My 30th Birthday
I was guiding a 6 day Bonaventure trip for Sunrise County Canoe, with the usual client handful of about 9 husband/wives, experienced and novice paddlers, and a few mid-20s ‘young-uns’. The other worker on the trip was an 18 yr old ‘sherpa’ assistant from California who was marginally helpful, as he was working without pay. But he was good company, and told funny jokes which helped keep things lively.
I had spent the week pushing hard as we had been detained on the way up at the Canadian border for a 12 hour inspection, which resulted in the company paying out $2500 in ‘user fees’ to do business in Canada. The detainment had not only cost us our profits for the trip, but had also put us a full day behind on an already brutally tight schedule. The presence of three days of constant drizzle, and a few early dumps which ruined some foodstuffs added to the tension, so I had been obsessing for a week over maps; plotting campsites, timing river rates, readjusting menus, and worrying about every damn thing…you know, having fun doing a trip. The only solace was knowing that Friday, Take-Out Day, was my 30th birthday and I had cached a bottle of Mezcal scored on a Rio Grande trip in my duffle, and was planning to seriously hit on this incredibly cute and inviting 25 year old client with all my ‘I’m the big bad river guide’ wiles as a birthday present to myself.
To add to the festivity of the Big Day, we had managed to paddle within 10 miles of take-out on time, and were guaranteed to get off river on schedule, come what may! So the night before, I waited until the clients went to beddybye, then the uninvited Sherpa, the Babe, and I snuck off to the campfire and started to pass the bottle.
Unfortunately, due to my exhausted state, I only got drunker and more asinine, while el Sherpo actually got funnier and livelier. Sooner rather than Later, I crashed out on the tarp on the beach with my ears deafened by the river to the miserable sounds of the two of them ‘hitting it off’ back in her tent. Grrrrr.
I awoke at 4am, a little earlier than usual, with an ice-cold drizzling rain starting to fall on my head. I pulled the tarp over me, and dumped a fistful of beach sand down my neck and in my eyes and mouth. Abandoning sleep as the gritty mist developed into a real rainfall, I sputtered about to make breakfast with the tarp wrapped around me. I stumbled around looking for firewood, still half-drunk and fully hung-over, to discover that we had burned all the smaller stuff the night before. So I dug a small pit in the sand, dropped 3 or 4 wrist-sized pieces into it, doused it with lantern fuel, and tossed in a match. The resulting fireball singed my eyebrows, eyelashes, moustache, beard, and erupted with such a ‘WOOF’ that a client actually woke up and asked if I was alright. I mumbled something unintelligible and dug out the pancake fixins.
Just as I added the last of the berries, eggs, and milk to the flour, I accidentally knocked some sand into the bowl from the tarp and had to abandon the batter. So I cooked up the last of the oatmeal instead, and the clients all had to gather around and eat lumpy plain oatmeal in a drizzling rain as their last on-river meal (often referred to as the “tip-getter”…) Then we packed up our cold, wet gear, and as they loaded boats, I had a quick swim to clear my head (which worked wonders) and we set off the last 10 miles to take-out.
When we got to take-out in what was now a bonafide downpour, the first thing I noticed was that the van had an almost completely flat rear tire (about 5 pounds on the tire gauge). The take out road was 10 miles of class 4-5 dirt (now mud and getting muddier) and although we had a fully inflated spare securely locked onto the back door of the van, somehow the KEY to the lock was not with us, and there was no way to get the tire off!!!
Being the ever-prepared river outfit, though, we also had a compressor which would sit on the front bumper, attach to the battery, and had a 12-foot hose which would jus’ reach the flat back tire. So I hooked up the compressor, attached the long hose to the tire, and let it chug away as I loaded boats and gear into and onto the van. Imagine my surprise when I checked later to discover that the BROKEN compressor had not inflated the tire, but only let all the last of the air out instead!!
So, (thinking alarmingly clearly for my condition), I cut the hose off the compressor, broke the valve-end off of the tire gauge, and I attached it to the hose with a clamp robbed from the engine. I now had a 10 foot hose with a pressure valve at both ends, which I used to steal air from the spare tire and the other 3 tires until all the tires were up to about 35 pounds, rather than 4 at 45 and one at zero. Clever, eh?
