This column was first published October 22, 2005

Be kind to your web-footed friends

For a duck may be somebody’s mother,

Be kind to your friends in the swamp,

Where the weather is very, very damp.

There was no way I had to go far afield after last weekend’s dose of downpours to catch a glimpse of some wildlife. My web-footed friends were wading and swimming around flooded Hayford Park less than a block from my house. Mallards and herring gulls shared the park’s temporary lake.

My decrepit Chessie-chocolate lab mix even perked up after getting a glimpse of the flock. No doubt she had memories of her younger years when she got her jollies chasing chickens in the western part of the state. That was when she regularly managed to wander off from her previous keepers and visit neighbors down the road who had a flock.

Her mischievous meanderings didn’t make for much good will between neighbors, so Cocoa got a new lease on life after being transplanted to the city to live with our family, thanks mostly to my older daughter, who lives over there, getting wind of my younger daughter’s incessant craving for a dog.

Teenage commitments soon left little time for dog care, of course, so dad got to be the chief trainer-walker. And now that youngest daughter is in college, dog and I are partners on our thrice-daily walks. With the dog’s arthritis these walks have become shorter, and there are a lot more stops to sniff and mark territory (the dog, not me, although I’ve threatened to do so a few times).

So a flock of mallards and gulls floating around the park in the morning provided as much relief for my daily drudge as it did for the Cocoa’s bladder. The gulls seem to be more skittish than the ducks, which is the opposite of what I normally encounter around the ocean. Maybe it’s the city street noises that make the gulls nervous.

We all know ducks love city life – at least those of us brought up reading Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” with Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings who lived in Boston Public Garden. So popular were these characters, bronze likenesses were cast and placed in the gardens in 1987.

If close my eyes for a moment, I can still see a few of the sepia drawings McCloskey did to illustrate his book my mother read to me and my two brothers way back when. There’s one that sticks in my mind of a big policeman stopping traffic so the brood could cross a busy city street.

Roof-rack reprieve

Here’s a little anecdote I pass along to point out that either (a) I ponder the implausible, or (b) others listen to me and wonder whether I’m playing with a full deck. (I’ll tell you that the Jokers, at least, are still there.)

I just traded vehicles. No big thing. Everybody needs to update the fleet once in a while.

I’ve had a couple of SUVs that had roof gutters. The latest one does not.

To my way of thinking, a vehicle that has the term “utility” in its nomenclature should have roof gutters. They are solid platforms for attaching roof racks. You wind down on the rack’s clamps and, voila, vehicle and accessory become one solid unit.

The gutterless vehicle came with a “factory installed” roof rack. It consists of a couple of extruded aluminum channels fastened to the flat roof with threaded rubber inserts that swell into holes drilled in the roof when a screw is tightened. I had a similar “factory” rack on another vehicle, and the rubber inserts were not all that firmly ensconced in their holes.

So I was concerned and a little curious, then, when I found out that the aftermarket towers (four for $99) for my old roof rack needed special feet (at $11 apiece) to fit into the newer vehicle’s “factory” rack channel.

Here’s what I wondered: When you strap on a couple or three kayaks to the cross bars of the old rack sitting in the “factory” rack channels, would the upward wind pressure on the boats at highway speed (or in gusty winds) pull the “factory rack” from its anchors?

This may seem trivial, but when you have a few thousand dollars’ worth of boats up there, you tend to wonder about such things.

Even more serious is the possibility of injury or death to anyone following me down the highway when a 50-pound pointed projectile comes hurtling back at them.

Call me a worrywart, but I wonder about such things. Years ago I was in a vehicle (not mine) heading out Route 9 on a windy day when a 14-foot aluminum jonboat (not mine) tied to a wooden crossbar parted company and became airborne. Fortunately, there was no one behind us. Unfortunately, the jonboat suffered a major mashing when it landed, rendering that fishing excursion null and void.

Therein lies my concern about boats becoming airplanes (hydrodynamic does not necessarily mean aerodynamic).

Out of curiosity, then, I called a couple of car dealers who sell the type of vehicle I now own to ask about the anchoring of this “factory rack” and whether there should be any concern. Guess what? I am the only one who ever asked such a (numb?) question, according to one service manager who had a definite snicker in his voice. The second service manager I contacted was a bit more sympathetic and felt that, yes, the “factory racks” should be OK, but he cautioned that a bow line would be advisable.

After installing the adapters and new towers for my old rack, I gave the crossbars a tug and watched in amusement as the roof flexed under “factory rack” channels. Surely they won’t hold what the old gutter-type racks held for weight. I could hang from them and not worry about the roof sagging.

And from now on whenever I transport any boat, I will be using bow and stern lines to prevent lifting. And by the way, when you use bow and stern lines, particularly on a plastic boat, don’t overtighten them – they only need to be snug, not taut. A friend told me of Current Design Sirrocos getting bent noses from being tied down too tight on J-racks (the boats are held on their side in the rack). The last thing you want is a kayak with a built-in hook in its nose! Talk about paddling in circles…. And I’ve seen other plastic boats with their bottoms concaved right around the roof rack’s saddles because they were tied down too tightly.

If you happen to put one of these dents in the deck or bottom of your hull, you can usually remove it by taking pressure off the dented area and putting the boat in the sun. The hull’s “memory” will usually return it to the proper shape. You can speed the process by putting a little pressure from inside the hull with, say, an “inflated” dry bag. I’ve heard of using a hair dryer to gently warm the plastic and hasten the process, but I’ve never attempted this, and I would leave it to someone who’s done it a few times. The last thing you want is a big bulge in your hull or worse yet a gaping hole.

The best advice, however, is don’t overtighten.

Jeff Strout’s column is published on Saturday.