and naturally as it deteriorated over the years he bought a new one and I inherited it. It is a massive, troublesome beast with a two cylinder Kohler engine and the innovation that was supposed to set the world on its ear in 1985... a hydrostatic transmission. No gear changing on the 682, no clutch, very little braking. Just one lever that makes it go forward when you push it up and in reverse when you pull it back. And the further you push or pull it, the faster it goes... in either direction.

It was beginning to misbehave this year, getting touchier and touchier about the forward and back stuff. Like it was slipping, so I called the local Case International Dealer for advice. How long since I'd changed the oil filter and fluid on the hydrostatic. "There's a filter on the hydrostatic?" Oops. I bellied down on the ground beside the Cadet and reached up into its bowels with a rag and started wiping grease. Guess what? A spin on filter. How often should I change it? Every 50 hours of operation. And the transmission hydraulic fluid? Every 150 hours. Both a MINIMUM of once a year. I called Grandpa Ranger. How often had HE changed the filter in the 20 years he used it. "Uhhh.... once maybe." Hmmmm.

So I'm off to the Case International dealer. This is where the Real Farmers go. My diminutive Geo Metro, the Green Hornet, looked ludicrous among the the monster 4 wheel drive farmer trucks parked in the lot. So I wandered over to the used tractor lot and admired an H Farmall that is in even worse condition than Helen Wheels, my H and is priced at $2,200. Mine cost $750. So things are looking up. I went in and perched on a tattered bar stool in front of the parts counter. Very manly. ALL parts counters in real auto, truck, tractor, etc. stores have tattered bar stools. There may be a law requiring it. My turn came. "Filter and transmission fluid for a 682 Cub Cadet." I demanded bravely. The clerk sneered at me and came out from behind the counter. Instant shame and mortification. The things I needed were on the display shelves. A REAL man would have known this and brought them to the counter himself. I was an unmanly interloper on the worn-out bar stool. I didn't fit in. I didn't belong. I paid my forty dollars and retreated in embarrassment.

Then I took those goodies home and attacked the 682's guts again with an oil rag. There was NO drain plug... none. I called Grandpa Ranger. He thought there might be one, but it had been so many years. Back to my friend, Ebay, which listed service manuals for 682's for around $50 or the same on a CD for $15. I ordered the CD. Eventually it showed. 232 pages on Adobe Reader. No drain plug. I went through each of all those pages. I used the search option.... nothing. So it must be in the Owner's Manual rather than the service manual. Ebay had one of those too... 15 more dollars. I ordered one. It arrived with sickening speed Priority Mail. The owner's manual made it plain. Don't touch the hydrostatic... take it to the dealer. After all... THEY have the service manual!

I stumble back through the service manual. And there, like an afterthought, in instructions for replacing some pump it says.... "... place pan under transmission and unfasten the SUCTION PIPE from unit and swing it aside... allow transmission to drain." That's gotta be it, right? So back to the underside of the Cadet. By this time Mrs. RRR is losing her patience with me running out to the shop, wallowing about in the dirt and grease, running back in, standing on the deck while she sweeps me off before I can look for more info on the computer. None the less, 35 years of marriage to me have instilled a certain amount of resignation and she refrained from beating me with the broom.

I look again... there is the suction tube, just as advertised. I go to remove the bottom end flare fitting and discover that it is 1" in diameter. My largest flare wrench, indeed the largest flare wrench I've ever seen anywhere, is only 7/8". So I make do with a regular 1" wrench. And skin my knuckles and bang my head and stretch and ache and at last loosen the flare nut.... and nothing happens. Wait! A drop of burned looking red fluid, about the color of a garnet or cheap ruby. Another drop. Another. Then nothing. No movement at all. So how do I "swing it aside?" Well obviously I must loosen the other end of the suction pipe. The old filter is in the way. Back with the grease rag... then the filter wrench. More of the nasty used fluid, maybe a 1/4 cup, but nowhere near the 6.3 quarts the transmission is supposed to hold. And the fitting on the other end is 1" also. I put the wrench on it. And tug. And pry. And hammer. Nothing. "Tighter than the bark on a tree", my Grandfather would have said.

