August 7, 2013

Cap’n Shed Diggs aka Gunny Navy

On a recent 9-day hitch at Sandwash Ranger Station I met an interesting guy.  It didn’t really occur to me to write about the encounter until I told the story to some co-workers who suggested I do so.

The early August day at the ramp was mostly done, but as I’ve come to find out, the ranger on duty is never really “done” and may need to answer a call of duty at any hour, hopefully not at the service of someone’s emergency. The waning evening was well past dark and the sounds of people in the boat rigging area were calming down into the characteristic graceful quiet, of a late summer night. I sat in the living room easy chair reading a book by the light of a single bulb when I heard, through the open windows, footsteps on the driveway approaching the house. As he came near he shouted “HOWDY IN THE HOUSE”, to which I responded with an invitation to come inside. He removed his muddy river sandals and came in. Before I could ask his name he started talking about one thing after another bouncing between subjects faster than I could keep pace with. He said he was passing through to Steamboat on Hwy 40 and saw the Sandwash sign, near Myton, so he thought he’d come down to spend the night, saying it’d been years since he’d seen Deso. I wasn’t sure whether or not he intended to do a river trip through Deso or just stay the night here at Sandwash, but I thought there was no harm in just letting things play out a bit. As he stood talking in the dim light, I noted the unique adornment of his character. He was about 45-50 years old, about 6’ tall, and was barefooted with each of his toenails painted a different color. He wore Carhart coveralls, and a floppy hat folded up on the sides. The hat had a patch sewed on the back that, I learned with his interpretation, designated his alliance to a tribe in the Southeastern U.S. He wore a necklace made of bear claws, and a necklace of what looked like a hand carved gargoyle mask that I’d expect to see carved into the side of a Mayan temple. He wore many other necklaces, bracelets, and rings all of a home made looking design. He mostly talked of all his experience, mishap and adventure by canoe on different rivers. After about 15 minutes he started to leave so I took the chance to ask his name. He said: “my names Cap’n Shed Diggs – aka Honky Tonk Hero – Gunny Navy and my dog outside is Stinky P.” Then he saluted me with a sort of two-fingered thing to his hat brim. It wasn’t long after that and he was out of stuff to say. Still not sure if he planned to go down river from Sandwash I asked if he was planning on a particularly early start in the morning. He said he’d probably be up most of the night with some sort of ceremony of the stars that he intended to perform, and out the door he went into the night. I hoped for the best.

The next morning I could hear loud music as I walked to the river around 6:30. There were a couple different small groups getting their stuff ready to go, so I approached them first. I asked if the loud music was ok with them, and spent some time while they checked in, then they finally asked about “that weird guy”. Of the 4-5 people around that morning nobody had a problem with the music saying, “at least it sounded good”. Gunny was at the far downstream end of the launch area, which was deceivingly muddy, and understandably an easy place to get stuck. He had his brand new Subaru Outback stuck clear to the frame. He was wearing a pistol, had the doors open, the radio blasting Johnny Cash, and was periodically dancing and digging, trying to get it free. Stinky P was wearing a service dog vest and was passed out on the passenger seat. He had his canoe unloaded and an American flag stuck in the muddy riverbank. One of the other people had some extra tow straps and offered to pull the Subaru out of the mud. I passed the offer along to Gunny, but he said he preferred to self-rescue. The offer was extended a couple more times, but he declined. About 10am I was done at the ramp and had other things do. I asked the Gunny one more time if there was anything I could do for him before I left. I told him that his phone would work up at the airstrip and gave him walking directions to get there. He sounded interested in that and confirmed the directions.

