Operation Duck Lift

Once upon a time there was a duck stuck in my pit.

Once upon a time there was a duck stuck in my pit. Wait. That sounds weird. I better back up and give you a bit of supporting information.

I am a bridgetender. I operate a bascule bridge much like the one in the diagram below. Most people don’t get to see what happens below street level to allow a bridge to rise, but with a typical bascule, if the bridge is going up, the counterweight is going down. Each leaf of a bascule is kind of like a fulcrum, or a see saw. In the most common design, that counterweight is dropping below street level during an opening, and it has to go somewhere. That means that there are giant pits for the enormous weights to drop into. Check out my blog post entitled The Heart of My Drawbridge to see some cool video I took of the inner workings of my bridge during an opening. It may clarify things or it may just confuse you even further.

So let’s get back to the duck in my pit, shall we?

Day One:

I arrived to work at 3 pm, and instead of the typical shift change conversation (“We had 3 openings. Everything worked. See ya tomorrow.”), the offgoing bridgetender informed me that he had been doing maintenance down below, and he spotted a duck in the pit.

This intel made me blink. In the 20 plus years I’ve been doing this job, the only creatures I’ve ever seen in the pit are the ubiquitous pigeons and the occasional rat. The pit is not a place anyone would want to hang out in. It’s cold. It’s damp. It’s about 30 feet deep. There’s water filling the bottom, and that water is disgusting and full of debris that has fallen from the roadway over the decades. Calling the pit the bowels of the bridge is no exaggeration.

I’m happy to report that I have managed to stay out of the pit my whole career. I walk on the catwalk that is suspended above it all the time as I move from one piece of machinery to the next, doing my part to ensure that the bridge remains in working order. I rarely give the pit more than a cursory glance, and when I do, I think, “Ewwww.”

On this day, my coworker informed me that he was hoping that the duck would fly away on its own, since the top of it (the pit, not the duck) is wide open to the outdoors, but he (my coworker, not the duck) hadn’t checked in a few hours. He asked that I check when I did my maintenance, because if the duck was still down there, he was most likely stuck.

So I went down, and I spent at least 15 minutes circling the pit, looking down at it from above. I looked high and low. I gazed at the fetid pool. I stared at the concrete slab beside the pool, which is caked with pigeon poop and garbage. No duck, living or dead.

I was very relieved. I went up to my tower and sent out an e-mail that assured my supervisor that, at present, we appeared to be duck-less. She was relieved, too. We are both animal lovers.

At the end of my shift, I went home with a song in my heart and a silly story to tell Dear Husband. After that, I went swiftly to sleep and did not give the duck any further thought.

That night, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees, and it probably got even colder in that damp, exposed concrete pit.

Day Two:

I arrived to work at 3pm, only to be informed that the duck was still in the pit. That surprised me, because I had really spent a lot of time looking for it the day before, to no avail. My coworker showed me a photo. Looking down at the pit from above, the duck appeared to be almost solid black. (We later learned that he was a male Merganser duck.) He was huddled in a dark corner. He would sometimes sit in the nasty, dark water, or he’d climb up onto the concrete slab that is beside it, and would huddle amongst the debris. This was one stealthy duck.

And he was getting weaker. Mergansers live mostly on live fish, and there were no fish in that pit. He was too weak to fly the 30 feet out on his own. I was amazed he survived the cold of the night. I felt horrible just thinking of him struggling to survive while I was nestled all warm and safe in my bed.

My coworker hadn’t written an incident report, which would have helped me immensely. Instead, I took disjointed notes about all the prep work he had done so far. This was to be an interesting shift.

First, he had contacted the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and was informed that they would be happy to come rescue our duck, but they only had two field officers for the entire area, and both were currently occupied. A message would be left for them, but the office manager suggested that if we want a more rapid response, we should contact the Seattle Harbor Patrol. I can’t say enough good things about those guys. They’re up for anything, and they’re used to getting strange calls, especially from us. They said they’d come out and give it a try, but at shift change they had yet to arrive. Meanwhile my coworker tracked down two organizations that care for sick or injured wildlife, but we would have to deliver the duck to them once we had finally captured it.

Later, I discovered that one of these organizations had had its permit to work with wild animals revoked by Fish and Wildlife, and was still engaged in a year’s long lawsuit with them. We couldn’t legally work with them. We also couldn’t send a random employee down into the pit to try to retrieve the duck. We are not authorized to rescue wildlife. Fortunately the Harbor Patrol is.

While waiting for them to arrive, I talked to PAWS, an organization in the Seattle area that is currently permitted to care for wildlife. They would be happy to take on our errant duck. Unfortunately, they close at 5:30 pm, and that time was fast approaching. I asked what to do. I was told that if we caught the little bugger after hours, we should put him in a warm room, in box with a towel, and give him no food or drink, and then deliver him to PAWS in the morning. (Apparently these ducks can go a few days without eating, but the idea of doing that to him really tortured me.)

