The River Journal Chapter 9 The River’s the boss !


Within seconds of entering Cotter’s main channel I felt like I was flying. The boat was going over what I figured was Roundhouse Shoals. The map shows an island coming up. I began to line the Proud Mary up for a run at the left side. I checked the GPS to see if it is showing the county line going in the same path. The darned thing is completely dark. I tried to restart it figuring I had turned it off while at the Dock. Meanwhile, I feel the involuntary tightening of my fingers on the tiller. The fog begins to set in and I hear thunder above the little Mercury’s chatter. Uh Oh, now we’ve got a real problem. 

Those clouds don’t just mean rain, dummy, they have thunder and lightening in them as well. How could you forget or be so arrogant as to think you could go out in this situation and ignore lightening  ????

But here’s the kicker. I really am working on a project. This whole trip is about making a map with the GPS. If the GPS isn’t running it doesn’t create the required tracking history and I am not getting my job done. Not only am I wasting time but I will have to repeat this leg of the trip. With the GPS not working I am actually placing myself in harms’ way for no reason. It will also mean another 1000 mile return trip.  

I think, ” how can this happen” ? This morning I put in brand new, fully charged, high dollar factory batteries and now the darned things aren’t working.  No problem. I can just replace them.
About that time the rain started coming down harder and the thunder started to get closer. I realized I didn’t know where I had packed the backup AA batteries. I wasn’t thinking straight or I would have remembered the batteries were in the camera bag at my feet. I thought I would have to crawl up to the front, untie a bag, if I figured out which one, and bring it to the back. Then take the back off the GPS and replace the batteries in the rain. 

I realized crawling up the boat etcetera was not an option. The water was roiling under the boat. The island was fast approaching and that would mean faster water through a narrow chute. None of this was making me feel good about my situation. I took what I thought would be the safest course. I turned the little boat around and headed her back upstream to the quiet little cove at the Cotter Trout Dock. The current had carried me no more than 500 yards down the river.  The rain and fog were increasing but I could still see back up river when I had entered the current. At least I had this option and wouldn’t have to travel the five miles in a storm.

At least that’s what I thought. Wrongo, el stupido. The little Mercury just wasn’t big enough to handle the challenge. I don’t know a lot about outboard motors but I think I mounted the motor too high and at the wrong angle to get a power prop attitude going. I gunned the motor about one third throttle and waited. I looked at the bank. I was still sliding backwards down river. I could tell I had slowed the down river movement some but I sure wasn’t going upstream. 

Now here’s a little problem that had always bothered me. I was concerned about the motor mounting system on the canoe. Without a rear transom, the canoe folks have come up with a bracing bar that fits across the rear of the canoe. That brace has a big block of wood on the left side where the motor clamps. The brace itself has to clamp onto the boat’s wooden gunnels using a big screw down bracket on each end. The wood of the gunnels has to be strong enough to handle the torque of the engine. It also has to handle any shock created when the motor hits rocks or logs. 

I had concerns the seventeen-year-old wood might have dry rot. Would the clamps rip the wood off the gunnels if put under enough stress? We were about to find out. The mechanics had warned me about torquing the bracket off. Now all that information rushed into my little paranoid, freaked-out brain. 

Needless to mention, low batteries became less of a priority. I gunned the motor to two-thirds power. I looked over at the shore to judge my progress. I should have said lack of progress. I was staying even at best. That might have been a little generous. I was really concerned about wood gunnels now. If that happened I would have to watch my little motor spiral to the bottom. That would leave me one motor shy of a full deck but certainly not high and dry. 

I knew I was not canoeist enough to control this heavy little boat especially in this water. I had seen that as I paddled out at Bull Shoals. The boat was still loaded too heavy, the current too strong and the paddler far too inexperienced. 

