Broken supply chain impacts Driftless economy

By Captain Ted Peck

A broken propeller blade causes a trickle-down effect on the economy as replacement parts and supply chains dry up across the United States faster than the Mississippi’s water levels.  A simple part is the linchpin in thousands of lost river guide tourism dollars in Iowa including off-river spending for lodging, dining and shopping. 

Mississippi River levels haven’t been this low on Pool 9 since the summer of 2006. River stage at the upstream end of this river segment is within just a couple of inches from the lowest levels recorded in this century.
Factor in siltation over the past 15 years and the Immortal River passing through northeast Iowa has less water flowing to the Gulf of Mexico now than any person now walking the planet has ever witnessed—within less than four feet of levels recorded in 1936 during Dust Bowl years when construction of 33 massive lock-and-dam systems helped bring this nation out of the Great Depression.
Construction of these barriers had an underlying purpose of maintaining a navigation channel which has been mandated by Congress since 1878.
Most folks don’t ponder the significance of this low water situation when they head out on the river to do a little fishin’ on a hot summer day.  Even a bad day of fishin’ is better than a good day at work, right?
This adage never fails to bring a satisfying smile when out there on Ol’ Man River until the inevitable contact of a motor’s propeller with an unseen, unyielding object occurs.
Smart boaters never leave the boat launch without a spare prop and other essential items on board. The Mississippi River is an unforgiving place. All mistakes must be paid for immediately.  Unfortunately, sometimes in full.
Veteran “river rats” will tell you the River is more dangerous now than it is during periods of significant flood conditions, due to unseen hazards like sand bars, mud flats, stumps—and truly unforgiving rocks.
Navigating beyond the channel is not advised under these conditions.  It is even hazardous within a long cast from channel markers.
I have worked as a fishing guide on the upper Mississippi River for over 45 years, the past 20 or so on Iowa’s far northeastern border. In early July, my boat prop kissed a rock when idling just off the channel near Battle Island near the confluence with Minnesota Slough.
The boat shuddered a bit, but I was able to complete the trip. Clients were from the Chicago area, spending several days and nights here contributing to the local economy.
According to a recent white paper published by the University of Iowa, fishing driven tourism supports 194 jobs, generating over $3.9 million in income here in northeast Iowa, with the 3/8 cent sales tax on this recreation bringing over $1 million into the coffers of Allamakee and Winneshiek counties every year.
After my Evinrude kissed a rock about a month ago, I was still able to work several more guide trips, bringing smiles to clients and business folks along the River after the busted prop was replaced.
The motor’s prop shaft was ever-so-slightly bent, resulting in just a little cavitation.  But there was also a tiny stutter in Old Blue’s quiet purr.
Experience teaches the problem was most likely a broken tooth in either the pinion or forward gear.  This kind of damage happens so frequently that most boat dealers keep these parts in stock.
The government requires any person taking clients out on the Mississippi to hold a USCG merchant marine captain’s license. This responsibility supersedes taking folks out on inherently dangerous water with a motor that might “freeze up” without warning.
This meant canceling seven guide trips on the books through the end of July. Factor in canceled lodging, restaurant meals, which will go unordered, and sundry other tourist activities and the loss exceeds $10,000 to the local economy over just two weeks.
Unfortunately, all four regional distribution centers for Evinrude motors in the United States had part number 5009044—pinion and forward gear—backordered with no part availability until OCTOBER.
Industry connections over the past 30 years as an Evinrude pro-staffer revealed THREE of the needed parts available in boat dealer stock across the USA.
One part was on a shelf in Kansas City, the other two at a marina in upstate New York. Frantic phone calls and overused plastic got the part headed this way.
Insurance will cover a substantial amount of the damage. Bottom line, the money is a minor consideration. The real possibility of not spending at least five days weekly on the River I hold so dear would certainly have mental health overtones.
Folks who live in the Driftless Area are truly blessed, especially those who can make a living on the heartland’s most amazing resource; the Immortal Mississippi River.

 You can follow Capt. Ted Peck on Facebook and find pertinent information by visiting his website;

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