Around 12 noon I left the house to walk up to the airstrip to check in with the office on my phone, and attach to the grid for an hour or so. While I was up top I saw Gunny and his dog begin walking up the road, apparently bound for the airstrip. I watched them make their way up the trail, and despite the heat of the day, they were both having a bunch of fun. I had fun watching them, and how their presence placed perspective on a very big landscape that I have gazed over for a long time. When they were about half way up they veered off the trail and around the end of a short ridge, out of my sight.
I returned to the house and took a mid day siesta and did some reading. About 6pm I was outside when I heard behind me “HOWDY AT THE HOUSE”. The Gunny was just returning from the airstrip trail and was alone. He asked if I’d seen his dog, and my heart sunk. Over the years I’ve seen a few lost dogs and the situation had never turned out very good, but I didn’t tell him this. Gunny was a weird guy, but he had a streak of tough luck for sure and now his beloved dog was missing for 6 hours in a harsh landscape. I really felt bad for him. I told him there was a new days crew of boaters down at the river, and maybe they saw the dog while driving in. He quizzed everyone and had no luck. One of the boaters finally convinced Gunny to let him pull the Subaru out of the mud.
The next morning he was shoveling the huge Subaru sized hole in, only this time it was a more subdued scene with no music. I went to talk to him and he was very bummed out. He said the previous night he drove out to Duchesne and bought a couple cans of smoked anchovies and set them along the road. I wasn’t sure what good this would do, but I thought that if it made him feel better then it was worth it. The boaters leaving Sandwash on rafts said they’d keep an eye out for the dog so I had Gunny write down his contact info, for people in case they found his dog while on the river. He wrote down his real name and contact info followed by the name I use above. After all the boaters were gone he said he wanted to paddle downstream a ways to see if he could find his dog. I told him I’d take binoculars to the airstrip and search from up there. I told him that I had an idea on a way to dramatically narrow down the amount of country to be searched, and he listened intently. I drew a map of the river and explained the difference between False 9 Mile and 9 Mile. I told him about the old road crossing of the creek just above the mouth and how it’s a muddy spot that may show tracks of whether or not Stinky has gone downstream of 9 Mile or remains upstream of the mouth of 9 Mile. I told Gunny that this is the only place that a dog would cross 9 Mile and that by figuring this out would greatly reduce the amount of ground to be searched. I also told him this is the natural spot the dog would go for water. He agreed and said he’d check the spot I mapped for him.
Later that morning I went to the airstrip again and spent about 2 hours searching the vast desert for any movement of a small dog about the size of a fox. My hopes were not very high. I knew that finding this dog was a real long shot. I walked back to the station and commenced with my routine for hot summer days; reading and a nap. Later that evening I was cooking dinner when a car came speeding up to the house. Gunny slammed the breaks and yelled “HOWDY IN THE HOUSE”. I turned the stove off and went to the door just as he was pulling away. As I opened the door I yelled “HEY” and he stopped, and shut off the car. I went to the passenger side and there was Stinky P, his 13-year-old Sesame Shiba on the passenger seat. I couldn’t have been happier. Gunny jumped out and I thought he was going to hug me. He said “man he was right where you said he’d be”.  As he paddled his canoe up 9 Mile Creek his dog was laying there in the willows looking at him like “where am I”. Although I didn’t exactly say he’d be right there I was glad he found his dog. Gunny said adios and headed out for Steamboat. As it turned out he didn’t have a river permit or intentions of floating Deso, but was just here for a quick overnighter with his dog on his way to Steamboat.
After dinner I walked to the river and there was a crew of older ladies rigging their rafts, who immediately asked about “that weird guy”. The ladies said he paddled from downriver and stopped opposite Sandwash. Apparently he got out of his boat wearing only a pistol belt with a gun on each hip, and his hat. He proceeded to do some kind of “Indian looking dance” while firing his pistols over his head as his old dog lay in the sand watching. I’m not sure why I didn’t hear pistols, but these kinds of things always have an element of the un-explainable. The ladies said they didn’t mind the show, but could’ve done without the shooting. I told the ladies about the past couple days mis-adventure he’d had and they sounded a bit more understanding. They said he came back across the river, put on his shorts, and loaded his stuff. He then drove away without acknowledging them.


  1. Dispatch from the bush:
    Sorry to report...My tandem canoe partner for the past 14 years has passed on ;(...
    Chili, aka Stiky P, Stinky, Chilatipus' Spirit Lives On ;)'!...
    Pet yer pooch fer me,
    Cap'n Shed Diggs, "HTH"
    Honky Tonk Hero
    Gunny Navy