Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Garbage Bag Kid Assaulted By Savage Duck

My fly tying vice broke last week, and right in the height of the tying season for me.  I was laying a hook in, and when I went to tighten down, the jaw tensioner screw snapped in half, and doinked off my chin before being temporarily lost in the the bits of fur and feather on the bench.

I, being minimally mechanically inclined, if not downright confused about such things most of the time, was compelled to ask advice of friends concerning how to get the rest of the broken screw out and replaced.  Even with my paltry skills, after some coaching I was able to remove the remainder of the busted screw, and find a temporary replacement without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Much more importantly, I was able to get back to tying!

 A screwdriver had to be used to set the jaws with the temporary fix, but at least we were back in business.

As far as outdoor-related calamities go, that little inconvenience was somewhere on par with a pesky hangnail.  No real problem, just a sudden and annoying tiny setback.

Most gear failures are just such a case.  Somewhat annoying, often cuss inducing, but almost never a singular moment of anguish or danger.  I bought an exploding baitcaster once.  It was a pretty sweet reel and a great deal.  Ron Popeil would've loved this thing.  It was all shiny and cool looking, with trendy little cut-outs and holes drilled all over, supposedly to cut down on weight.  It is rather torturous, after all, to heft those extra grams around all day, but we fishermen somehow manage to muster on.  This thing had all the magnets and spool brakes a gear nerd could ever hope for.  About the third time I threw it, one side of the case and the handle plopped off in the water.  Never have I been more impressed with a fishing product.  The rest of it went in the water shortly thereafter, and I learned, once again, to stick to more established brands and believable price points.

I've owned a set of rain gear that I'm fairly certain was constructed of sponges and dish rags.  It may have even created water on it's own, I'm not sure about the science on that.  I practiced for hours and hours with my first cheap fly rod, frustrated with the impossibility of creating a decent cast, before it was tossed unceremoniously in the bushes by a more experienced caster after having tried it only once.  My first ice auger, handed down to me I now think with a smirk and a wink, simply refused to cut ice no matter what.  Blades were sharpened, shimmed, replaced, and shimmed again.  If you had one guy apply all the downward force he could muster while another man somehow managed to turn it, and if you'd sacrificed a wombat to the Aztec god Amimitl, and if it was 80 degrees out, you might have been able to get one hole drilled in a half hour.  That lovely piece of equipment (you ice fishermen can surmise the brand, the light blue one that isn't Nils) was also cast tumbling through space like a 3-iron after a bad shank out of the long rough, and I never even saw where it landed.  Kept right on walking.

Equipment failures, as exasperating and annoying as they can be, generally populate the shallow end of the pool when it comes to true outdoor kerfuffles.  Far more interesting, scary, and amusing are the instances in which we the hunter, forager, or fisherman fail.  And fail hard.

I was almost murdered by a duck once.

Fishing off the Country Club pier in Fontana was a favorite boyhood pastime.  My best buddy Steve and I would pass the sunny hours catching rock bass and sunfish from the gin-clear waters of Lake Geneva, interrupted only by randomly shoving each other into the water and the very beginnings of girl watching.  We didn't catch very many fish, and never ever spoke to a girl.  Gross!

Being the inattentive youngster that I was, at some point, I left my Zebco combo laying on the pier to attend to a pressing matter like chucking rocks at seagulls or cannonballing my younger brother, the bare Aberdeen hook dangling mere inches above the water.  A hen mallard happened by with her fluffy little chicks paddling along behind.  I looked back just in time to witness the last little duckling take a curious nip at my sparkly gold hook, and impale itself.  Cue the Benny Hill music.

I swam over to reel in my catch, and attempt to release it.  I got a hold of the spaztic fluff ball, and was trying to set it free, when I was quickly taught about the protective nature of a mother duck.  As I struggled to free the duckling, I was suddenly enveloped in a hurricane of pissed off duck.  Mom blustered and bit, squawked and dive bombed.  She kicked and nipped and flapped all over me, making it nearly impossible to free my inadvertent catch.  By the time the melee had concluded, the baby was released with only a pin hole in the top of it's bill, and I was left shaking, covered in half-moon duck bite welts.  She then hung around for a while to taunt and berate me while Steve and my brother tried and failed to stop laughing uproariously.  It's no wonder I want to hunt ducks now.

