My good friend John Helm and I set out to hunt ducks on the east shore of Gull Lake Alberta.
If my atheist friends will indulge me in this description, it was the kind of day God intended for such activities.
Mid-October temperature hovering just below 0° C and ice creeping out from the shoreline a few yards capturing reeds, bulrushes and muskrat push-ups in it’s freezing grip. Nice even slate gray overcast sky providing an ideal contrast to the silhouetted ducks.
My son Dan decided he would take his quad up the east shore about 4 miles and meet us on a bay that had been “target rich” in times past.
We loaded the old 20-foot plywood Jon Boat with all our gear including a model 37 Ithaca 12-gauge that John had borrowed from another friend. Paddles, decoys, extra gas can – if you are an outdoorsman you know the list is extensive and for the sake of brevity I will leave it there. Almost as an afterthought we threw in a 5-gallon bailing bucket that we knew we would never need but it did satisfy the boating statute.
“Jump in Spike!” I said to my Chesapeake Bay retriever. He effortlessly cleared the gunnels on the boat, which was on the trailer and took his seat in the bow.
We scrambled into the jeep and took off for the lake in good spirits chiding each other over past blunders and challenging each other as to who would limit out first on the hapless Mallard population.
The 25 hp mariner engine fired up on the first pull, which is always a good sign. The flat-bottomed boat accelerated rapidly on the calm surface of the water. I sat at the transom, tiller in hand enjoying the wide-eyed look on the face of my friend who sat facing me – back to the wind on the second seat from the bow. It seemed a sporting thing to carve the hull back and forth in the water in slow and gentle curves in an effort to enhance the thrill my friend was obviously enjoying.
The term “Jon Boat” universally describes a shallow draft boat that handles flatwater and gradual turns fairly well but is by design resistant to the more athletic “hydrobatic” maneuvers.
A very good friend of mine by the name of Harpo Hayashi was a highly accomplished log Skidder operator. He challenged the operational envelope of the machines regularly and when asked why he did so he said “you never know the limitations of your equipment until you exceed them”. Encouraged by that empirically sound philosophy and fueled by the increasingly worried look on John’s face, I pressed on, challenging the operational envelope of the old plywood boat with ever-increasing tight turns and higher and higher speeds. I could have predicted the outcome of my temporary suspension from sanity if it were not for the influence of the adrenaline in my system and the weird and wonderful euphoria I experienced by being in control of the intensity of terror on my friends face.
It only took a moment to learn the limitations of my equipment as I turned a sharp right turn entering a breeze – riffled area about the size of a tennis court. As the hull skidded portside, the sharp edge of the flatbottom caught the 2 inch riffle and provided sufficient resistance to the boats side drafting momentum to essentially trip the boat and cargo on it’s Port side gunnel.
I know that all of us who play in Mother Nature’s schoolyard have experienced time slowing to a near standstill. I remember so many details like how easily big John Helm flew through the air managing to scream “I knew this was going to happen” before he splashed down about 30 feet from the swamped boat. I remember how remarkably elastic my left arm was in my failed attempt to maintain my death grip on the tiller and then watching the boat fall back in the water instantly swamped. I remember looking at my dog who seemed to be glued to his seat- big yellow eyes staring at me as if to say “I trusted you!-where are you guys going?”
Once entropy’s appetite had been satisfied and the chaotic scene had stabilized, the damage report was as follows: The boat was full of water leaving about 3 inches of freeboard but keel down. John and I were standing on a sandbar, chest deep in the water approximately 200 yards from the shore. The boat engine was running at a gurgling idle in slow circles around us with my dog sitting at the bow like a bewildered first mate.
When we finally captured the boat in one of its slow passes, we discovered that only John and I had been ejected from the boat and that all cargo including Spike had managed to stay in the craft. When we extricated the dog from the swamped boat, it improved the freeboard by about 1 inch, which was just enough to give us starting point for bailing. Using the 5-gallon “afterthought” we bailed at least 1 ton of water out of the hull, which gave us about a foot of freeboard. I grabbed the portside gunwale and pulled down while John hoisted his 300-pound plus body over the starboard gunwale and continued the bailing exercise until there was only about an inch of water remaining. I pulled myself into the boat and then pulled spike in. After double checking our gear, we fired up the motor and headed for shore to see Dan who said it looked like a white wall had instantly materialized out in the lake and he wondered what had happened.
We related the story to Dan then continued on with our hunt.
I can’t remember how many ducks we shot that day but I do remember the excitement of the boating mishap and in very vivid detail.
It’s a funny thing to have been involved in an event that you normally would have avoided but produced a memory you would not give up.
Life encourages us daily to adopt this peculiar credo; “expect to be surprised and you will not be disappointed”.