Sunday, April 29, 2012

High Water and Still Going

Every work day, and often on the weekends, I check the Willamette River monitoring website that shows the river levels. It gives a prediction of the levels for the next ten days, and the first 3 days are usually very reliable. Lately, the site keeps showing these swings, low water, high water, low water, high water. We opened last week on Monday, after being closed for 4 days. I was expecting that we'd close again on Wednesday or so, since the predictions showed the river being around 13.25 or 13.5 by Wednesday afternoon, and that's when we typically close.

But then last week, a backhoe came down and dug out a bunch of rock. And on Wednesday afternoon, E came down and really worked with me on using the steering cables and slowing the motors at certain times to land better. It made a huge difference. I operated on Wednesday to about 13.8 feet. The river was ferocious by that point. It looked so swollen, fast, and terrifying. Occasionally, huge logs would float by, but mostly it was just the force of the river itself that was crazy.

Over my weekend, the newest ferry operator, and now-regular BV operator, K had her first solo shifts. I think she did pretty damn awesome, considering the fact that the river went to 15 feet and the ferry stayed open the whole time! I drove across the ferry yesterday afternoon, when the river was at about 14.5 feet, and holy cow, that was crazy high water! I'm really excited to keep the boat open more. It means fewer shop days, fewer days in the winter where we're closed, and more time that the ferry can do it's job, and serve the locals.

Then, of course, I had to close the ferry this morning. It wasn't even the water level that did it at all! One of the motors, the one on the downstream side, kept kicking off. I'd be puttering across the river, and suddenly there'd be no power on the downstream side. Alarms would sound, and I'd race around trying to see if I can fix it. I know what breakers to flip, how long you need to wait, and the proper procedure to reset the drives, but once, it took a half hour to kick back on. I got stuck on the wrong shore (my car was on the opposite) for awhile, and it kicked off once when I was landing, once in the middle of the river. Thank goodness I was able to land using just the upstream motor.

It was hard to get ahold of people, bosses, electrician, dispatch, to get help or tell them I'm closed, but finally, several hours later, I'd talked to the people I needed to, the electrician will probably be coming down tomorrow, the road closed signs were closed, and dispatch had sent out announcements that the boat was closing. All in all, it wasn't that terrible. It was 1:30, warm weather, and I was heading home on a Sunday afternoon!

In other news, I don't think I've mentioned the amazing opportunity I get to experience this week. I am going to be interviewed for the NPR radio show "The Story". The Story is a really fantastic program where the host, Dick Gordon, spends a good deal of time simply interviewing interesting guests who have an interesting job, experience or life to share. I emailed them and submitted my story about how my life has changed since losing my Planning job and working on the ferry. They called me two days later! I'm going up to Portland where I'll sit in a studio and be connected with the host in North Carolina. The program will be broadcast on May 16th, I think. The theme of the program that day will be in honor of Studs Terkel's 100th birthday. I'm so honored. I get so nervous just thinking about the interview. I'm so glad it won't be broadcast live. But I'm so excited to tell my story, and even more excited that someone thinks I have a story worth sharing!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I think it's really spring

The last few days have been really warm. 80 degrees with brilliantly blue skies. The ferry was closed for high water through Sunday, so I took the day off, and worked yesterday. I wore shorts, a tshirt, and a sunhat. And I forgot my sunscreen! I tried to sit inside as much as possible, but I had several projects that left me standing in the sun for awhile. So my arms, neck and legs, both front and back, are burned. Most of the burning happened before noon even. Crazy how warm it was.

Today was much cooler. Probably less than 65 degrees and sprinkled on and off. The river is heading right back up. I was worried that we'd close for high water tomorrow morning, but instead, around 4ish, the boss came down and said that a backhoe was on it's way down. It dug a good deal of rock out of the area directly next to the ramp on the east side. Those rocks, we think, are the only real reason we can't operate at 16 feet, like the WL. With the rocks dug out, I was able to land pretty well, when before I would slam into the rocks, the boat would almost bounce over them and there would be a large gap between the ramp and the boat apron.

I think by the end of the day tomorrow, the river will have gone up over a foot and I'll be hitting the rocks again. But this is a great improvement, I'll be able to operate up to 14.5 instead of 13.5.

The ride to and from work has become a delight. I'm still surprised and happy when I leave the house at 6:15 in the morning and it's light out. One of the things I hated about working the winter was that I'd get to the ferry in the dark, and leave in the dark. The farms and fields I drive by every day were invisible in the darkness. I love watching the changes to the fields, seeing what's been planted, which flocks are in the fields, which birds are nesting where. Now, in spring, it's wonderful to watch the changes every day on my way too and from work.

