Story - good, but long...Response to "what is a good day"


Piscatorial Engineer
A day on the river...

Way back in 1989, I had made the mistake of getting my hackles up about a book censorship issue in the local school district. You have to be very careful about what you get upset about, because it can lead to things like getting elected to public office. I had a short but distinguished career of 2 years – distinguished because I was instrumental in getting the censorship issue laid to rest and not being revisited in the ensuing 25 years; short because I got cross-threaded with a person who had a different political agenda and who also was a much better politician than I. Since I was elected to an unexpired term, I had to stand for election at the end of a two year term. The success of my work made me a favorite among parents and patrons of the district, but my political naiveté put me on the outs with the teachers and employees of the district, a 1,500 vote block, thanks to my by then alienated mentor. The net result was the closest race in the state ever at that time, a differential between me and my challenger of 29 votes out of over 30,000 registered in the district, and an automatic recount situation. This happened on the 6th of November, 1991. I had several days to ponder my successes and my pending ouster while the recount was being conducted, a situation that did not fit well with my competitive and somewhat volatile nature. My good friend, Mikey, saw what was happening and did what all good friends do, he said, “We need to take you fishing” and I agreed.

We made plans on Thursday to leave very early on Friday, the next morning, pulling my drift boat with my vehicle du jour, an aging suburban for a fall salmon fishing trip on the Siletz river in Oregon. The significance of the river of choice will be come apparent soon, as neither one of us had ever fished that stream before, or as it turns out, since. Mikey is a truck driver by choice, and a true professional at it. I am an engineer, and I get by. Our sons shared classrooms in their latter grade school and junior high years, which was what brought Mikey and I together. We have remained very close friends for many years since, in spite of numerous tests which might have strained lesser bonds or constitutions, but I digress. We look after one another and have seen our share of stressful times but tend to lighten the load for each other.

On this date, it was Mikey’s mission to get my mind off things I could do nothing about, and he knew that spending a day with the oars in my hand would do it if anything would. A friend and professional associate had told me about the Siletz River, and owned a cabin on the river at the head of tidewater, another soon-to-become important factoid. For those of you who do not know northwest fishing, a drift boat is a means of conveyance that is launched at an upstream point, and carried downstream to a take-out point by the river’s natural current and flow. The occupants must navigate hazards, rapids and other distractions along the way as the oars and river will not allow upstream navigation. Also, once the river reaches tidewater, there is no longer any current, so the drift boat at that point becomes a row boat, and will move only with the tides and the stamina of the oarsman. Driftboating is an activity enjoyed only in flowing water. Tidewater is the quiet water at the lower end of a river that flows to the ocean.

We started off from Vancouver at around 3:00 a.m. or so, the goal to be on the water at daylight. Every fisherman knows daylight is the magic time when fish bite, and if you aren’t on the water at daylight, there is just something not right. As I was getting little sleep anyway, and the hour of the day being what it was, I asked Mikey if he felt like driving which thankfully he did. He drove while I dozed out to near the little town of McMinnville, where he woke me with a question. “What is up with that vibration?” he asked me. Through my half awake stupor, I did notice a vibration, and replied, “It’s probably tire balance, speed up and see what happens…” He accelerated up to 60 or 65, and sure enough, it smoothed right out. We later learned that 65 is probably the speed at which the wind beneath the drift boat lifts the trailer tires off the ground. We passed a truck and as we merged back into our own lane, Mikey noticed it was flashing his lights. Being a truck driver himself, he quickly surmised that this was a signal. A quick check of the mirrors revealed an intermittent spray of sparks from the vicinity of the trailer. Mikey slowed, pulled to the shoulder, and then stopping in the gravel lot of a small business. There were no lights, and we fumbled for flashlights. We both went back to check our respective sides. I got to the passenger side first and reported, “this tire’s ok, how’s yours?” Mike’s reply, as near as I can remember, was, “there ain’t none.” Obviously, this was not a logical response to my question, so I repeated, “my tire is fine, how is the tire on your side?” The reply was, “I heard you the first time and there still isn’t any tire on this side. I walked to the other side, and sure enough, there was no tire on that side. All that was left were the two beads left on the outside edges of the wheel, and they were worn smooth, indicating their use as the sole contact surface for that side of the trailer for some miles. Further inspection of the edge of the rim of the wheel revealed that the source of the sparks to be the now shiny rim of the wheel.