At this point I decided to cut my losses or create new ones depending on how this gamble played out. I turned the boat toward the island chute and headed down river into the storm. I think it was at this point the fog came in for good and the temperature dropped quickly. Only minutes before I was throwing water on my shirt to cool off. Now I was cold. I knew I was in for a tough 5 miles.

The natural question would be why did you think you had to wait five miles to get out of the storm? Call it stupid or what you want but I think was just as scared of the flooded shoreline as the river and lightening. I knew the state boat ramp area would be a good clear place to beach the boat.

Again, the river is flooded way out of its’ normal shoreline. The banks on one side usually had a high earthen wall or a limestone bluff so that side was not an option. The opposite side might have lower banks but were covered up by flooded timber. In some cases there were homes with boat docks. The boat docks concerned me because I didn’t want to try to dock on the upriver side due to possibility of the current flipping the boat thereby pinning me under the dock. If I tried to come in from the downriver side I didn’t have enough power to maneuver into the boat slips. So I just kept moving with the flow, literally,  looking through the fog to see if I could locate a nice smooth place to run the boat up on the shore. 

Soon the fog set in so thick and the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t see my shore line options. At that point, I just wanted to motor my five miles as fast as I dared run the engine. I had her cranked up to about half throttle. What had felt like breakneck speed now seemed like a crawl. The lightening was in the distance but closing fast. The thunder kept me aware of my predicament. 

I had goose bumps all over. I was cold. I wanted my rain jacket. I hurriedly pulled my life jacket off. I’m thinking, how ironic, lightening, fog, rain and fast current and he pulls his life jacket off. What a dummy. I got the slicker on and then squirmed back into my “life” vest. I think I might have set a record that the fellows on the Bering Sea would envy. That’s’ when I realized they call it a “life preserver” for a reason. My legs were purple or blue or some wigged-out color but I would survive the water. I had never seen my legs go Technicolor. I pulled my parka hood tight over my new Tilley hat and snapped the throat closure. The Warmer’s shoe booties were working great. My feet were wet but warm. 

I kept motoring as fast as I dared push the motor and the wood. All of a sudden the motor jumped and lurched. There was a brief cavatation sound. The motor jumped up like it had hit bottom. Then it happened again. I cut the engine to idle for a moment. My heart was in my throat. Everything seemed to be working all right so I kicked her back up and off we went again. 15 minutes later the little engine outboard tried to jump of it’s board again. I leaned out to  look in front of the motor. A branch from a tree was lodged against the front of the shaft. I reached down, pulled it out and threw it away. That was the last of those little shenanigans.  Little Proud Mary had run over a submerged tree.

Meanwhile the fog would come and go. Once again I saw a sea sprite or whirling dervish made of fog. Hmmm, that spooky river trick was starting make me nervous and getting a little old. 

The fog lifted as I passed a particularly nice riverside home. I could see a man through the rain.  He was out walking around on his big old deck. He had docks, boats and quite the set up. When he saw me looking his way from maybe 75 yards, he started waving for me to go down stream in a hurry.  He wasn’t frantic but he sure wanted to let me know that I needed to be making time. I was doing all I could but had an increasing concern about the little motor tearing itself out of the old wood gunnels. 

I waved and yelled to him that I was trying to get to Newport. I don’t think he got the joke. I don’t think I got the concern he had for me. About five minutes later I caught on. The man apparently had just seen the weather report and was telling me to get the hell out of there. The thunder popped close by and a chill went through my body. The rain came down harder and the fog was back. I still had not smelled the ozone. So the lightening bolts were not that close, yet. Of all the times for song, the smell of ozone always reminds me of Commander Cody’s “Back in the Ozone, Again”. 

Four more miles. Calculate how long will it take to get to Rim Shoals. Estimate your speed. Figure it out. Good now that you have all that figured out, all you have to do is dodge the lightening bolts until you get there. Let’s see 40 pounds of steel attached by white knuckle death grip and 600 miles or so of grounded water under the boat. No problem. I am the highest point on the water between tree lines. Holy crap, I’m a sitting duck waiting on a bar-b-que.