This morning, I noticed that a field that had been green not long ago had turned gold and orange. I don't have any idea what's growing, it looks grassy or wheaty, but the color is amazing and sparkles in the light. A different huge field that rounds a sharp corner is a riot of bright yellow flowers. What is this plant?

The ospreys are still building their nest. The only reason I think they haven't laid eggs yet is that I often see both of them flying around, not on the nest. All sorts of smaller birds are swooping and flying around too.

Closing up the boat this evening, I realized how less tense work feels when it's not dark in the evening and I'm not freezing my butt off. I wandered around the boat, locking things up this evening, delightfully calm and peaceful, not racing around, dodging raindrops, trying to keep in as much heat as possible.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Closed, Open, Closed, Open

We closed the ferry Wednesday morning. K was down at the ferry training, since her first solo shift will be this coming Wednesday. She did great opening, and landed as well as can be expected in bad river conditions. The boss was at the dentist in the morning and had meetings the rest of the day. So he wasn't able to really help determine when to close. When I talked to him, he essentially said, "You're the operator, I can't be there. You have to make the call when to close." I agonized over this. Finally, I decided to close. We weren't at 13.5 feet yet, but we were heading in that direction, and it was impossible to land without really slamming into the rocks. So we closed. I went home and agonized over the decision for about 4 hours, then looked at the river levels and forecasts again, and quickly realized I'd made exactly the right decision. Such a relief. The ferry has been closed all weekend.

I texted with my boss yesterday, to determine that the boat would be closed today (therefore, I took a vacation day), and that we may be able to open in the morning tomorrow, but that it'll be later in the morning. I'll go down later than my usual 6:45 in the morning, and call him to determine when we're ready to open.

The river is going to go down this week, but then right back up to possibly close again next weekend. I am so tired of this. I just want my routine back. It's funny, according to my mom, when the ferry was closed, I complained about being in the shops, and when the ferry was open, I complained about being on the boat. Yeah, I know. I can't be pleased. So what!? :)

The weather this weekend has been amazing. I spent almost all day today gardening. I planted giant sunflowers along the front of my house. I hope they're giant, and that they'll provide some shade from the scorching sun this summer. It was wonderful being outside in 80 degree weather all day. Tomorrow should be the same. I'm looking forward to my typical summer morning activity at work of sitting out in my deck chair and drinking my coffee.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Godzilla vs the Ferry

It's been great being back to running the ferry. Catching up with regulars, watching the birds, being bored as usual. Of course, the water's on the rise again. I suppose I'd deluded myself that the river would be low and stay that way. But I think it's been such an extraordinarily wet spring that even a light drizzle runs right off into the river. The ground is really saturated. I've heard that this week from farmers too. One of my favorite regulars, a guy who works on a berry farm, said they had ordered a truckload of strawberry starts a month ago, but haven't been able to work the soil yet, it's all pretty much mud.

Right now, the river level is at 12.71 feet. We usually close the ferry around 13.5 feet, sometimes less, sometimes more. I wouldn't be surprised if I go to work tomorrow morning, and we close the ferry right away. The main reason we close at 13.5 feet is rocks. The ferry is strong enough to muscle through the high, fast currents. But currently, there are rocks placed at both sides of the concrete ramp landings. The rocks are higher than the ramp. So when the water is high, even if I make a perfect landing, the hull of the ferry hits the rocks. And that's just not good for the boat. I started noticing that I was hitting rocks around 11.5 or 12 feet. And by 13.5 feet, I pretty much can't land at all, the rocks are so bad. It was getting rough as I closed tonight. I'm curious to see how it is in the morning.

The other big problem with high water is the trees coming downstream. There were some whoppers today. You had to keep your eyes peeled upstream for trees heading for you. Usually it's not a huge deal if you hit a tree. You hear it reverberate off the hull, then it rolls under the ferry and goes on it's way. Except sometimes when the tree gets stuck in the low water line--the underwater cable.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I was heading across the river to pick up a car, and looked up to see how close I was to shore. And I spot a tree coming downstream. Not just a tree, but this gigantic thing. It was the trunk and root ball of probably a 100 year (or more) fir tree. It was huge, and heavy, only a small part of it bobbed above the water. As soon as I saw it, I threw the boat in full reverse. I managed to not actually hit the tree with the ferry, but as soon as the tree passed, I felt a tug. The tree had hit the low water line. I ran across to that side of the boat and looked, as the tree pulled and yanked on the cable. I wasn't so much worried about the tree snapping the cable, though that was possible. But if I couldn't get the tree free, I couldn't land on that side of the river at all.