Mikey and I shared a moment of silence, and I believe the first word spoken was a hushed, “wow.” The moment of reverence broken, we quickly moved to put on the spare. It didn’t take us long, but it was long enough for the truck we passed to overtake and pass us. Mikey said he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw the whites of the drivers eyes aimed our direction through the dark as he passed by, a sign Mikey took as recognition of his driving skills in bringing the trailer to a safe halt.

On our way with only a few minutes lost to our schedule, we continued in near silence. Starting the day on a negative can be a good omen or a bad omen. One thing for sure, it was definitely an omen, a fact not lost on either of us. Knowing we could not return without a spare, I began to formulate a plan in my mind. It was Friday, a work day. The following day was Veteran’s day, a national holiday and the first day of the weekend. Knowing we would have few options that would salvage our fishing day, I devised a plan to drop the wheel off at the Les Schwab Tire Store in Lincoln City as we went through town in the dark, along with a note asking them to find and mount an inexpensive tire for us to pick up on our return late in the day. Closing time for them was, I believe, 6:00 p.m., which was well after dark at that time of year. No problem…

We reached the front door of Les Schwab and I left the wheel along with my card and note of instructions, confident that the boys at Les Schwab would not let us down, they never had before, no reason to think they would now. At that time, I was still of the belief that things would work out at some point during the day. From there, we wound our way up the Siletz River Highway. As neither Mikey nor I had ever been on the Siletz before, we were going forward on verbal directions, looking for the “white fence”, the “old tractor” and the “third or fourth bridge”. The 20 or so miles up the river comprised well more than half of the total trip in our minds, as there is nothing that makes a trip longer than searching for your destination around each and every curve. If we saw other launches on our way upriver, neither of us took note of them. We did find our launch just as daybreak chased shadows out from under the bridge and overhanging trees. Mission accomplished – we were on the river at daybreak, and this was definitely a good omen…

There are points in every float, demarcation points, points that mean little or nothing, points you remember but are neither memorable nor remarkable. One of those is when you sit down, feel the river in the seat of your pants through the rowing seat, and in your palms through the oars. The other is when you pass around the first bend and lose sight of the launch. It is at that point you realize you are going down the river, you are on your own, you have no choice but to take what the river brings you and master it. Dying is not an unanticipated outcome. It is sobering and at the same time invigorating. On this day, I remember my feelings as the launch disappeared from sight – my thoughts were on the election, life, the day, fishing, not so much on the river. Today, the river feels like a friend, like an old friend to spend some time with when sorting out some stuff. Thoughts are not of the river, per se, but there is a nagging feeling of unfamiliarity, that I have never seen the takeout, and don’t know for sure how many miles downstream it is, or, as it turns out, other pieces of critical information.

As a fishing day goes, this one sucked. I know for certain we never got a bite on anything. I am pretty sure we never saw a fish caught or heard of a fish caught. Not unanticipated for having never been on the river before, but disappointing none the less. The day bore on and wore on. Another demarcation point is when you start looking at your watch. Typically, this is when you realize you are ready for the day to end, and you begin the mental calculation as to how long till the takeout, how many spots left to fish, start getting gear packed up, etc… Except, having never been on the river before, we didn’t know some important information. So, in lieu of calculating, we substituted intense concentration on the highway-side bank and an impending sense of mild trepidation combined with more rowing and less fishing. A glance at the sky told us we didn’t have far to go to the takeout, or at least we better not have unless we wanted to row by moonlight. Then, we came to a bend in the river. What we saw then was a definite demarcation point. First, the river was calm – no more current – tidewater! Second, the banks were over 20 feet high and vertical. Third, there was a square dock and what I recognized as the back of my friend’s house on the river. Fourth, I looked farther right and saw a cross pole over two vertical poles with a block and tackle and long line looping down the bank in the neighbor’s lawn. We experienced despair, hope, exaltation - all in the same breath. The specter of losing the wheel in Lincoln City and having to drive home without a spare compressed time, and instilled urgency – or was it panic?

