Fits and Starts

I’m struggling with how to describe our strange fits-and-starts launch on the Sacramento River at Red Bluff. I’ll tell you right up front like a postmodern mystery novel that the culprit was Bad Gas.

Why You Haven’t Heard From Us

Since we left the Santa Cruz Mountains, we had to problem-solve a dead-critical truck mystery, towed a 7000 pound boat a few hundred miles, squatted a public square in Old Town Sac, set up a month-long exhibit, towed the boat another few hundred miles, made final supply runs, readied the boat, LAUNCHED it to great fanfare, had two motor fails, called in favors, cajoled, begged, and bribed to have various mechanics and boat-knowledgeable people take a look at Freddy2, UN-LAUNCHED the boat to take it to a neighboring town, got turned down at several too-busy shops, met the nicest boat mechanic ever, got Freddy2 working, drove back, RE-LAUNCHED the shantyboat, and now days after we intended are finally out on the river in the dreamiest spot ever. Whew.

An Exhibition

If you get a chance to step into the Sacramento History Museum, check out the month-long Secret History installation. We will be meeting up with the exhibition on July 20th as we come downriver and offer boat tours for the weekend.

We arrived in Sacramento too late to set up the exhibit, so the shantyboat squatted the public square in front of the museum. Set up the next morning and headed to Red Bluff.

A Failed Boating Jaunt

We camped at the dreamy Cypress Grove Campground just downriver from Red Bluff. We spent an easy day running errands and drinking beer. We woke up on launch morning to a growing crowd around the shantyboat. They had heard about the launch and wanted to see us off. I stood on the back deck and answered questions and made inspiring speeches. I felt like a traveling patent medicine salesman come to down in my gypsy wagon to entertain the locals who were eating it up (yet another echo of Huck Finn – ref: the Duke and King).

We hooked up the shantyboat and took it to the launch where a sizable crowd was gathering. The fanfare accompanying the Titanic came to mind, perhaps a premonition. Much bustle and hustle. Jeremiah had come up all the way from the Bay Area to help. Sara Jane Hall from the BBC was there to record audio. And then we were off. A successful launch!

We thought we might take some of the folks who’d helped on a tiny river run as a sort of thank you. We chugged up river under power of our new and fancy motor from Mercury our “Official Engine Provider.” And then.

Putt putt cough putt choke.

It died. We returned to shore barely and failed at restarting the engine. What could be the problem? We sat around for the next two days trying to make our boat go.

A Pleasant Time In Sheriff’s Custody

While we were waiting and waiting helplessly for someone to come and show us what dumb thing we’d forgotten to do that broke our new Mercury motor, we got to know the local sheriff’s deputies who did weekend patrol on the river. It started with them telling us we were partially blocking the boat ramp (we were) and that out jonboat was unregistered (it is, but as a lifeboat it doesn’t need to be), and progressed to pleasant conversation about river conditions and hazards.


Chad and his cousin Eric piloted separate Sheriff’s boats on the weekend. Eric called Chad the “grumpasaurus.” I had the impression that Chad was the kind of guy who would make people leave the river if they didn’t have type 2 or type 3 life vests even if they were only floating in innertubes (I saw this myself), while Eric was the kind of guy who might note it and give them a warning to have life vests next time. Interestingly, they both had deep roots in the Red Bluff area and their shared grandfather was a “muleskinner” or mule driver. Chad knew ridiculous amounts of local history and got to hear it first hand on a lengthy jaunt down the river in his Sheriff jet boat.

Red Bluff used to have a permanent diversion dam on the Sacramento River just downstream of town to draw off water from the river for thirsty farms in the Central Valley. The lake that backed up behind the dam was called Lake Red Bluff and drew thousands of boaters, water skiers, and swimmers bringing millions of dollars to the local economy. In the early oughts, federal agencies required the dam by decommissioned to protect aquatic species. In fact, I canoed down the Sacramento through Red Bluff the first year the dam was open during the summer.

Chad and Eric told us about the devastating economic effect losing the lake had on the town. I asked if the town was talking about transitioning from a lakeside town to a river town. Both agreed that the town had all but given up after losing Lake Red Bluff. I hoped the town would embrace the advantages of being a river town and turn all the former lake bed into a series of amazing parks.

Chad took us in his jet boat to the Red Bluff head of navigation where steamboats used to come all the way up the Sacramento River and even have epic races.

