I wasn't sure if I'd heard a siren or if I'd just dreamed it. Red and yellow light flashed through just about every window in our house. My alarm clock said 4:45 a.m., but I decided to get up and investigate.

Once outside, I could see Gearhart firefighters clearing debris from U.S. Highway 101 in front of Bud's Campground. An 18-foot aluminum sled sat on the pavement in the early morning mist, its bow pointing north. Its trailer, a mass of twisted metal, was still attached to the truck.

Evidently, the man hauling the boat had pulled out of Bud's Campground and Grocery parking lot and was in the process of crossing traffic and heading north toward the Columbia. As he was pulling out, a woman, her husband and their dog were headed south in their small pickup. As the man with the boat pulled out, she put on the brakes in time to miss his pickup, but not in time to miss his boat and trailer.

The contorted trailer sat in Bud's parking lot for several hours before someone finally came to haul it off. Bud's owner Bill Roady told me that without exception when people saw the twisted trailer, they asked him if the boat was okay. Concerns about the welfare of the gentleman hauling the boat and the occupants of the car that ran into it usually came as an afterthought.

This time of year, boats around here seem to take on a nearly sacred status. At the root of it all is the seductive nature of salmon. Anything that can get you out to the salmon is extremely valuable. And, it doesn't have to be a $20,000 sled like the one I saw on the road that morning.

One time some friends of mine and I were trolling on the lower river just off the beach near Buoy 20 when we saw one of the most unusual crafts we'd ever seen. An elderly couple had put a piece of plywood down on the floor of their rubber raft. They sat on a couple of lawn chairs (without life jackets, of course) atop the plywood. The man sat proudly with his pole in one hand and the throttle in the other. A can of beer between his legs. I never read about them in the paper, so I assume they survived the season.

One of the fringe benefits of part-time summer work at Bud's Campground is the fact that you run into a lot fishermen. You can keep tabs on the fishing and sometimes get invited to go out on the water.

Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend I was working my last shift of the summer when a guy came up to me and started talking fishing. I remembered him as a camper from the summer before, but I don't think I'd ever met him. He asked me if I wanted to go salmon fishing with him that morning. I told him I had to repair my carport roof after I got off work, which was true, but that wouldn't have stopped me from going if I'd really wanted to go. The truth was since I didn't know him - and in particular didn't know his safety record - I wasn't all that thrilled about going out on the river with him.

Later that morning we ran into each other again, and again we started telling fishing stories. The topic changed to boating safety. He told me that nobody goes fishing in his boat unless they're wearing a life jacket. He also told me about some of the equipment he had on board - a GPS, a fathometer, etc.

Before long I was fairly convinced the guy knew what he was doing so I asked him if the fishing offer was still good. "I'll be back by at 10:30," he said.

We drove to Warrenton where he moored his boat. He'd told me he owned a 17 1/2 foot fishing boat and I begun to picture some sort of sled. What I saw when we got to the boat basin was totally different.

His boat was a Glasstron built in 1964. It was shaped kind of like a car from that era. The unusual fins on the stern made it look like a seagoing '57 Chevy. Two Office Depot computer chairs done in salt and pepper upholstery sat on the deck. The one behind the steering wheel was bracketed to the floor.. The wheels on the one designated for the passenger were duct taped to keep the chair from sliding. A piece of pressure-treated 2-by-6 was attached to the stern. A fishing pole holder was fastened to that. His depth gauge was attached to the bottom of a plastic waste basket which was screwed into the side of the boat.

As we made our way out to Buoy 22 he introduced himself as Chris Counts from Tigard. Even though we were in some pretty good sized waves it didn't bother me too much because he seemed to know what he was doing. Pretty soon it got too windy to fish and I was grateful that he decided to head upriver.

We caught most of our fish just up from the Hammond Boat Basin. It was the best day of salmon fishing I'd ever had. I hooked six and landed five. Three were natives, so I had to turn those loose.

The only really tense moment came when we were headed back into the Skipanon. The tide started ebbing with a vengeance. It was like somebody had pulled the plug out of a sink. We were in the biggest waves I've ever been in on the Columbia and we were at the mouth of the innocent Skipanon.

Looking back, though, Chris did everything he needed to do. He didn't panic. He kept the boat basically square to the waves. And the boat performed as well as the cabin cruiser that we followed into the marina. "The fish don't care how fancy your boat is," Chris said with a grin.

Mark Mizell is an English teacher at Seaside High School. His column runs the first Thursday of each month in The Daily Astorian.


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