(ROCKWALL, TX — May 14, 2019) Anchored, we fished a tributary of the Mississippi. It was a summer Wednesday and I was on my weekly fishing adventure with Dad. Most of the time we drove into Arkansas and fished a large oxbow lake named appropriately, “Horseshoe,” but this day Dad felt extra adventurous and drove us a quick 30 minutes from our house to the banks of “Old Man River.” The Mississippi River was no joke; with its powerful current, hidden logs, and huge wakes from the enormous barges and tug boats. Vigilance was a must, but eventually we found a nice little branch and settled in to land some catfish…until I smelt smoke.
“Dad, you smell that?”
“Yeah, probably just somebody barbecuing on a sandbar.”
But then I saw a ropy vapor rising from under my seat and as soon as I uttered, “Dad!” he was diving toward my feet and yanking out the trolling-motor battery. Flames and acid sizzled from the case and Dad risked a burn by lifting it and tossing it overboard. Nevertheless, as he heaved-ho, it cracked and puffed and he turned to dump a full minnow bucket over his head. The battery sunk and Dad continued washing by splashing river water in his face. The battery had blown and acid had sprayed him. He turned from the side of the boat with red-splotched-acid-burned cheeks, his eyes squeezing tight.
“I can’t see so well, son.”
I was near panicked, but calmed myself quickly.
“You’ve gotta get us back to the truck.”
I was around ten at the time. Dad had taught me to pilot our boat nearly from the first day we brought it home, but that was on calm lakes with little traffic. Boating on the busiest river in the South was a whole different ballgame. The local newspaper constantly reported boat wrecks with barges and folks drowning in the whirlpools. Today, we’d just use the cell phone, but this was the 1980’s and no help was in sight.
“You can do it son, just stay in the channel. Follow the buoys and we’ll be ok.”
My heart raced as I lifted the anchor and then squeezed behind the console. With shaking hands, I turned the key and the motor grumbled. Then, I put it in gear and moved the throttle as the boat lurched forward.
“Once it looks clear get out across to the deep channel, stay in between the buoys but as far away from barges as possible.”
The barges that tug boats pushed up and down the river were nearly a football field. Often the wakes forced out from behind the tugboats rose to a tempting height for any surfer. A boat as small as ours would skip, jump, and slap the waves which is exactly what happened as I drove our little fishing vessel back to the boat ramp. Dad guided from memory and blurry sight and soon I worked across the busy water lanes, landing our craft on the bank.
I would’ve never been able to help that day had I lacked experience in the outdoors. I was an athlete and loved all my time on field and court, but no game taught me life to the extent of hunting, fishing, boating, and camping. From finding my directions by the sun, to catching and preparing food with my own hands, to knowing safe water to cross, the outdoors was my best classroom. Was it dangerous? Absolutely. Unpredictable, yup, just like reality. Yet, Dad knew at my young age I needed to learn how to be calm and deal with the unpredictable. And those lessons in woods and water learned so young have saved my bacon not only in the wilderness but in civilization too.
Once ashore, Dad’s eyes eventually cleared enough to slowly and carefully drive us home. I was thankful because I was beginning to panic big time. I was comfortable at the helm of watercraft, but driving a truck was going to be different, I mean, how was I going to reach the pedals?
By Scott Gill is an RISD teacher, coach, and author of the book “Goliath Catfish.” Follow Scott’s blog at puptentpapa.blogspot.com and read more of his “Front Porch Ramblings” at BlueRibbonNews.com.
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