It seems disrespectful to stand atop the grassy Indian mounds
to get a better look at the river but most people do it anyway. I admit that I climbed up on one of them once but not without a thoughtful nod to the Ojibwa
brave whose shoulders I was standing on. The view of the river from the top of that hill is spectacular so anybody buried there would have expected to share the perch with future generations.
The St. Croix River has the distinction of being the only river in the world that is protected against environmental mischief along its entire length. If you squint you can almost see the river the way that the Indians saw it hundreds of years ago, before the advent of the white man and the powerboats.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredge the river on a regular basis to keep the narrow channels clear and the resulting sand from the riverbed is piled up to form sand islands. The St. Croix is less than the artery of commerce it was in fur trading days so the river is now dredged primarily for recreational boat traffic. The islands created as a byproduct provide a place to park the boat and party.
The sand islands were named informally for their location or a defining feature and the names stuck. The most prominent of these is in the middle of the main channel near the town of Hudson, Wisconsin and is known as "Beer Can Island." The island is situated directly across from one of the largest marinas on the river so it is a wildly popular party destination for the weekend warriors. In spite of the river's designation as an environmentally protected sanctuary, the party animals made a permanent mark with their jetsam. No great leap of imagination is necessary to determine why it's called Beer Can Island.
There is a bulge in the river near Beer Can Island known as Lake St. Croix but don't let the name fool you, it ain't a lake. Even at its widest point the river moves along at a pretty good clip and Lake St. Croix in particular has a wicked undertow that kills on a regular basis. Every summer the partiers descend on the pristine river by the hundreds and every summer the Sheriff has to use the dragging hooks to fish out the ones who had too much fun.
Even so, the greatest danger for the drunken boater is not the undertow so much as the other drunken boaters.
The best thing about chumming around with Captain Tony was that he had the keys to the only jet boat on the river. The "New Canoe
" was a sleek little fiberglass number that could skip across the water as fast as a car could roll on land. The concept of jet boats
has been around since Archimedes
invented the water screw
but they didn't become a functional reality until the mid-1950s. Captain Tony was the first guy on his dock to own one. Jet
s are common on the river these days and uniformly despised for their noise and velocity. If you've ever been on the tarmac for the lift-off of the Concorde
or a Harrier
Jump Jet you have some appreciation for the volume involved.
The primary appeal of jet boats for most people is that they go really fast, really quick but that was never my cup of chowder. Every now and then Tony would open her up and the G-force would slap you back in your seat with your cheeks flapping and the blood rushing to the back of your brain, like an astronaut in a NASA simulator. You can calmly shave and sip your coffee at seventy miles per hour in an automobile but the same speed on water finds most normal people trying very hard not to wet themselves.
The versatility of jets is a wonder to behold. They draw less water than a canoe at low speeds and at planing velocity they can skip across the surface with less than an inch of draft. In the absence of a propeller, they are able to jump over floaters or sandbars without worry and allowed us to visit parts of the river we would otherwise never have seen.
The vessels are like fiberglass projectiles in the wrong hands and most sane people would rather be sailing. I've heard Captain Tony accused of some scurrilous things but sanity was never one of them.
It took three houseboats and twelve grown men to drag Tony's jet boat off of Beer Can Island. He made a drunken wager that he could drive the boat completely across the island, spitting sand through the impeller and he was only half wrong. Jet boats operate under the same principle as jet airplanes
, sucking in and spitting out water rather than air to create forward momentum. Tony was correct in assuming that the jet could spit sand as well but he badly miscalculated the effects of heat and friction. He lost not only the five-dollar bet but the six hundred-dollar jet-drive and the eleven hundred-dollar Oldsmobile engine as well.
Tony didn't believe that a limit existed until he bumped square into it. We saw him blow five engines in four summers testing the limits of that poor little boat. He ruined the thing once without ever leaving the slip when he discovered that by aiming the jet drive straight down he could nearly achieve flight. The water cooled engine got tired of sucking air and expired with an impressive display of smoke and screeching metal before it ever obtained significant altitude.
Tony was an old school biker who had made good with a successful business so he acted with the authority of someone who had righteously conquered both worlds. The great philosopher Kinky Friedman said that to make it in this life you either need f**k off attitude or f**k off money and God loved Tony so much that he gave him both. Anyone who knew Captain Tony loved him dearly and everybody else was likely scared to death of him.
He looked something like a cross between Hulk Hogan and medieval depictions of Satan. His face and naked pate always burned bright red with a rugged topography of throbbing veins, accentuated by a ring of stark white hair that surrounded the bald spot on top of his head. The white moustache and goatee added the finishing touches to his diabolical appearance. When his shocks of long white hair were tied into a neat ponytail he simply resembled a badass biker with sunburn but when it was left to blow in the breeze he was the absolute picture of a modern pirate.
Tony lost the use of his left leg to polio and the shriveled limb was kept rigid with a series of braces and a heavily weighted shoe. He walked just like a peg-legged pirate, throwing the dead leg forward with a thump of the heavy shoe and following with the good leg. Decades of using his upper body to drag himself around and to wrench on Harley Davidsons gave him absurdly muscular arms and a barrel chest that contributed to his menacing appearance. If you teased Tony about acting like Long John Silver he'd throw you a smile so warm it could melt a doubloon and answer you in a salty brogue.
