On your own

When using a chain saw at an isolated Bush camp like this one, having the skill to repair it can make the difference in finishing a project such as this cabin roof repair in 2010. 

My sister Miki plunked our tiny one-kilowatt generator down on the floor in disgust. “Now it won’t start at all,” she reported. The little Honda clearly needed work.

People who live in the Bush are almost universally superb mechanics; it’s virtually an essential survival skill. Miki and I are the sad exceptions. As youngsters, we resisted noisy, smelly contraptions in favor of packing water and sawing firewood with a bow saw. By our mid-20s, however, we realized how little we accomplished that way.

By using a water pump, chain saw and boat motor we saved great blocks of time to spend with our beloved horses and sled dogs. With minimal guidance from our talented father, we soon learned how to prime the water pump, lube the outboard’s lower unit or tighten a saw chain to keep it from flying off the bar.

But when hard use or incompetent maintenance caused break-downs, we consoled each other with that old adage of youth: “Daddy will fix it!” And he did, over and over for years. That was our mistake, because Daddies don’t live forever and out here when they’re gone you can’t just drive over to Rod’s Saw Shop. No. You have to lug your device to the runway across the lake, fill out a Haz-Mat shipping form and pay about $35 to air freight it to Fairbanks, reversing the process to retrieve the repaired gadget.

I may have absorbed mechanics easier had I started younger or studied it in school. Scratching together fragments of information over the years, I acquired only superficial skills: drain the gas, change the spark plug, check the air filter, clean the spark arrestor. On my little water pump I have gone so far as to squirt canned air into the carburetor to dislodge whatever speck of silt or rust was obstructing the fuel flow. But anything with the fuel injector, ignition system, valves – forget about it.

I often artlessly improvise without any education or propriety. When young, I borrowed my father’s ancient water pump but the intake hose leaked so much air it didn’t create enough suction to pump water, so I sealed the connection with the clay-like wet silt from the beach. When the dogs on the pull-start freeze in the retracted position on my chain saw, I slam it onto a log to jar them loose, which helps vent frustration even when it doesn’t engage the starter. Once when the iced-up choke lever refused to lock on, I wedged a fold of birch bark behind it to keep it open while I started the saw.

Long ago as Miki and I motored across the lake with Daddy’s rickety outboard, it began running rough until it was barely sputtering. We found an old wire dangling from the engine — “That doesn’t belong there!” — and pulled it off. We spent the afternoon rowing home to complain to Daddy.

“That was the ground wire!” he reproached, making us feel foolish indeed.

Our Yamaha Bravo snowmachine has only a few flaws, one of which is the tendency of the cap to pop off the spark plug. I have occasionally resorted to wedging a glove or scrap of cardboard between the top of the cap and the engine hood to keep the stupid thing in place. (Although if you tell anyone this, I will deny it.)

My lack of skill is more than maddening; it’s also potentially dangerous. I have walked or rowed home many a time, arriving tired and often wet and cold. Then again, I’m often infuriated by the design of my appliances. For 20 years I fumed about how awkward it was to adjust the tension bolt on the chain saw, until finally new designs came out that simplified the process.

I was outraged to find the screws attaching the starter assembly to a new chain saw’s body required an Allan wrench to remove. When mushing 50 miles from home, I do not want to complicate my repair kit when the multipurpose saw tool does the job on my other saws. And how often do I actually have a teeny-tiny screwdriver when I need to adjust the engine speed? Why not make that adjustable with the saw tool, too?

Having gone through several generations of motorized appliances, I see trends in each brand’s failures. The Honda water pumps require the cleanest possible gas, unlike most chain saws which happily metabolize a few drops of water or grains of rust.

Likewise, the Honda generator often succumbs to fuel-flow problems and as they age they come to really hate cold weather. We learned to pull off the lower end of the oil breather tube to reduce frost clogs, but even with a little plywood housing and a quilt thrown over the whole deal, at 50 below an older generator might perform for just half an hour before it starts loping and demanding to come inside to thaw out.

While we enjoy long summer days of solar power to charge our household batteries, during these short winter days we need that generator. A couple of back-up generators stand by to fill in, but it’s tiresome rotating them into service as they chill out.

Of course, the owner’s manual says the valves need adjusting every 300 hours, and neglecting this rule probably exacerbates the little critter’s aversion to bitter cold. But when you have to submit a Haz-Mat form and pay shipping to get that done, a valve adjustment doesn’t happen very often.

When I eventually found time to inspect our recalcitrant generator, I performed all the usual tasks: drain the carburetor, change the spark plug, clean the spark arrestor. The little brute will start now, but still doesn’t run more than half an hour. Looks like we’ll be filling out that Haz-Mat form after all.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.