The Loon Adventure

On Sunday [May 28, 2018], as my family was coming back from church, we noticed some commotion by the side of the road.  There were people by the side of the road looking at an apparently injured loon.  Someone had called Joel Rosenthal, who runs an animal sanctuary.  Joel’s animal sanctuary is only accessible, by vehicle, by fording the Greenbrier River.  It had been raining fairly hard for the past few days and the river was very high.  Joel misread a river gauge, thinking the river was low enough to safely cross, and decided to cross the river and take the loon from us.  My Dad and Abram, my older brother, put the loon into a feed-sack we had in the back of the car, with its head sticking out, and bound the bag shut with string so that the loon wouldn’t escape.  We then drove to the ford where Joel had crossed with a large Unimog.  Unimog is a brand of truck with very high ground clearance.  This Unimog had a front-end loader, and had water streaming out of the bucket from its recent crossing.  Joel took the loon and started to cross the river.  As he went, the engine started to run slower and slower as the Unimog went through the swollen river, until about 15 feet from the opposite shore the engine stalled, stranding both Joel and the loon.

        Dad and Abram drove off to try to find a canoe, while the rest of us stayed behind to watch Joel. Joel managed to swim safely to shore.  Dad and Abram drove to our mother’s house and borrowed a canoe.  Upon returning Dad tied the canoe to a tree with a long rope to test if Abram and he could paddle across.  Dad and Abram could not handle the canoe well enough, and Dad decided that it would be too dangerous to cross by canoe.  Dad and Abram, returned to shore and we drove home.  Since we couldn’t get to Joel’s from that side of the river we decided to try to get to Joel’s place, usually described as accessible only by fording the river, from the other side of the river.  That night Dad looked at maps and talked to people who knew the area.  We planned to set out the next morning.

        In the morning we set out to reach Joel’s. On the way we bought a topographic map.  The closest vehicular approach on the map, to Joel’s property, on that side of the river was about three miles, but that road had been closed.  We drove to the next closest approach, that appeared to be about 6 miles from Joel’s property on the map.  The proposed route was to climb over Pond Ridge and follow Oldham Run to Joel’s property, but someone who knew the area had advised us to walk on top of Pond Ridge to avoid the thick rhododendron growth next to Oldham Run.  We began walking.  We crossed a stream and climbed up what we thought was Pond Ridge.  When we reached the top, we consulted the map that we had purchased earlier, and discovered that it was not Pond ridge, but only a knob at the end of it.  Abram, Dad and I climbed up, then down two more steep hills and up again, until we finally climbed to the top of Pond Ridge.  Dad decided that Pond Ridge was too difficult to follow because it wasn’t a straight flat ridge. It bent, dipped and curved and would be very difficult to stay on, so we followed a dry stream course down to Oldham Run and decided to brave the rhododendron thickets.  Oldham Run had thick rhododendron growth on both sides of it as promised.  For about five of the six miles we walked up and down the sides of the extremely steep valley and sometimes crawled on our hands and knees through the rhododendron thickets.

         We got tired and stopped to eat lunch roughly 2/3 of the way through.  Eventually the valley widened, and the rhododendron was only near the stream course.  We found several old railroad grades and the walking became much easier on the flat ground, with little to no rhododendron, for the last one or two miles.  It took us five and a half hours to get to Joel’s property.

        Once at Joel’s we needed to get the loon out of the truck.  The river had gone down a lot during the night and was only waist height.  Abram waded out, attached to a rope, to the Unimog and got the loon out.  The loon had not died during the night from stress or fallen off the seat and drowned.  Joel looked the loon over and could find nothing wrong with it.  We took the loon to a pond and released it.  It dipped under the water and splashed around and went to the other side of the pod.  It began fishing and staying clear of us.  It was uninjured, so we inferred that the loon had made a mistaken landing on the wet pavement and was unable to take off again.  We were tired from our long walk, and we decided to get the Unimog out of the river tomorrow.  

        The following morning, we pulled the Unimog out of the river. Joel had a lot of heavy equipment, but most of it did not run. The largest easily available vehicle was a four-wheel drive Kubota tractor.  We drove it to the river and tried to pull the Unimog out.  Dad stood on the back of the Kubota tractor and chained it to the Unimog.  The tractor tried but could not pull the truck out.  It dug large ruts in the river bottom and nearly got itself stuck.  As the tractor drove out of the river, we saw it spitting a thick white liquid out of the engine breather.   Dad explained that the engine oil and water that had leaked in from the river, had been churned together into a thick liquid that had the consistency of a milkshake.  We drove the Kubota back to a building and immediately changed the oil to prevent the engine from destroying itself without proper oil.  The oil in the tractor was still mixed with water, but it was good enough to run for a while after we drained a lot of the water-oil out of it and put new oil into it. 

 Dad and Joel drove the Kubota across the river to get a bulldozer to pull the Unimog out.  It took Dad half an hour of working on the battery of the bulldozer to start it.  After the bulldozer started, Dad drove the Kubota back to its enclosure, and Joel drove the bulldozer back to the Unimog, and pulled it out of the river easily. 

Once on dry land Dad began looking over the Unimog because it might have sucked water into the cylinders of the engine and destroyed itself.  After looking it over for a while, he began to slowly hand crank the engine.  After determining that there was no water in the cylinders he started it, and it ran fine.  Apparently, what had happened was the duck bill drain on the fuel filter had become old and cracked.  It had sucked in a mist of water that wet the filter.  The wet filter could not suck enough fuel through or the mist of water absorbed too much heat to allow fuel to ignite, causing the engine to stall.

        In the end, the loon was perfectly fine and so was the Unimog.  Joel drove us back across the river where my brother Michael met us to pick us up.  Michael drove us back to where we parked our car, and we drove home.  We were all satisfied that it had gone remarkably well.