We drove out on the low tires to the first gas station, where we topped off our wheels and set out. We were facing about a 260 mile drive on a long scenic road with few towns, that goes down a big hill to a ferry crossing over the Saguenay River, and then on to the Big Ferry across the St Laurence.
Thinking everything was fine.
BUT, a few hours later the brakes started getting mushy, and I noticed that the right front wheel was grinding when I put on the brake. I looked under the wheelwell and saw brake fluid everywhere! The damn calipers had worn so thin that one had fallen out and the piston was just oozing fluid every time I put on the brakes. Serious Problem. Not having the parts or time, (we had a ferry to catch!) I did the next worst thing: I put a vice-grip on the brake line to choke off the caliper, and promised myself to be cautious while I proceeded westward along the north shore highway.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten about the HUGE hill leading down to the Saguenay river ferry until it was right upon us. I kept thinking “I’ll just slow down to a crawl here”, but I found that the speed got a little too high, then I’d panic a bit, pump the remaining brake like crazy until the speed came down, let it get a bit high again, and pump like crazy again… Next thing, the damn brakes were so hot that they were glazing over and I couldn’t get the van to slow much at all. We were ripping down this hill faster and faster, I was trying to be all cool and stuff (yeah, fat chance) balancing between staying off the brakes to let them rest and pumping them big time to keep the speed manageable, and I was losing the battle. The clients were totally clueless, singing stupid road songs and being all happy and I could see the last of the line of cars a mile ahead just getting onto the ferry from the long flat ferry ramp. The gate closed down as I come rolling down at zillion miles per hour, saving my brakes for ONE LAST EFFORT before we all plowed into the Saguenay River…
I managed to get us down to about 10-15 mph before the brakes totally gave up the ghost, and we rolled right past the guard shack, right into the railroad bar across the road, pushed it right up against the chain-link fence that keeps cars from falling in the river, and pushed the fence inward until the whole thing stopped us, sprang back enough to roll us back a few feet, where we came to a rest; wheels smoking blue and a puddle of brake fluid dripping under the front rims. And the clients still singing stupid songs and not even seeing me trembling and almost crying behind my sunglasses.
Fortunately, there was a general store there selling odds-n-ends, so I bought a gallon of brake fluid, let the wheels cool, topped the cylinders, and we managed to proceed along the road, hoping to catch the Big Ferry across, but this time going as slow and careful as I could!
Still thinking everything was fine.
Just as the sun set, I noticed that the radio seemed to be getting weaker. In fact, my eyesight seemed to be getting poorer, too, as it was harder and harder to see the road. In fact, the damn HEADLIGHTS were fading!! It appeared that the battery was going dead! Oh NO!
I did the old-fashioned alternator check, where you pull the battery cable off with the engine running, and sure ’nuff, she quit. Dead alternator. Fortunately (hard to believe something worked out!) there was enough juice to restart the van, and we had to go back a dozen miles and try to find a garage. It was about 10 PM by then, and a precursory cruise through pokey-town showed that the sidewalks were completely rolled-up. So I dropped the whole truckload of people off at the only hotel in town, some 4-star fancyshmancy place, and set off to find an open garage if I could, somehow.
I found a janitor washing the floor of a closed garage, in my poor French explained my predicament, and he and I ended up rebuilding my alternator over a beer while the last of the day went away. My only thought as this was going on was how NICE that 4-star bed was gonna feel when THIS day was over!
After we got the whole thing reinstalled, I threw some money and a whole lot of “mercy boo-koo’s” at him, boogied back to the hotel and discovered that El Sherpo and the Babe had commandeered the ’employees room’, and I was left to sleep on the floor in a client’s room!!
Just as I was starting to drift off to sleep in my still-wet and sandy sleeping bag, seeing the clock about to strike midnight, one of my favorite client pairs knocked on the door and said “Hey Myron…Isn’t today your 30th birthday? We brought you a shot of Tequila.”