So Mrs. RRR and I are off to find a 1" flare wrench or a 1" crows foot flare socket. First to the County Seat. Nothing at Sprawl Mart. Nothing at the Farm and Home store. Nothing at the hardware store. Around the Big Lake to Dutchtown. Nothing at the auto parts store, not at either parts store. Nothing at the hardware store there. I'm stymied. Other than an ice cream cone for Mrs. RRR which she graciously shared, the trip is a bust. Strengthened by righteous indignation I attack the fitting again. I put both feet against the rear wheel and grab the tractor frame with the left hand and with the right hand PULL. Movement! I try again. It's incredibly hard, though. It should break loose and spin freely. I look underneath. I am slowly, forcibly twisting the suction pipe into a knot. I spray everything with Kroil. I turn backward and forward. Every movement twists the pipe. So I give up and twist it off. And from the ruptured pipe runs the hydraulic transmission fluid into the coffee can I'd placed there.

I held the twisted off end of the pipe in my hand. Up under the bowels of the Cadet was another fitting screwed into the transmission. The flare fitting had fastened to IT. I was supposed to put my 1" wrench on that fitting and a 1" flare on the other and brace with one and turn the other. I sat on the shop floor and looked at the pieces in my hand and had long thoughts about The Meaning Of Life and other things. One more trip to the cabin. Once more Mrs. RRR sweeps me off. Back to the Internet, source of all expensive things. I went to the Cub Cadet website. They sell parts for every model made. No listing for a suction pipe. At last I go to the schematics and go from page to page looking. Eureka! There is a picture. It's no longer a suction tube. Now the official name is Tube Assy-Hydraulic. The part number is 927-3008 should you care. The price $26.09. The shipping... $8.99. Now I am up to $100 for this project. About what it would have cost to take it to the dealer and had the same thing done.

There is a lesson in all this somewhere.

(as an aside... the pic I snatched off the Net shows a 782 instead of a 682, but the appearance is the same except for the model number.)

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

River Gear

The RRR answers the criticism.... "what do you need all that STUFF for?"

You see in the pic, Shermona, the jon boat and displayed on her all the stuff I'd just portaged around the Big Snag which will be addressed later. My first jon boat is named Shermon for General Shermon and his famous March to The Sea. As the "new" boat was smaller and more feminine she became "Shermona".

On the far left is my red REI dry bag which holds two weeks worth of clothes in zip lock feezer bags. Socks, underwear and tee shirts enough to change every two days. One canvas shirt, a jacket, a stocking cap and two pairs of pants. Also in the bag is the French army blanket made into a bag with blanket pins, a ground pad, a soft and very luxurious self-inflating air mattress and the tiny Wenzel Starlite ultra light tent.

Next to that is the white toilet bucket. It is has a clever snap on lid with a toilet seat manufactured in Canada. I just line it with a bio-recyclable plastic bag and I have a bathroom. The rest of the time it is quick access storage for my poncho, rain suit, and maps.

There are four other buckets as you can see. Two have waterproof spin on lids. One is my cooking gear including Coleman backpacking stove and the other holds two weeks of trail food. The other two have snap on padded seat lids. Once holds tools, gear for the boat, stove fuel, my miniature Coleman lantern, extra rope, repair kit, personal items, first aid kit, insect repellent, etc. The other is my tackle box for fishing gear.

The oars lean next to the buckets. They are simple, inexpensive items purchased from Sprawl Mart and have been totally satisfactory and show no wear after 5 trips. Plastic grocery sacks have been wrapped around each as drip rings. Next to them is my 6' Chinese white waxwood walking stick. It serves as a push pole, yoke for carrying, temporary anchor jammed into the mud, tent pole, and more.

Then come two 6 gallon Canadian water containers. I use about 2 gallons of water a day for cooking, drinking and hygiene. In the "possibles" bucket is the equipment to treat and drink river water, but I prefer to carry fresh if I can.

Next is the boat/stadium seat which makes it possible to row facing forward all day with back support and a degree of comfort. On top of it is my Swiss Army entrenching tool. The blade edge is sharpened so it can be used as an axe. It's also my hammer for driving tent pins and boat repair and serves as a temporary anchor jammed into the ground to tie the boat to. I even dig with it to bury trash and the toilet bag each morning.