Another slight problem: no one works graveyard shift on this bridge, so it’s not like I could leave him alone in the office, to waddle around and poop up my tower. It looked like I’d be bringing home a visitor. I did not look forward to fowl-sitting all night. I anticipated little or no sleep. But I have to admit that I was also a little intrigued. I have never spent that much quality time with a duck. I strongly suspected that my horizons would be broadened.

At about 3:10 I got a phone call from Harbor Patrol. They were on their way. Huzzah! I said I’d meet them at water level, and I ran down the 4 flights of stairs it takes to do so. A few minutes later, they called to say that they had been called to the scene of a sinking vessel. Naturally they had to deal with that first, but they’d be by later.

Back up the stairs I went, glancing nervously at the lethargic bird as I passed. Fortunately, Harbor Patrol was back in less than an hour, so I ran back down the stairs. They docked their boat and climbed onto the bridge pier. From there, I had to lower a dusty metal ladder down to them so they could climb up to the ledge where I was standing. This ledge was covered in a half inch of pigeon poop. I had never had any reason to stand there before. I was not living my best life.

From there, the two officers had to climb down the metal ladder rungs that are embedded in the pit wall, in order to stand on a concrete slab that is right next to the watery portion of the pit where the duck was hanging out. They brought a couple of ropes, a long heavy pole with a net at the end, and a cardboard box. I remained on that ledge, which was about halfway down the pit, but every bit as disgusting as the pit itself. I was using my pandemic mask to avoid breathing in the bird poop as best I could, even though, by this time, I was kneeling in it so that I could hand equipment down to the officers.

For the next hour and a half, the two officers tried to catch that bird, but he was having none of it. The net was too short to reach all the way to the back wall of the sludge-filled pond, and of course, there was no way either of them was going to enter the water. Who could blame them? There’s a lot of jagged debris in there, and next to no visibility. And the temperature had barely gotten into the upper 30’s.

They would throw a rope near the bird in hopes of scaring him into moving within reach, and the little devil would either paddle or flutter over to the other side of the room. Sometimes he dove beneath the water, only to pop up in another spot a minute later.

I was frankly surprised that the officers hadn’t given up after 45 minutes. I was really dreading the concept of going home, knowing that duck was still down in the pit, probably freezing and starving to death. I suspect they felt the same way, which is why they pressed on.

At one point, I had an idea. I climbed back up through the greasy, dusty, poopy girders to the catwalk that extends over the pit, and I lowered the big heavy orange life ring all the way down to the water, and swung and splashed it in the hopes of scaring our feathered friend away from the back wall and toward the officers.

No such luck. The duck was stuck. Oh, f***.

(Aren’t you glad nothing rhymes with merganser?)

We were starting to lose the light. Finally, we all looked at one another and had to admit that we would have to give up. Nature was going to take its course. My heart sank, but I understood. The duck was not in the mood to cooperate, and he definitely wasn’t listening to reason.

I watched from the poopy ledge as one of the officers climbed the ladder, bringing most of the equipment with him. I attempted to help, but I suspect I was only underfoot. The ledge was only so large. But that little delay turned out to be beneficial, because Officer Myers, the one still in the pit, shouted up to us that the duck was gone.

Wait. What?

After all that, the duck finally figured out that while he was too weak to fly, he could swim under the concrete platform, weave through all the debris, and find his way out to the canal. He had been diving for an hour and a half to avoid the net, and had never once gone that direction. Hopefully Mr. Duck has enough strength left to eat, gather energy, and thrive back in the wild.

We waited for an additional 10 minutes to make sure he didn’t come back into the pit, but he did not return. He had well and truly flown the coop. If he ever comes back in, I will probably leave him be, because obviously he knows how to find his way out now.

Next, I had to haul my weary self back up the stairs and write the incident report that should have been done by my coworker. But you know, I do love to tell a good story.

At the end of the shift, I went home covered in sweat, pigeon poop, and grease. You could say that I was pooped (Sorry. Had to.), but I was also choosing to feel triumphant. Just another day at the office.

Needless to say, I peeled off my nasty clothes and left them in a pile in our frigid garage, and then hopped right into the shower. It’s always nice to climb into a clean, dry, warm bed after a nasty day. I think I fell asleep before my CPAP even started to shoot air at my eyelashes like the coquettish wind tunnel that it tends to be.

That night I dreamed there was a Basset Hound lying on the girder high above the pit, with his ears hanging down toward the revolting water. I looked at him and thought, “Oh, great. How am I going to deal with this one?”

Then I woke up.

All that, and I wrote a book, too! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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