My best bet was to try to dislodge the tree with the ferry. First I inched up slowly to the tree, then put the boat in full speed. The tree just sat there and the cable moaned as it stretched. Next, I backed the ferry up, almost to the other side of the river, hoping that the cable would drop far enough underwater that the tree would float over. Didn't work. Finally, as a last resort, I threw the boat in full speed from quite a distance, and just rammed the damn tree. The boat writhed and twisted in the water, the cable moaned, and I could hear the tree fight with the water. Finally, suddenly, the tree heaved over onto it's side and rolled off the cable. I was free!

I finally made it to shore. The car that had been waiting had stayed, in awe of the tree that got stuck. When they rolled onto the boat, they said I'd done a great job. It was cute. I was pretty damn proud of myself, too.

Tomorrow is possibly my last Wednesday on the boat. The new operator, K, is taking the Wednesday boat shift, and I'll work a 10 hour day in the shops. I'm pleased with this. I'm usually very tired by Wednesday. This is a shorter day, a shorter commute, and I'm done in time to make it to knitting group. I'm not sure what the boss has in store for me, I'm not sure if he knows. But he's said he'll keep me off the crews. I hope.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Still Closed

The ferry is still closed, even though the water level is certainly low enough to open. The bearings need to be replaced on both shafts. Which surprisingly is a sentence that isn't quite greek to me. But really, it just means that I need to be on board in case the mechanic needs help, and then just sit here allllll day until hopefully he finishes. This is supposed to occur today. The boss said to come to the ferry instead of the shops this morning, so I got here at 8....and.....nothing. I washed the mud off the east bank, and I'll wash off the entire deck in awhile once it warms up, but there's not an awful lot to do on a closed boat. And the mechanics haven't shown up yet. The boss had said he was hoping that the mechanic would fix it all and be done around 4:30 or 5, then we'd open the boat, or at the very least, set it up to open at 7 tomorrow morning. Somehow, this is seeming doubtful. It's evidently a massive ordeal to change the bearings and he probably won't finish today. So maybe we'll open tomorrow. Maybe. *Sigh*.

In the meanwhile, I've made a pretty amazing discovery. When they built the new ferry ramps and tower, they took down an osprey nest on top of the tower that'd been there for a really long time. And since ospreys nest in the same place for life, they replaced it with a small tower, a telephone pole, with a platform on top. It's not as tall as the new ferry tower, and all last year, they were trying to use the tower, so someone (not me!) had to climb up there every few weeks and knock off all the nest materials. As far as I know, they never really used the new tower. Well, they are now! The new tower is probably 30 feet from where I'm sitting right now on the east ramp. When I look up there right at this moment, I can see the head of one osprey sticking over the platform edge. I'm not sure if it's mate is in there, or out looking for food. I don't know if they've laid eggs yet. When I got here this morning, one osprey was perched on the edge of the nest, and they other flew down and perched on it's back. Maybe they're trying to mate? It's really incredible to watch. Their whistles are loud, and while I'm sitting here, something moves in the corner of my eye and it's an osprey, swooping low, coming in to land in the nest. Ohh! I see both of their heads now. :) I tried to put a photo in here, but blogger on my ipad isn't cooperating today. I will, soon.

Not much else is going on. I feel like I've actually managed to accomplish quite a bit while I've been in the shops. I created new time sheets, and wrote a 17 page manual on how to fill one out, and how to get the proper codes and everything. Some of it was mind-numbing, but overall, I really accomplished something. Now if we could only get everyone to start filling it out.... I also made a ton of edits to a different manual, formatted the heck out of it, and printed it up. So things really got finished this time around in the shops. It felt good.

At the badgering and cajoling of a coworker and friend (Tami, I'm shaking my fist at you!!), I combined two recent blog posts about nature, and submitted it to the county's public works employee newsletter. I had an entire page. Within 5 minutes of the newsletter being emailed to all PW emplyees, I was getting phone calls congratulating me, telling me I'm a great writer. It's so flattering! I like writing the blog, and I feel like I'm getting better and better at presenting myself, but to hear it from others, people I barely knew, was really wonderful. And now, family and coworkers are starting to push me to submit something to the local newspaper. Maybe a once a month human interest column? It's a lot to think about. If I do go that route, I'll have to think a lot about privacy. I do my best in my blog to not say cruel or mean things about coworkers, but sometimes I do. If my blog name went public, I'd probably go back and edit almost every one of my posts. Which I don't really want to do. I don't want to change the blog, or stop blogging, or move the blog or anything. It's a lot to think about, but it's also exciting to think about really publishing.