Then are my canteens. Aluminum French Army on the left along with the canteen cup that served as a baler and a soft American Army 2 quart that doubles as a handy pillow. My rubber boots lay on top of my life vest. I almost never took it off the whole trip whenever on or around the water. It has pockets that hold my ID, cell phone, compasses and fire starters. From past sad experience I know to have in each bag and bucket some way of starting a fire. You never know.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The River Rat Ranger hits the River

So the journey began. The RRR and Mrs. RRR returned from the trip to Dallas and loaded the "new" little jon boat into the Suburban and all the gear and left for the river. We drove to the town of Pella, Iowa and north to a bridge over the South Skunk River. It was in flood stage. First we unloaded all the gear beside the bridge. How do I accumulate all this stuff? Then we slid the jon boat out and down along the bridge abutment, across a barbed wire fence and down a mud bank to the river. We slid the boat in and I tied the bow rope to a small tree stump and started backing down the bank. As I stepped into the boat there was a load "pop" and the rope went slack and I fell into the boat almost rolling it over. Water slopped over the gunnel, soaking me. The stump had pulled out by the roots! Mrs. RRR dived on it and grabbed it before boat, stump, and I floated away downstream.

She found a better place to secure the bow line and began dragging the camping and boating gear through the mud. Soon with the help of Bay Toe Ven who ran about getting in the way barking and whining and generally being under foot, we had the boat loaded. A quick kiss from Mrs. RRR and I was off.

At last! Headed down river and into Nature and away from the things of man. It was a good, good feeling. The once a year quest I live for was at last beginning. A blue heron waited around the first bend and flew off squawking as I approached. A vulture circled overhead. "Not today bro.." I called out... "not today". It was 1615 or 4:15 p.m. to non-rangers. The clouds over head tumbled and rearranged themselves, the sunshine glowed on the water and all was good with the world. I began watching for a place to spend the night. The handiest on a river trip is a high sand bar. Being part of the river, there is no issue of property rights. It is more open to the breeze with less infestation of mosquitoes and gnats and has easy access back to the water. But this was a time of flooding and most of the sandbars were under water or washed away. I started looking to the steep river banks for a place to tie up.

I became somewhat worried. It was getting later and later, eventually almost 2000 (8:00 p.m.) and dusk was descending, when I found a tree leaning out over the river and footholds among the roots going upward. I swung the boat about and fought the current to it and grabbed on and lashed the boat to the tree trunk. Then I scrambled upward. It was an ideal spot. I was on the edge of a farmer's field. The field had flooded earlier this spring and he had chosen not to plant it. So I had a flat, sandy area to pitch my tent. I hurried to get the gear from the boat. Carrying each bucket or bag upward, then sliding back down for more. The mosquitoes descended in fury, so I quickly put on my canvas long sleeved shirt and doused my hands and neck with Deet and kept them somewhat at bay. Once the tent was up, I made supper. Then I called Mrs. RRR and checked in. She had herded the old Suburban home safetly and was glad to know I was ok.

I wriggled into the tiny one man tent and listen for a moment to the hum and song of the insects and river creatures and the night and fell asleep smiling.

It was the end of day One.

Qualifying Again

Today was the day for the annual weapons qualification for the RRR's volunteer job as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff. As almost every year it was on a week end when I am working my regular job. So I had been up all night working in the hospital, then rushed home and packed my stuff and drove to the shooting range. We began the pistol shooting and my gun would not fire! When I had cleaned it, I had reassembled it incorrectly. The other officers were making fun of me. I went to the car and got out my back up gun, a Smith and Wesson 25-5.

A bit of history. When the U.S. didn't have enough .45 automatics beginning in WWI, the military contracted with Colt and Smith and Wesson to make revolvers that would shoot the same ammunition. The wonderful model 1917 was born. It was the anscestor of the famed S&W .44 magnum... Dirty Harry's "most powerful handgun in the world". But the .44 mag is actually .429 inch in diameter, the venerable old .45 is .454, so it is actually 1/4" bigger! In the 1950's Smith and Wesson updated the Model 1917 and called it the 25-5. I have one. They are beautiful revolvers with 5" barrels. I am teased about it because it is so big. "Don't you have wheels for that cannon?"

So I approached the firing line with what the tester called my "hog leg". First we had to throw ourselves prone and shoot six rounds and kneel behind a post and shoot three with one hand, then three with other, then six standing behind the post. Then run forward and draw and shoot again on command, etc. With the old gun I hit the target 46 of 50 shots, or 92%! My only four misses were firing with my left hand in a hurry after a "border shift"... drawing and firing rapid fire six rounds with right hand, then reloading and doing same with left. Then we fired combat shotgun, rapid loading and firing of 12 gauge slugs from 50 yards, 25 yards, 17 yards. I did not have one miss. 100%. So my total qualification score was 96%. Very respectable.

I came home and bragged to Mrs. RRR, then called my father who taught me to shoot and told him. Mrs. RRR gave me a big lunch of ham and asparagus and I went to bed.