I was riding shotgun with my boss, so I had time to observe the scenery as we headed north. A phone call from officials required us to go to a bridge about 80 miles north to see what we could do about a log jam.
The woods were a far different sight than the year before. It had been that long since I traveled the route and hurricane Rita changed the landscape tremendously. With 120 mph sustained winds at landfall, little wasn't affected and the damage was still obvious.
It was the middle of spring, so the underbrush was thin, which revealed the piles of trees and snapped branches in the woods. Old growth pines might be snapped a few dozen feet above the ground. The remainders stood like strange posts left by a determined giant. Below, the tangled remains of branches and upper trunks cluttered the ground. Chaotic was the best description. Anyone that tried to walk through these woods would have a tough time. In the upcoming summer, it would be suicidal. If the snakes or insects didn't get you, the heat would, as you fought through the poison ivy, honeysuckle and blackberry vines.
Rain ended right before we received the call, which was the end of days of torrential rains. We'd told the crews to go home that morning, since there wasn't anything we could do. We wondered about the next few days. Watersheds were full and the ground was soaked. It might be days before it was dry enough to work.
We arrived at the bridge late that morning. The Sabine River was at the top of its banks and full of dead trees and branches. We walked onto the bridge and peered down at the jam against the columns. There wasn't much to see, but we knew we could clear the jam. Our plan was to start the following morning, but after a phone call, we were told to mobilize and start as soon as possible.
I spent the entire trip back making phone calls to line up equipment and people. We needed a long stick excavator to reach and clear the jam. I found one and arranged for a heavy hauler for delivery. It would arrive during the late afternoon.
We had the changeable message boards and a light tower. The flaggers and advance warning would be subcontracted, so I just needed an operator and a few hands for support. By late afternoon, everything was arranged, equipment was hooked to our trucks and we were off to work until the logs were removed. I phoned my wife to let her know I'd be home whenever. A stop at a convenience store was a must. I needed the first of the numerous cups of coffee I'd need before the night was over. I'd been up since 4:00 am; it would be a long day before the night was over.
We arrived as the light was fading. Heavy scud clouds were lifting, but no clearing was forecast until after dark. Traffic was light, so setting up the message boards didn't take very long. Before I was through, the excavator arrived and was unloaded. We immediately closed the highway, the flaggers took control of traffic, we walked the heavy machine out on the bridge deck and the light tower was placed in the best location. We only had minutes before the only light we'd have would come from the light tower or hand lights we all carried.
Our long excavator had 60 feet of reach, so it was limited to what it could move. We'd kicked around the idea of using a crane with a grappling hook, but realized the danger of the hook hanging on something and pulling the crane into the river. The excavator, since it only had a bucket, could maneuver the debris from the columns and release anything too heavy.
The operator started the process of moving the tons of debris. On one side of the center span, it didn't take but a few minutes to remove the debris, find the larger tree and release the entire mess into the flow. The other side was different. The debris was thicker and extended further up the river. It would take some time to remove enough to see what was jammed against the columns and causing the jam.
For the next few hours, I'd take turns with my boss as we directed the operator to the different spots we felt would contribute to getting us to whatever was lodged between two columns. The operator couldn't see the river below, so he relied completely on our hand signals. It was tedious at best. The only thing to break the monotony was watching one of the helpers work off the caffeine of two energy drinks. He was worried about falling asleep, so he'd downed the two drinks without eating. He was wound tighter than a three dollar watch and paced continuously.
During our work, the skies cleared and the wind changed to the north. What was a pleasant cool breeze during the day was now uncomfortably cold. I found a jacket and spent some time just looking at the sky. The stars were beautiful and the cone of light that was our work area appeared surreal.
We finally reached what caused the jam. As we neared this tree, we'd found larger and larger trees to remove from the pile. The big problem we now faced was that the tree was mostly submerged. We had no idea how large it was or how it was lodged. We knew it was big; the excavator was having a hard time with even budging the tree, so we were beginning to wonder if it would require more equipment.
Finally, my boss had an idea. Since the excavator didn't have the strength to swing the large tree away, he decided to push it upriver, and try to walk the machine towards the center span. If successful, the end of the tree would be caught in the current and the other end could be held from the column to prevent further lodging.
The first few tries were futile. A few "feels" with the excavator revealed another small tree deep underwater. This tree was holding the larger tree. After a little manipulation, it was released and the big tree was now free...if we could move it.
The hydraulics squalled on the excavator as the operator pushed the tree away from the columns. With a little maneuvering of controls, the operator was able to inch the tree towards the center span. He continued and I crossed my fingers it wouldn't find something else to hang on. After a few minutes, enough of the tree was caught in the current so the end started downstream. The operator quickly released the end and hurried to the other end to insure it wouldn't hang on the column. He pushed on the end of the tree until it was clear. It was now free to move downstream.
Since there was no traffic, I hurried across the bridge to watch the tree as it left. When I reached the other side and shone my flashlight toward the water, I saw the upper end of the tree start to pass underneath. Hurrying back to the other side, I looked down to find at least twenty feet of the trunk, including the large root ball still on the upstream side of the bridge. Doing some quick calculations, I realized the tree was over 80 feet in length. I went back across to watch as it passed.
It took about a minute for the tree to finally reach a point I couldn't see it by flashlight any longer. I wondered if it would be caught on the next bridge, which was over 30 miles to the south. I doubted it would; there were too many places for the tree to hang on the winding river. Even if it did, we would be glad to move it, but they had to let me get some sleep.
It was after 4:00 am when we finally had everything off the road and hooked back up for the trip to the office. The haul truck would be called in the morning. We left the excavator on the shoulder and headed out.
I stopped at the first store that was open for a cup of coffee and something to snack on. It was a poor second to my choice of a hot breakfast, but in the boonies, there's little to find at that time. Still, it tasted good. The coffee was fresh and much better than the stale crap available during the hours before. I was ready to get home, but I had to drop a message board at the office first.
We arrived at the office a little after five. By the time everything was stored and accounted for, the sky was getting light to the east. I gave a hand a ride to his house, so the sun was almost up when I finally started for home. I was glad I was heading west, since my eyes felt like they were full of sand and the thought of driving into the rising sun was far from a pleasant thought.
I had time to think as I drove home. I thought about the power of the river. the hurricane that provided the lumber for the jam and how the things that are familiar can change overnight. That, and catching a few hours of sleep. We still had other jobs going on and I had things to do.
In Case You've Wondered
My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.
If you're here for the stories, I started another blog: scratchingforchange.blogspot.com
One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.
I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.