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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.".


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