We quickly beached the boat, tied the bow line to a clump of grass, and climbed up the bank. Which is to say, we tried to climb up the bank. A tidal bank at low tide is not unlike a greased pig contest with the muddy bank being the pig. We were able to clamber up the mud path 5 or 6 feet using feet and hands before the first clump of grass pulled out, and we slid back down the bank together into the river – there was no break in the slope at the water’s edge. So, now not only was it going to be a supreme challenge to make it up the bank at all, the consolation prize might well be a bath, or worse. As it turns out, by the time we made it up the bank, we needed the bath, and badly. By the time we reached the top, we were covered with mud and faced with trying to both get permission to use the hoist, and find someone to take one of us back up to the bridge to retrieve the vehicle and boat trailer, all the while looking like itinerant mud wrestlers with a panic on our faces. It is difficult to look cool and in control in this situation.

One fairly unique aspect of drifting is that you take out at a different place than where you put in, so your vehicle and trailer is not waiting for you unless you have arranged a shuttle. We had not done so, but this usually isn’t an issue. Any fisherman seeing a fellow fisherman with a rod in his hand and a thumb out knows what is going on and will gladly give a guy a ride a few miles to his rig, even if it is in the back of the pickup with the empty beer cans and a wet dog. In Mikey’s case (he drew short straw and got to go for the rig), the guy who stopped for him had him sit in the front seat of the dirtiest miniature Japanese pickup in history with his wet dog on Mikey’s lap, the aroma of the unkempt dog blending with the strong odor of patchouli, and wild eyes peering out from under several month’s growth of the driver’s hair/beard and whatever else was living in it. Mikey would have gladly walked if it hadn’t been for press of the time.

By the time Mikey returned, I had made my tenth or twelfth trip up and down the bank hauling gear up out of the boat. Using the block and tackle would bring the boat up the bank vertically, so anything loose in it was going to end up back in the river never to be seen again. I did try to ask permission, but no one was home at my friend’s place or his neighbor’s. This was Friday before a holiday weekend, and I expected the owner of the neighboring house to show at any time and not be pleased at what looked to be an impromptu yard sale going on in his yard. I expected him to be even less pleased at me using his hoist and with my boat trailer backed onto his yard. In fact, other than not spending the night rowing down river to the Pacific Ocean, I was having difficulty seeing anything positive in this situation. I was beginning to see the aforementioned omens as all bad. I had no idea…

Mikey pulled up just about the time I had the line hooked to the boat, and stretched out toward the road as far as it would reach. We had to use the long line to hoist the boat, but still figure out a way to hook the trailer winch on the bow of the boat to get it from vertical, like a dead fish, to horizontal on the trailer. We were going to have to use the truck to pull the boat up, find a way to hold the line so the boat wouldn’t slide back down into the river, and back the trailer up so the winch line would reach the bow.

It was about then we noticed the safety chains stretched tight, and only about an inch of the hitch still in the receiver. I looked at Mikey, and he looked at me. We both came to the same realization at the same time…someone had stolen the pin out of the hitch. Now, a hitch pin is a small thing, IF you have one. If you don’t, it becomes a very large and important thing since it is the one critical piece that connects the boat and trailer to the suburban. Without that one critical piece, all you can hope for is that the safety chains will keep the boat and trailer on a tether and from going off across the road by itself until you can get pulled over to the side of the road. One of the most unpleasant sights imaginable on a fishing trip is the frozen image of a boat and trailer unaccompanied by towing vehicle passing you on the highway at the instant you realize it is yours. It was the shared image of this averted disaster that Mikey and I shared unspoken across the tongue of the pinless trailer hitch, both knowing without asking that we had no spare in our possession.