Steve and I were hiking along the river behind the Abbey Resort in Fontana a winter or two after the Psycho Duck Incident.  We had sleds in tow, having just hit the runs over at the golf course, but that never held our attention very long.  We were much more interested in stomping around down by the river.  Building snow forts, poking around in the mud, daring each other to walk on the ice... boy stuff.  On one such adventure, Steve fell through the shore ice in only a few feet of water.  Using my cat-like wits and dexterity honed through years of  stumbling around outside, I quickly rendered aid to my friend in the form of cracking him in the face with my handy dandy walking stick.  I'd attempted a rescue, and managed only to bloody his nose to go along with his soaking feet.  That's what friends are for.

The stories are deep and many.  I can't even begin to recall all the instances in which I or my outdoor compatriots have blundered into comical situations.  However, as I was paddling Selma Kayak around Cherokee Marsh the other day, simply enjoying the sun and keeping an eye out for ill-tempered looking ducks, I thought of the Tale of the Garbage Bag Kid, a family favorite still shared almost without fail during long holiday gatherings.

The Kickapoo river is the longest tributary of the Wisconsin river, and a very popular canoeing and fishing destination.  You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful river as it glides and meanders it's way through the bluffs of the Driftless Regoin.  And twist it does.  From headwaters to mouth it is only 60 miles long, but that run includes nearly 130 river miles as it bends back on itself over and over and over again.

It's also a bit a of a bugaboo for me, personally.  We paddled it often when I was young, frequently returning to it more than once a year.  I've also floated it fairly often as an adult.  It is a placid little gem, gorgeous and inviting to seasoned paddler and rookie alike.  None the less, that river has bucked me from my boat more often than any other.  I can think of only a few other instances of unplanned swims in my paddling life, but there have been almost a dozen on the comely, diminutive Kickapoo.

It was a cool, gray spring morning in the Kickapoo Valley.  Fog settled in the bottoms, and light rain misted down, giving the whole thing a cast like something out of Faust.  But we would not be deterred.  My family and I were there to paddle the Kickapoo, and it was going to happen.

My brother and I were still too young then to be trusted in a canoe of our own together, so he rode with Dad, and I manned (boyed?) the bow for my step mom Carolyn.  Carolyn and I were not great paddling partners then, nor are we to this day.  It started off as a joke that we seemed to complete a full circle directly after or right before launching or landing, but it soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  So we'd get our spin out of the way, and continue down the river.

Dad and Josh were even worse.  A long wet day in the canoe with a young son get can try a father's patience, I gather, and we can all recall the sound of my normally gentle, doting father's voice bellowing down the walls of the bluffs nearing the end of a particularly trying trip.  Josh!  Just keep your God damn paddle out of the water!

Being regulars on this section of popular river, we'd come to be friendly with the other families that frequented it.  Smiles and happy greetings were often exchanged as our caravan made it's way to the take-out.  On this trip, I'd somehow forgotten to pack my rain gear, after having been repeatedly reminded to do so.  Dad grumbled a little as he fashioned a makeshift poncho for me from a garbage bag.

Directly following one of our requisite spins, in a narrow section of the river, Carolyn and I were forced by the current into one of the many downed trees on an outside bend.  The canoe came to a sudden and complete halt.  I did not.  I tumbled into a deep pool of frigid spring runoff.  Suddenly finding myself in a bewildering low oxygen environment, I surfaced and immediately attempted to clamp onto Brian's passing canoe.  Being the wise river man that he is, he instinctively paddled away from my flailing attempts at self-rescue, knowing he'd be the next one in the drink if I managed to grab onto his boat. I eventually got my wits about me, and swam up onto the bank.  We caused a quite a backup, the other paddlers waiting patiently for me to get out of the water, and Dad to rescue Carolyn and the hung up canoe.

As I stood there, stripped down to my pre-teen briefs in the chilly rain, the other families paraded by.  Voices called out up and down the river wanting to know who'd gone in.  I was quickly linked to my most identifiable trait that morning -- my garbage bag poncho.  The garbage bag kid went in the water!  The garbage bag kid went in!  I finished the last hours of the trip looking like a half-drowned hobo in my dad's long underwear and my signature garbage bag poncho.  It simply cannot get much more demoralizing than that.  The moniker stuck with me on that river and in the campground we stayed at for seasons to come.

I've flipped boats on that river before and since.  Alone and with a crying girlfriend.  With my brother laughing like a demented hyena. With Steve glaring at me like I did it on purpose.  I came pretty close to real trouble once, my shirt sleeve caught on a strainer until Frisbee arrived to hoist me out of the water, but the precipitous fall from grace of the Garbage Bag Kid remains at the top of the list in re-tellings around campfires and dinner tables to this day.

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