Oh yes, there is one thing I’ve forgotten. This scene is not complete without one very, no make that two, irritating problems. I wear glasses. I need glasses to see my map. I need glasses to see shadowy figures coming at me through the fog. I have a vision problem close up as well as distance. So I need my glasses, period. It an age thing. I’m an old cat and I can’t see like my younger days.

So what happens amidst the thickest of fog and rain and lightening and thunder ? Not just once but several times I hit air pockets. Hot pockets or cold pockets I don’t know but something caused my glasses to fog completely. I’m not talking about the rain that was already on the lenses, but a fog on the glass lens front and back. This is a serious fog you can’t see through. This was the kind of glasses fog that you wipe away and immediately it’s back on the lens. 

I needed to wipe the lenses. I had tied a bandana onto my seat just for general purposes. It was completely soaked from the rain. I tried the one around my neck. It was hidden from the rain by the parka but was still damp from wiping sweat at the dock. It was my best bet so I untied it and pulled the thing from around my neck. 

For some reason when I reached up to pull my glasses off I felt something weird happen. Simultaneously, I had a change in vision. Uh oh, the right lens had popped out and was no longer in the frame. Where in the hell did that thing go? In the meantime I still have a grip on the throttle trying to make time down river. The thunder is booming closer and the rain has not let up. And now I can’t see for diddly.

Geez Louise, what else could happen ? Now I know, I started looking for the lost lens. I had taken enough rain into the canoe that I have a sizable puddle under my seat and feet. Great. I start feeling around in the water leaning over trying to look over a fat belly covered by a puffy rain slicker and a full sized even fatter life preserver. Get real, there is no way I can see over all that. This is to be a brail search. I’m stooping, patting the canoe floor in the water when “the what else could happen” question is answered. I can’t see thru the right eye because the lens is no longer there. The rain is like needles in the eyeball when I try to open that eye. I can’t see thru the left lens because it is covered with fog. 

I am basically driving at 10 mph down river with about thirty yards of limited blurred vision when I hear that dreaded hum of a guide boat coming up river. Usually it takes about two to three minutes after I hear them until I actually see the boat coming at me. Maybe I have time to find the lens. Did I mention it was lightening at the time? Well it was!

Sure enough, my hand hits on the unseen lens just below my right knee. A little gasoline floating around in the water shouldn’t hurt the glass, I hope.  I wipe it down carefully with the damp bandana. It’s about as clean as I’m going to get it. So I attempt to put it back in the frame.

I gingerly take the glasses off my head and wipe the left side lens. Then set about adding the errant right lens. I was trying to be careful not to break the frame or lens. The lens popped in but I could tell it didn’t seat properly. I tell myself, if it will just stay long enough for me to get past this boat I will fix it properly later. But I have to sweat it out.  Where is the boat going to appear and how far or close will it be to little Proud Mary? The guy shows up with his three passengers. He’s just off to my right. The exact opposite from the way we are supposed to pass. 

His boat looks like a guide boat but he doesn’t look like the part. He’s dressed way too fancy. The passengers look wet and ticked off. Sort of like four wet chickens in a rainstorm. They all have on rain gear but you can tell they are not happy about the state of affairs. I don’t blame them. Hell, I’m not happy about it myself. The boat driver doesn’t do me the courtesy of slowing down to lessen his wake. It’s o.k. I decided I would keep my speed as well. As if my little wake would bother them. I will handle it. That boat driver generated a piece of river karma he will have to carry, I guarantee. I wave. They don’t wave, they point at me. Huh ? Whatever.

I got past the boat and took my glasses back off. By this time they had fogged again. I fiddled with the right lens finally getting it back into its’ proper setting. Now I just had to be super careful when cleaning them. It apparently was going to be a constant battle with the glasses. The fogging and defogging lasted until the rain went away.

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