If an engineer and truck driver had taken time to worry, or even think about these tasks, it might’ve taken hours to solve these physics problems. But, since we were running against deadline, we did it without analysis or thinking in about 3 minutes. As I recall, Mikey broke off a willow branch and whittled it down to jam in the vacant hitch pin hole. I grabbed onto the line once the boat was up, dug my heels in, and got a wrap around a fence post long enough for Mikey to back the trailer up and hook the winch cable on the front of the boat. I let go of the line, as it was starting to slip through my hand anyway, and the winch line wound out to the end, but held – Thank God! So, we got the boat on the trailer, put the block and tackle as close to how we found it as we remembered, and threw the rest of the gear into the boat. With one final look around, a glance of astonishment and accomplishment on our collective faces, we spun on our heels and headed for the front seat of the Suburban…and stopped dead in our tracks.

There, out of nowhere, was a Rottweiller the size of a small pony sitting in the driver’s seat. The drool hanging out of its mouth reached to the seat and below, the look on its face clearly said he had found a suburban and intended to keep it, and the growl coming from somewhere in the bowels of the beast suggested Mikey and I would not be contesting the claim. The exigency of the situation was lost on neither of us.

“Mikey,” I said, “you distract him and I will jump in.”

At that point, Mikey suggested I perform an anatomically impossible act of self-reproduction indicating his disagreement with my plan. Also at that point, it became clear Les Schwab would close without ever knowing who left them the wheel with the fragments of tire bead attached unless someone took immediate action. As I recall, it was me who took action, and I can’t recall if I yelled at him to get out, or called sweetly to him to scratch his ear (the dog, not Mikey). I think adrenalin may have qualities of inducing amnesia during flight or fight response. At any rate, we were able to get him out, get the gate shut, and get headed down the road leaving only a few feet of rubber on the road. Between the time I saw the dog and the time I realized I was driving 70 mph down a winding river road, I remember only haze, terror and snippets of my life prior to that day.

We spoke little on the trip back to Les Schwab. Mumbled unfinished phrases beginning with “where the hell did he come from…”, “where was…”, “how did we…”, and “what were we…” come to mind, but what I do remember was my hands cramping from their grip on the wheel, and the white of my knuckles competing with oncoming car lights. We passed sorely needed taverns and fast food restaurants to get to Les Schwab in time. Thankfully, they were just bringing in the outside displays as we slid up to the front door. I rushed in, having forgotten about the newly acquired mud layer to my outer clothing, smelling something like fermenting shellfish, and asked to speak with someone about the wheel I had left on their doorstep. They resisted the urge to call law enforcement officials, and got me to slow down and repeat my question in a legible manner. The person who had taken my wheel came forward, and explained that they had no recap in my size, and asked would I like one of their new steel belted radial tires.

At this point, in a blinding flash of the obvious, it became clear that nothing about this trip or this day was going to turn out all right. I was resigning myself to pay $150 I didn’t have for a boat tire spare when Mikey strolled in beside me. The sight of these two mirthless, mud covered gentlemen spurred the young man to tap regions of creativity his brain had heretofore not visited, and he suggested we take a look in the bin of used tires headed back to the Les Schwab retread factory. The logic was sound – if they were good enough for Les to put his name on, they would be good enough for us. In my moment of hope, I ignored that little voice in the back of my head giggling and cackling in anticipation of things to come. They were unable to find a spare that was a match for the tires we had on the trailer. At the time, that seemed important, but I am unable to recall why. In stead, he found a pair of Pirelli sports car tires with about 50% tread. These were better than either of those on the trailer, and certainly better than the one no longer with us. After brief discussion, it was decided to put the pair of used Pirelli’s on the two wheels on the trailer, and take the better of the two on the trailer to use for a spare. $40 and a half hour later, we were on our way, some faith in the world restored.

A stop for a couple of beverages and burgers was the only chore left. Fatigue had set in, realization of our near death experiences quelled conversation so the intrepid pair set off into the anticipation of a long but uneventful trip home.

And, to be honest, the drive back as far as McMinnville was uneventful, other than working hard to stay awake and aided by the gravel of the shoulder being hurled against the underside of the suburban and trailer. Mikey and I both perked up as we neared the site of the first omen of the day. There is something about proximity to the site of prior events that evokes attention and anticipation. We passed the lot where we changed the tire, and both of us subconsciously scanned the edges of the road for shredded tire, but saw none. We were both settling in to the remainder of the trip, and actually beginning to speak about the events of the day in past tense.

