The Writers’ Circle: A log, a lake and a bet


By James Van Liere
Special to The PREVIEW

In summer of 1958, the old Bureau of Public Roads, sometimes referred to as the Bureau of Parallel Ruts, employed me as construction surveyor. As an engineering student, I found the work fascinating and challenging, but also dirty and dusty at times.

One day a few us went out to the north side of Hebgen Reservoir to swim. Washed up next to the shoreline was an old, partially waterlogged tree. It was at least 20 feet long and 16 or 18 inches in diameter at the tip and 20 to 24 inches in diameter at the trunk. The trunk had three or four roots 2 or 3 feet long still attached to it. 

Not having anything else to do, we just pushed the log slightly off shore and tried climbing onto it. Somehow the subject came up about pushing the log across the lake and, before I knew it, I had a $20 bet going that I could do it, with the understanding that I would be picked up on the other side of the lake. 

Even though it was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I was sure I could make the other side well before dark. Being a strong swimmer and knowing that once the log started moving, it would be easy to keep it moving, it was just a matter of hanging on and kicking. In addition, if I got tired or needed to rest I could just stop kicking and hang onto to the log. As near as I could estimate, it was a mile to a mile and a half across the lake.

After some 30 minutes, with the sun sinking in the west, and knowing that even with the sun below the horizon, I figured I would still have plenty of twilight to finish crossing the lake. As I thought, once the log starting moving, it did not take much energy to keep it moving. 

I estimate that I was halfway across the lake with the log easily moving along when, all of a sudden, I heard this loud, booming voice say, “Where are your running lights, son?” 

Holy smokes, I had no idea that there was anyone even near me, let alone 6 feet behind me. I looked behind me and there was the bow of an aluminum boat and standing in it was this huge man in a tan uniform who was obviously some type of wildlife official. He stood over 6-foot tall and must have weighed more than 250 pounds, not including the equipment he had hanging on his waist. I think if he had fallen in the lake, he would have sunk like a rock. In the back of the boat was another uniformed officer, who was smiling from ear to ear. 

I think these two officers were quite proud of themselves for having quietly slipped up behind me without my knowing it. At any rate, the officer in front of the boat was actually quite friendly and asked what I was doing. I explained to him that I had a $20 bet that I could push this log clear across the lake. 

“Well,” he said, “you know it’s against the law in Montana to operate any type of vessel without running lights on Montana waters after sunset, and I don’t see any running lights on your vessel.” 

All I could think of to say was, “I didn’t know that.” 

“So,” he said, “we’ll just have to tow you back to shore.” When I explained to him that I might lose my bet, he said, “I’ll take care of that for you. Here, tie this line on to your vessel and hop on, and we’ll give you a free ride.” 

I did what he said and climbed up on the log for a ride back to shore. When we got there, he was kind enough to tell everyone that I was making good headway and probably would have made the far shore, but I did not have any running lights, which was against the law. He also told them that the only fair thing to do was call off the bet, which we did. 

I always felt a little disappointed that I did not complete the crossing because I was sure that I could have made it. However, I can understand Montana’s law and reasoning that without running lights, there was always the danger that someone in a boat would miss seeing the log and possibly hit it. To be sure, my log-pushing career was over; but in the end, I think that everyone respected my swimming ability.

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