"Aye, matey, it's the pirate's life for me."
When the Sheriff
's boats roared into the no wake zone of the marina at forty knots, sirens blaring and lights flashing we expected the worst. Their wake caused every boat in the marina to bounce like a bobber
and tug violently at the dock lines. The boaters who weren't aroused by the yelping air horns and shrill sirens were called to attention by the contents of cupboards and drawers clattering loose in a dozen bobbing galleys. The Sheriff was usually the enforcer of the no wake area
near the marina so the commotion they caused was doubly upsetting.
There were two Sheriff's boats from each side of the river and a Coast Guard runabout led the charge. When they made a beeline for Captain Tony's slip, the stiffs on the dock must have assumed that his reckless lifestyle had finally ruffled the wrong feathers. Even the people who appreciated Tony's dangerous sense of adventure and pirate-like pillaging of this life expected him to hit the wall eventually. The ones who were frightened of him or antagonized by his unashamed hedonism were eager voyeurs to his presumed comeuppance when the Sheriffs approached his boat.
My buddy Joey and I were loading beer into the ice chest under the back seat of the jet when the commotion started. It was the 4th of July weekend and the river was asshole to elbow with dangerous amateurs so Captain Tony was taking us away from the fray in the jet. We were going to go camping on the string of islands north of the high bridge where the drunken propeller boats couldn't follow. My first thought when I saw the Sheriff was a selfish one. Would Tony let Joey and me take the boat if the cops dragged him off for some act of piracy?
The Sheriff was terse but respectful as his boat slammed into Tony's expensive metal flake paint job.
"We need the jet, Captain and we need to get the beer out of that ice chest now!"
Tony shot a glare at the man for smacking into his pride and joy but was quickly subdued by the Sheriff's explanation.
"A lady got her legs sheared off over by Beer Can Island. We need you to buzz the channel to help us find them. Doc says they'll float for awhile but our propellers will make hash out of 'em."
The woman was lazing on an air mattress near the island when a drunken bon vivant in a twenty-seven foot Chris Craft ran her asunder with his propeller. He must have thought he had hit a floating log because he continued on his dangerous way without hesitation. The boat was five miles downstream when he was finally apprehended and he had his lawyer on the marine telephone before his beer got warm.
There's nothing like a drunken manslaughter rap to suck the fun out of Independence Day so the reckless man must have held out sincere hope for her survival.
If you ever lose a limb
and need someone to help you look for it I recommend finding someone who's already lost one of his own, for the sheer enthusiasm he will invest in the effort. When the Sheriff's deputies tried to solicit volunteers to walk the shallows around the island to look for the severed limbs, everybody had someplace else they needed to be in a hurry. In a matter of minutes the island was eerily vacant and the legs were presumably lost to the current. Captain Tony sprang into action as though he was charged with looking for his own lost limb. The Sheriff barely finished gesturing to the location of the incident before the jet roared to life and shot toward the channel.
Joey and I were still tossing cans of beer out of the ice chest when Tony spotted the first leg. Fortunately for me it passed on Joey's side of the boat so I didn't have to fish the thing out of the water. He tossed it in the ice chest and closed the lid quick with his eyes screwed shut but he wound up shuddering with the creepy wilburs for about a month afterward. The second leg was trickier and I don't think anybody but the Captain or maybe Johnny Weismuller could have gotten it back.
Tony was an amazing swimmer for a guy with only one useful leg himself. Joey and I were thirty years his junior with all of our limbs intact and he could swim circles around us, then pull himself onto the transom of the boat with ease.
We were moving slowly upstream in the channel when the Captain saw the second leg floating swiftly with the current in the other direction. He dived from the boat without a word, so my buddy and I didn't know we were pilot-less until we heard the splash. Joey grabbed the wheel and spun her about to chase after Tony who was now moving faster downstream than both the dangerous current and the severed limb. He dived beneath the surface several times before we caught up with him and his final dive lasted so long we feared we had lost him to the undertow. Joey must have driven the boat right over him because he splashed to the surface behind us and scared the Hell out of us both when he tossed the woman's leg onto the aftcover of the jet boat.
Tony wasn't even winded from his superhuman swimming feat when he pulled himself back up onto the boat and took the wheel. Joey and I both fell to the deck with a thump when he throttled toward the Med-Evac helicopter on the pier. He packed the legs in beach towels full of ice and handed them to the paramedics who had waited hopefully for the success of the search. Captain Tony, like most good pirates who lead lives of grand adventure, was a master of understatement.
"You better hurry, boys, she'll be wanting these back."
For all of his selfless effort, Tony was only a partial success that day. One of the legs was badly mangled by the propeller and could not be reattached but the woman can now stand on the other and walk with the aid of a prosthetic limb. Hers was a limited miracle but a miracle nonetheless and she had a notorious rabble-rousing, one-legged pirate to thank for it.
Both the Sheriff's department and the Coast Guard wanted to give Captain Tony a letter of commendation and a plaque but he declined them when he learned that he had left the job half-done.