People had been telling us for two days that our attempt to boat downriver was doomed. “Dude, there are places where it is ankle deep,” and “Winter floods have filled the river with snags. No way to get through.” So Chad took us downriver all the way to Woodson Bridge, about 20 miles, so we could see all the hazards the river had to offer.

Some of that was true. There were gravel beds that snuck up on you, and certainly a fair share of snags. And yes, most people around here use jet boats rather than prop boats. But it is not impassible. Chad agreed, an ability to read the river, to spot river hazards, to take it slow when necessary, would keep you safe on this river. To me, it looked totally doable, about what I had remembered from my three trips down through this area on sketchy homemade boats.

An Unlaunch, a Fix, and a Relaunch

After futilely calling every mobile mechanic and sketchy boats friend of a friend in two counties, we were desperate. We had some hope for a nice fellow Dave the sheriff’s had told us about who had talked us through some basic checks, but he was busy at Lake Shasta. It looked like our best bet was to trailer the shantyboat and bring it to an authorized Mercury serviceperson up in Redding, about 30 minutes away. Definitely a last resort, but we were on our last resort. So we unlauched the boat, reversing everything on our launch checklist and hit the road.

We slept in the parking lot in the Boat & RV District of Redding. In the morning we found that after this holiday weekend, all the boat shops were absolutely jammed, and though they empathized were unable and unwilling to take us. We called all the authorized Merchants dealers, and then all the reputable mechanics, and then all the disreputable ones and everyone was far too busy to help.

By this time, Sara Jane was quietly freaking out, who had come all the way from the UK to record this journey, trying to decide what shape her radio program would take in the face of these setbacks.

Then we heard from Dave! Dave was in Redding and suggested we meet him down at the boat launch where he was already working on someone’s boat. Dave had been thinking about us since we called and worried that we weren’t able to get on the river.

We met him down there and he immediately tore into our engine, focusing on fuel lines, filters, pumps, and the mysterious vapor separator.

He zeroed in on the fuel filter and concluded we had water in our fuel. Water? We were using fresh gas in a fresh tank. Did we get a batch of Bad Gas from the station? Were we sabotaged?!

It was completely fresh gas, right? Well, yeah. Mostly. Er, no actually. I had emptied the old gas out of the old can we were going to use for the new four stroke engine. And maybe I left a bit in there thinking that wouldn’t hurt anyone. But given how water separated from the fuel and sunk to the bottom, it is totally possible I accidentally left a bunch of water in the tank. And since the tank sucks from the bottom, it would be the first thing that went into the engine.

Dave immediately offered to get rid of the old gas (I didn’t ask how) and pick up new fuel for us. He even dried the tanks with a compressor before refilling, and epoxied one that was leaking. He texted “I am on it. once you get me you get all of me. working my way back to you.” How do you respond to that level of sweetness?

He texted back, “Just me doing good keeps the heart healthy”

Sara Jane said, “It was always going to be Dave, wasn’t it?” The nicest man in the world, she called him.

We were back on the road by mid-afternoon, and at the boat launch in Red Bluff within the hour.

We launched again. It went even smoother. The motor started. It kept running. All was good.

A Sad Goodbye and a Glorious Morning

We promised to get Sara Jane on the river, and we made good on our promise in the nick of time. She was leaving Monday and it was Monday and we were on the river and it was sunny and beautiful and the river looked amazing and there were gravel beds and big snags and we avoided them mostly — except for that one incident — and we took her several hours down river and we dropped her off at a stranger’s house with a dock in the river and she was picked up by Joe Z Bill and shuttled back to her car and we sailed off down the river in the glorious late afternoon sun.

It was getting late and we were hunting for a spot to camp. We found someone’s river camp at the sandy mouth of a tributary creek. With an American flag fluttering cockeyed on a rough pole on this eve before the fourth of July, we beached and had a pipe and watched the sunset. I went to sleep in the newly luxurious loft looking out at the river in the moonlight and thought I’d never seen anything more beautiful.

We woke up to a bright morning on a cool and refreshing river and spent the day as Benzy said “like children in the garden of Eden,” drinking, eating, swimming, and playing. We rowed up the creek in the johnboat to explore while Hazel ran along the shore. We decided out of sheer pleasure and laziness to stay another night in this perfect place.


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