Friday, November 07, 2008

Old Man and the Inland Sea

He is an amazing story from Lake Superior where the rescuer needs to be rescued. I have never read a story as cold and miserable as this one. It just won the Boating Writers award for 2008! Here it is:

Lake Superior’s chill waters were an ominous slate gray and the lake was steaming with fog banks 40-feet high as Carl Hammer slipped into his 17-foot wooden fishing skiff and started his outboard engine. It was 7 a.m., November 26, 1958 -- the day before Thanksgiving.

The 26-year old North Shore fisherman figured he’d get to his offshore fishing nets before a storm came up, pick his catch, and get back quickly – just as he’d done hundreds of times before. He’d have to hurry.

At 8:30 a.m., his fishing partner, Helmer Aakvik – also known as the “Old Man”-- peered out the window of his cabin on the bluffs overlooking Superior and made his decision: he would not go out to the nets this morning. The 62-year-old Aakvik settled down to enjoy a second cup of coffee when his cabin door opened with a blast of wind and his neighbor, Elmer Jackson, charged in. “The young fellow is still out on his boat,” Jackson said, worried.

Aakvik looked up, troubled. A storm was coming on – one of the worst kinds – an offshore wind from the north-northwest. His fishing partner, Carl Hammer, was still out on treacherous Superior. He abruptly put down his coffee cup. “Call the Coast Guard,” he said.
As he turned to leave, Jackson looked at him carefully. “Just don’t you go out,” he warned.

* * *

Grabbing a jacket and pulling his cap down tightly, the Old Man walked down the winding path to the bluff’s edge. There was a steady wind out of the northwest, and, even in the protection of the rocky ridge behind him, the temperature was dropping. This was late November in the North Country and soon there’d be ice and snow.

On a near-vertical rock ledge jutting above the lake, he came to the ramshackle wooden fish house that he and Hammer shared. In the open end of the shed, he could see that Hammer’s boat was gone. Spruce trees swayed ominously below in the onshore breeze.

He ducked back inside the wood shack and checked around. Sure enough, the young fisherman had helped himself to Aakvik’s gas supply. The borrowing was OK – they shared supplies all the time in this close-knit Norwegian community. The problem was that Hammer had a new outboard engine that used a different ratio of oil to gas in the fuel than Aakvik’s. The Old Man had an old Lockport and an elderly Johnson, but Hammer used a newer Johnson, which needed about a half a quart of oil mixed in five gallons of gas. Aakvik’s old two-cycles required twice that amount of oil, and a too heavy oil-gas ratio would gum up his friend’s carburetor and foul his spark plugs – stalling his engine.

He peered into the can, then swirled it around. He could see the drops of water on the surface. His gas was old and had accumulated water condensation. The old man’s normal routine was to filter the water out of the gas so that it didn’t freeze in the lines and kill the engine. Hammer hadn’t filtered his gas.

Read the full story here.

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