Friday, August 30, 2013


It didn't start out as an "uh-oh" day. It started as a perfect one. Blissful, even.

Alone on the river, anchored in glittering rapids, I was hunting the first of migrating fall salmon. The sun had been up an hour, but remained hidden behind a distant fog bank. Currents gurgled under my boat.
While I waited for signs of fishy movement, my mind wandered and I followed a hawk jetting at treetop level, headed upriver. A peregrine falcon, it picked the highest limb in a tree adjacent to my boat to land.

Through binoculars, I could see his trademark black mask, which cuts glare to his active eyes constantly hunting the landscape below and sky about. I memorized his details in close-up so when I returned to fishing, my imagination could fill in the details of that large gray bird, perhaps 250 feet away, if measured my-eye-to-his-eye.
Something about being in a boat makes you largely unthreatening to the river's wildlife. The hawks, herons, and little birdies, the beaver and river otter -- they seem to get used to hapless fishermen like me.

From the opposite bank's brambles, a wrentit bubbled its song -- like a bouncing ball if the ball made the sound of a flute at each accelerating hop. To accompany him, I played my new CD for the first time:
"River's strong, you can't swim inside it
...a little bit of summer's what the whole year's all about"
(John Mayer, "Wildfire," Paradise Valley)
I paused, trying to preserve that perfect moment, but captured only a fragment in the picture I posted to Facebook:

And, ok, the scene wasn't quite perfect. A big fish, even one just splashing on by, would have been a nice touch. I concentrated hard on casting to invisible salmon, drifting gobs of cured orange salmon eggs along the rocky bottom and through a narrow shoot on the wide river, an underwater cleft that forces any migrating fish to within casting distance.
I branded my yet-to-show fish as Godot Chinookie. Like Estragon, however, I waited in vain for my Godot. I had hoped the prior day's soaking rain, nearly unheard of in August in western Oregon, would have stirred the salmon to start their mysterious flight from relative safety in the Pacific Ocean, sixty miles downstream, to their spawning waters far upstream. My job was to intercept in mid-flight their reckless, suicidal rush to spawn and die. Luck had a lot to do with it -- mine, that is, not the salmon's. And mine was about to run out.

Something spooked the vultures, still on their treetop roosts and waiting for the sun to warm their long black-feathered wings. They awkwardly flapped airborne, a dozen or more suddenly overhead and soaring effortlessly. In all that ruckus, the peregrine slipped away, off to do his falcon business elsewhere.
Moments later, a red-shouldered hawk appeared at the same sentinel, but seemed more intent on introspective preening than hunting, ignoring the harassment from a flycatcher. A pair of black-tailed deer wandered along the bank, now and then giving me indifferent glances. All was well.

It's not like I didn't catch any fish. I did. The smallmouth bass fishing was terrific, and I caught dozens and kept six, taking filets to freeze for winter and leaving the carcasses for those carrion eaters shadowing me above.
Besides, even with no salmon, how could I feel cheated on such a day? It was, indeed, the perfect morning. And then it wasn't.

Before quitting for the day, I motored far upstream, enjoying the sunshine and solitude. As I turned to head back and gunned the outboard, it responded with unnatural guttural rattling.
Uh, oh.

Maybe something simple? After pulling the engine's cover, I discovered a loose screw on the cover over the flywheel, and obviously the problem. Whew! I was so confident of my simple fix that I stored away my tools, settled back, and cranked open the engine for home.
Uh, oh.

This was no rattling plastic cover. This was some serious clanking inside the motor. Miles from the boat ramp, I puttered back very slowly. If the motor died, at least I was heading down current. Worst case, I could always drift back to car.
Except for those shallow rapids where I had started my day that had seemed so perfect just minutes earlier. Isn't that how it sometimes goes? The way a perfect moment in life can go to hell in an instant?

Anyway, to get through those rapids safely, I needed to get the boat up on plane -- meaning, go fast and skim over the top of the barely submerged rocks. Either that or bounce off boulders and bang and clang through the rapids with little control.
So I punched it, the engine rattled and protested, but then, suddenly, sounded almost normal, and I flew the last few miles to within sight of the boat ramp. Was that it? Had my crisis fixed itself? Hope springs eternal. I slowed, then stopped mid-river.

Uh, oh.
The engine barely fired back up and clanked worse than ever. I limped in and home.

* * *
At the boat repair shop the next day, I explained my plight. I proffered the culprit my father-in-law had suggested: ethanol in the gas had messed things up. The service guy wasn't impressed:

"Naw, that's what everyone tries to blame for everything. Not likely. More likely mechanical. We'll just have to see."
"Could be a blown engine," he added helpfully. "At some point, you gotta figure, why put money into ten-year-old technology. Think about a new Honda four-stroke."

Later, I mentioned that possibility to my wife, and she asked how much a new engine could cost. I professed complete ignorance. "Ballpark," she pressed.
I thought hard. "Maybe eight," I said.

She seemed taken aback, but conceded, "It is what it is."
That evening as we sipped wine on our deck in the sunset, I did a quick Google check on prices for a new Honda 50 hp outboard.

"Not as bad as I thought," I said. "Probably around sixty-five with the jet drive."
I thought she was going to choke. She looked confused. "Wait. Sixty-five. What do you mean? Hundred?"

Uh, oh.
"When you said 'eight,' I thought you meant eight hundred. I thought that was a lot."

It was so wrong, but I couldn't help myself. I laughed out loud. "Eight hundred?! If it was that, I'd go out and buy a new engine tomorrow."
Was that a tear?

Uh, oh.
I expected that it would take a week before I learned what was wrong with my poor boat. But the very next morning as I was driving to town, I got a call from the boat shop. Then fifteen minutes of tension until I got off the freeway and could listen to the voicemail.

Uh, oh.
I drove straight to the shop. There sat my boat, cylinders exposed. One was quite obviously fried; its piston had a hole burned in it. Kevin, the mechanic, tried to explain what had happened, but he had never seen anything like it and none of the possibilities he considered made complete sense. He told me stories about how reliable Yamaha motors usually are, which was very little solace, to be honest.

I learned more than I ever wanted to know about ethanol-in-fuel-caused problems, and I must say, I'm still not completely convinced that's the issue.
After we talked through the options for repairs, I said to Kevin, who by now had gained my trust and confidence, "Let me just ask you straight up, Kevin. What would you do?"

We agreed that replacing the engine's guts made the most sense, more than trying to repair the broken pieces, and about half the price of a brand new engine.

Maybe Kevin can figure out what went wrong when he takes everything apart to fix it. Not that it matters all that much. I've already decided, whether or not my father-in-law was really right, that I'm going to take his advice and pay the extra for ethanol-free gas from now on.

By the way, my father-in-law was very sympathetic when I told him the diagnosis. He resisted the totally justifiable urge to say "I told you so."
* * *
This sucks. Not having my boat, especially at the start of the chinook run, is awful. It reminds me of when I hit that damned peccary pig down in Texas and got stuck in that god-awful state for weeks while waiting for my car to get fixed. (See The Pecos Pig.)

Kevin has all the parts for my boat engine ordered and on the way. He figures I can be back in the water within three weeks. A lot poorer, to be sure, but what you gonna do? Which brings me to the only moral of this story that I've been able to come up with:

Shit happens.

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