The mechanics still aren't here.... I guess I'll keep knitting!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Chasing Water

On Friday, with water levels climbing quickly, I spent the day chasing high water. Chasing water means you load up a truck with high water signs, barricades, rakes and shovels, and randomly drive around the county looking for water over the road. Dispatch didn't quite have their act together, since usually they'll call on the radio and tell you what locations need signs or drains dug out. They didn't call us at all, so we just drove around. Started in the hills in the South County, worked our way over to Stayton, then went up past Woodburn. Maybe it's because we were newbies, we didn't find ANY high water.

Finally, around 2, Dispatch called and asked us to help flag for a flusher truck. So we went back to the shops, swapped trucks for one set up as a flagger truck. It had all of the signs we needed plus flagging paddles (the stop/slow signs you turn around). Off we go to a really busy road near Aumsville. Really really busy, plus it was rush hour. The flusher truck clears out the drainage ditches. Takes two guys to work it, and since there wasn't a wide enough shoulder, they needed to basically close a lane while they worked.

I've never flagged before. I took the class, so technically I am qualified to flag. I was flagging with a gal who's dad is in charge of the sign shop, and has been around the county since forever. Since it was his darling daughter standing in front of fast moving traffic and he knew we both didn't particularly know what we were doing, he came down and got us comfortable. First, we screwed up the order of the signs we put up. It's supposed to go "road work ahead," then "be prepared to stop" then "flagger ahead (we had a figure of a person flagging, so flagger man)." We didn't have any "road work ahead" signs, we thought, so we figured we'd just order it, be prepared, flagger man, be prepared. That's not ok, evidently, and it turns out we had signs that had a picture of a worker with a shovel, "digger man," and that can stand in for the be prepared signs. So we had to redo the order of signs on the southbound side. Putting up signs takes forever, and the flag stands are crazy heavy. So we set up our three signs on each direction, then pulled up to the flusher truck, and away we went.

I stood in front of the flusher truck. When I was going to stop the traffic in the oncoming lane, I'd step into their lane and turn the sign to STOP. That way, the moving cars would move into the right lane before they got to me. When I was going to let my cars go, I'd step back into the flusher truck's lane and turn the sign to SLOW. We had two way radios to communicate when we were flipping signs...and also to gossip and joke with each other. When the flusher was finished with one ditch, they'd drive forward to the next piece of pipe that, in this case, went under someone's driveway. They'd signal to me, and I'd switch my sign to SLOW, and start walking forward. It was quite a process.

The paddle with the signs was super tall. They hadn't trimmed it down to size, so the stop/slow was about a foot or two over my head. And the pole was a pvc pipe, so it jiggled around a bit. By the end, my pole hand was cramping and cold. Couldn't really change hands, since it'd be awkward to stand that way. I'd left my leather gloves in the car, which would have kept my hands warm. It was about 45 degrees with rain and gusty wind. I was wearing jeans and rain pants, boots, a tshirt, fleece, rain coat, and reflective vest. And a hard hat, which wasn't necessary, but was the best, according to everyone, at keeping the rain off our faces. I wanted to use two hands at one point, to take off my hard hat, pull up the hood on my rain coat, and put the helmet off, but I couldn't, since I had to keep one hand on the pole all the time. I thought about leaning the pole against my shoulder, but I didn't want it to inadvertently flip from STOP to SLOW.

We flagged for about 90 minutes. Once we finished, we started picking up our road signs. The guys in the flusher truck called us on the radio and basically said, "We're heading up outside Silverton to Forest Ridge Rd, we'll see you up there." We thought we were done for the day!! We finished picking up signs and headed up to Silverton, but the truck had a good 20-30 minute lead on us. Supposedly it was just one plugged driveway, so we were wondering if we'd even make it there before they finished. Sure enough, as we were pulling into Silverton, still 15 minutes to the truck, they called into dispatch that they were finished! We called in to make sure they didn't need us anywhere else, and hooray, headed back to the shops. I put in two and a half hours of overtime, and didn't make it home until 7:30.

The next day, Saturday, every muscle in my body ached. Mom came up and we wandered the mall a bit, but I could barely lift my left arm (which held the paddle). My legs ached from standing for so long. Everything was just tired. It was a good tired, but daaang.

The river is still really high. It's going to peak sometime tonight or tomorrow morning, and then start making it's way down over the next week or so. Maybe I'll actually get back to the ferry in two weeks or so? I'd really like to. I like being in the shops and hanging out with my friends, but it feels like everything is just up in the air. I'm ready for my schedule back, for the three day weekends, and for getting back and watching spring happen down at the river.