Up the creek - with a paddle

  • Published
  • By Ed Scott
  • Ground Safety Division Air Force Safety Center
If you're a bass fisherman, you've probably heard of Lake Barkley, Tenn. This 118-mile-long lake has many "fingers," long extensions of water that are home to some world-class bass fishing. One spring, Bob, a co-worker, native Tennessean, and fanatic bass fisherman, offered to show me some of his "sweet" spots (and maybe he didn't want to be out in his boat alone -- hey, we were safety guys). I think he also wanted to show me his new bass boat with the BIG motor. Bob was persuasive enough that I took two weeks off work for a fishing trip he said I'd never forget. He was right.

After unloading the boat into the lake and stowing our gear, Bob pushed in the power, and the boat lurched forward fast enough to make me hold onto my hat. Good thing, too, as my hat (and SPF 50 sunscreen) were put to good use that day. Bob got a good laugh out of our roles that day -- he as the Skipper and me as Gilligan. I had to admit it was a fast boat. In less than an hour, we were casting for the big ones! Sunny and warm at first, but things cooled down a bit when the clouds rolled in later in the day.

Bob was right about the bass! Big ones! After a fantastic day fishing, it was nearing sundown and time to head back for a grilled fish dinner. But it didn't happen. When Bob tried to start the motor, it wouldn't start, and he continued until the battery died trying. The trolling motor battery was drained, too. While trying to figure out why the motor wouldn't start, we also discovered the flashlight batteries were nearly dead. That three second check we had done didn't tell us much about how good last year's batteries were. (Ask your father about non-alkaline batteries.) I'll add that it's difficult to fix a motor when your only tools are an anchor and a fire extinguisher.

So, we were stranded, probably miles from the main channel and other boats, with only frogs and an occasional owl to keep us company. The situation was not hopeless, however, as we did have a paddle. Yes, ONE paddle, used primarily to push away from docks, stumps and other obstacles. While Bob liked his toys, age and cigarettes had taken their toll, and he could not do strenuous activity. As the paddle obviously fit my hands, I quickly discovered there was a big difference between paddling a canoe at summer camp in daylight and a bass boat in a small, dark ocean.

Without a map or compass (GPS didn't exist), we had to feel our way along the shore. Although Bob claimed he knew the lake "like the back of my hand," that only applied in the daylight, and a big lake looks a lot different by dim flashlight on a dark night. Obviously, we couldn't hike over the hills in the dark. We would have gotten lost for sure. So, Bob held the flashlight while I paddled the boat. Fortunately, we didn't run across any snakes. A snake in the boat in the dark would have been a good time only for the snake. After several very long, weary hours of paddling, we finally reached the main part of the lake. A short time later, we heard another boat whose owner was kind enough to tow us the remaining miles to the docks.

I could tell Bob felt bad about the situation, as he offered to buy dinner. I was too tired to argue, so I let him. The next day, with the boat motor not working, we fished from the docks for awhile and went home a few days early. Bob then had the BIG motor repaired, got a CB radio (ask your father), AND he bought a new 25-horsepower outboard motor as a backup, just in case the BIG motor didn't start.

At least the local papers didn't hear about us. Two professional safety guys getting lost on the lake would not look good. Especially if one was a Tennessee native. Yes, we went fishing again, but, unless BOTH motors were working, the boat never left the dock. We made sure we had a map of the lake and that we knew where we were, a compass, fresh batteries in the flashlights, spare batteries, and plenty of drinking water. We also told someone else about our plans and when we'd return, so potential rescuers would know where to look for us! While being "up the creek without a paddle" is bad, you really don't want to be "up the creek with a paddle," either. I learned that on the fishing trip I'd never forget.