It was at that time we came to a railroad crossing, the same crossing we had gone over earlier in the day, and many times before. As railroad crossings go, this was neither a good one nor a bad one. But as I went across it, I felt a pull or a bounce or something out of the ordinary that made me look in the rear view mirror. What I saw was the rear of the drift boat silhouetted against a full moon, which was about thirty degrees above the horizon directly behind us. The artistic impression of the scene was lost on me at the time. Instinctively, I uttered an expletive, or perhaps more, and yanked the wheel toward the shoulder. Mikey asked what was wrong, and I do not recall speaking further as I wrenched the door open and hurled myself backward to check the trailer tire, yet once more. What I saw caused my heart to lodge in my throat and my mouth to go dry. The two-hours old Pirelli on my side was disintegrated. I could literally put my whole hand through both sidewalls, reaching through the tire to the other side. There would be no patching this one. I tried to ask Mikey about his side, but all that came out was a raspy squawk. Mikey didn’t need the question, all he said was, “don’t come over here.”

Here is the scene. Two fishermen, covered in smelly, slimy mud, leaning on the trailer in defeat at the side of the road roughly thirty miles from God knows where, both tires flat, one spare, at nine o’clock at night on the Friday night of a federal holiday weekend. How could it possibly get worse? Here’s a hint – Never, under any circumstances, utter those words, or even think them. It was at that precise minute that the flashing red and blue lights hit us. In one moment of blinding clarity, I realized that the best I could hope for was to spend the rest of my days in jail for God knows what, if I managed to not be shot on the spot by the trooper. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but there was absolutely nothing else that would fit into the events of the rest of the day. In one additional moment, the thought of ending it all in one brief second didn’t seem like that bad an alternative…

The trooper approached us, and in a few minutes was able to assess that the beverages we had ingested earlier were not of the alcoholic variety, and that we were truly the two most pathetic human beings walking the face of the earth in his patrol area at that particular moment in time. He found a blanket to cover his passenger seat, and told us that he had a contact in the next town that might be able to repair tires for us. We didn’t even argue, and removed the wheels from the trailer wordlessly as he held the flashlight for us. The man at the service station was perhaps alerted to the situation by the trooper, but nonetheless was able to make his own assessment of the situation completely on his own. Given his astute knowledge of the principles of supply and demand and market economics, he was able to arrive at the price of his one tire, a steel belted radial that would fit our wheel, and that he was relatively certain I would be willing to pay. As memory serves, I was offered the opportunity to become the proud owner of said tire for an amount just slightly less than the value of the trailer, which I gladly paid. In another half hour, I was back in the trooper’s front seat, several hundred dollars lighter, for a silent trip back to the edge of the road. To Mikey’s credit, he was still there. No one would have blamed him for hitch hiking his way back to Vancouver on his own, and forgetting he ever knew me. He was there. We mounted the spare and the new radial in silence, mumbled a thank you to the trooper, and waited until his lights had faded into the distance to start the car to head home.

The remainder of the trip was made in total silence. No words were spoken, no music played. Unblinking stares held the road until our final destination was reached. It has been years since these events occurred. What has been written is truthful, Mikey and I still let each other tell the story as the details do not change. It has taken these years to dull the pain of that day, and to be able to bear seeing it in print. While it may amuse the reader, its memory can still bring reflexive twitches and whimpers from the two of us who survived that day.

And, I lost that election by 29 votes. (c) AM 2004

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
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"There are points in every float, demarcation points, points that mean little or nothing, points you remember but are neither memorable nor remarkable. One of those is when you sit down, feel the river in the seat of your pants through the rowing seat, and in your palms through the oars. The other is when you pass around the first bend and lose sight of the launch."

"The sight of these two mirthless, mud covered gentlemen spurred the young man to tap regions of creativity his brain had heretofore not visited, and he suggested we take a look in the bin of used tires headed back to the Les Schwab retread factory."

These are great lines. Thanks for the story. I'd love to see some more.


Piscatorial predilection
Great story, sounds pretty much like the usual fishing trip to a new river though ;)


John Hilt

Very funny and well written. I had to print it out and show my buddy to prove that he is not the only one with bad luck when trying to fish a new river.

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