Lighter Side
March 22nd, 1999

An excerpt, taken from "From a Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping and Clasic Equipment"

"Shuttle Cars" by Jerry Dennis

As a matter of principle I prefer automobiles that are worth less than my canoes. I'm no financial genius, heaven knows, but it seems to make sense to spend money on things that don't plummet in value from one year to the next. Cars depreciate much faster than canoes. Thus it is a shrewd business move to buy a new canoe every few years while driving an old car into the ground. Besides, as every paddler and angler knows, the only really good use for automobiles is to carry you and your gear to the water, and you don't need a showroom BMW for that.

Years ago a friend of mine converted his 1964 Chevy Impala into one of the finest shuttle cars I've ever seen. He yanked the backseat out to make storage room for camping equipment, mounted a compass on the dashboard, and wired a clipboard for maps to the steering wheel. He bolted eye hooks to the bumpers for more convenient rope work, and welded car-top carriers to the roof. Whenever the body showed rust he slapped on a fresh coat of green house paint he had bought on sale at Montgomery Ward. The paint was so bright that when we were still two or three bends away on a river we could see the verdant glow of his car above the trees.

A shuttle car is always immediately recognizable. There are spots on the body where ropes have worn the paint away, gouges on the side panels, a muffler held together with baling wire and fiberglass tape. The inside is so filled with paddles, coolers, personal flotation devices, rods and reels, sleeping bags, and tents that there is scarcely room for a driver, let alone passengers. The tires are bald and the wheels lack hubcaps. The entire car, inside and out, is coated with a uniform layer of good clean dust.

I've owned many decent shuttle cars and trucks, but the best have been station wagons, primarily because of their load capacity. My most recent wagon was a 1980 Ford Fairmont that logged more than 160,000 miles before its final, fatal loss of compression. When packed with care, Old Blue could carry three canoes and six people, all the usual camping and canoeing accessories, plus two or three spare tires and a case of Pennzoil 10W30. She got uncommonly good mileage for a shuttle car -- twenty or so miles to the gallon -- but leaked a quart of oil every tankful. Also, her front end shimmied at highway speed, she stalled at intersections, and the air-conditioning and the heater both produced about the same volume of lukewarm air. But she took my canoe and me where we wanted to go and usually got us home at the end of the day. You can't ask more than that from a shuttle car.

The great advantage of owning a motor vehicle worth less than a couple thousand dollars is that it frees you to be gloriously indifferent to the scratches and dents that appear inevitably when you drive rutted back roads in search of rivers. Older vehicles have the further advantage of being much easier to repair than recent models with their complex electronic carburetors and computerized ignition systems. When you're bucking two-tracks forty miles from the nearest highway, you appreciate a car that can be fixed with a screwdriver, a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a roll of binding wire.

Marty's brilliant '64 Impala is a case in point. We once set out in it for Ontario but barely got over the Mackinaw Bridge before the oil-pressure light came on, and the engine began to buck and cough. We turned from the highway to a secondary road and pulled over to make repairs. But before we could even lift the hood we noticed a bridge a hundred yards ahead of us and strolled over to take a look. It crossed a river, a beguiling river, with tea-tinted water flowing over boulders and trout rising methodically in midstream. We knew we could fix the car -- it needed a long drink of oil and some screwdriver adjustments of its points and distributor -- but it would take an hour, and already the day was growing short. So we unloaded our gear and set off down the river. It was the right decision. We had a fine weekend exploring new territory. The fishing was good and the river interesting, and we never saw another soul. When we ran out of time on Sunday we stopped at a bridge, flipped a coin, and Marty hitchhiked back to the car. He started the engine, made some minor adjustments, and the car got us home without incident.

All you really need from a car is dependability. At the end of a long day on the water, when you're tired, chilled, and hungry and the sun is gone and the evening turning cool, the sweetest moment comes when you've put away your gear, secured your canoe to the carriers, and have settled finally into the seat of your car. It's dry and comfortable there and smells like home. You pump the accelerator a few times, take a deep breath, and turn the key in the ignition. The engine grinds, coughs, sputters, and catches. It hums, it clatters, it throws a fine and reassuring spray of lubricant around the engine compartment. You back around, shift into forward, and lurch down the trail toward the highway. No cowboy ever had a mount so faithful. "Home, Hoss," you say, and she obeys, and all's well with the world. ~ Jerry Dennis

(Jerry Dennis lives in Traverse City, MI and is the author of seven books, including THE RIVER HOME, A PLACE ON THE WATER, and CANOEING MICHIGAN RIVERS. This essay is excerpted from his latest book, FROM A WOODEN CANOE: REFLECTIONS ON CANOEING, CAMPING, AND CLASSIC EQUIPMENT, published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. Hardcover, 204 pgs., $21.95. Illustratred by Glenn Wolff.


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