My son and I love to find things on the Internet and drag them home.  The garage is strewn with empty cardboard boxes and every gust of wind produces a new crop of Styrofoam peanuts and Purolator shipping manifests on the driveway.  Charlie primarily trades in components for his Porsche. I buy tractors and shoes.

No kidding.  The footwear I buy online tends to fit better and remain in use longer than what I pick out in a store.  But I don’t want to talk about shoes.

My latest tractor, on the other hand, is an excellent topic.  It’s a 1981 Bolens 17 hp, 4WD diesel, 1200 pounds of brute force. Built for decades by Iseki in Japan for the rice paddy market, these tractors have all of the moving parts of larger 4WD machines, just fewer cylinders.  This one spent most of its career in Leamington working in the greenhouses of a tomato farmer.

But I found it on Kijiji, offered up after a year of ownership by a guy who couldn’t resist the appeal of a new Massey-Ferguson hydro with loader.  He wanted something bigger, and I badly needed a narrow tractor to mow in places the 65” wide TAFE could not go without grievous harm to my little trees.  The Bolens is only about 41” wide, and it came with an ancient but functional 48” mower, so it would fit.

A few cell phone calls resulted in my booting it down the 401 toward Cornwall with trailer behind.  All went well until about 5 miles this side of the Maitland exit.  Traffic dropped to a crawl until we cleared the construction 40 minutes later.  Not in the plan.

The seller would be unavailable for several days after this one, so I needed to get to the village this side of Cornwall right then.  My usually trustworthy navigation system couldn’t make sense of the guy’s address.

I drove around the suburb where the Tom Tom had directed me until I saw another man about my age unloading a mower off a landscaping trailer.  I stopped beside him, he gave me directions, and I was on my way.

I liked the tractor and so the purchase went smoothly.  I loaded it onto my trailer, made my cordial goodbyes, and headed out onto the road, where a loud grinding squeal from behind pulled me over to the shoulder no more than 200 yards from the guy’s driveway.

Ulp!  I knew what was wrong because it had happened before, and it was entirely my own fault.  Peter Myers keeps telling me always to use washers under the nuts on machinery, but I’m usually too rushed to bother.  This time my laziness had caught me.  It’s a tandem trailer and there’s a short steel beam which evens the weight between the wheels on the each side.  A pair of 3” flanges joins each end of this beam to the springs in front of and behind it.

The nuts had worked their way off the heavy bolts and the inside flange was missing.  This allowed both bolts to work their way over to dig into the side of the trailer tire, producing a loud whine and clouds of blue smoke.

Last time it happened outside Baker’s Feeds in Forfar with an empty trailer, so I nipped inside to buy nuts and washers, giggling at my good fortune to have a breakdown next to a hardware store.  This time I was 75 miles from home with 1500 pounds of tractor and mower aboard and no parts.  Not good.

The guy who sold me the tractor happened by.  I asked the location of the nearest Canadian Tire.  20 minutes west on Hwy 2.  O.K.  I unhitched and headed off. Thursday night at 7:00?  Lots of time. This can still work.

Morrisburg Canadian Tire doesn’t carry flanges or heavy bolts.

In desperation I pulled into the first open shop door.  It turned out to be the maintenance garage of Cruickshank Construction.  A young man was just getting out of a large service truck.

I unloaded my tale of woe and asked if he had any ½” bolts and nuts.  He went to the bin and handed me a pair of magnificent, gold-coloured ½ inch bolts with nuts and washers.  Hope arose.  “I don’t suppose you’d have a flange?”

“Not here.”  He led me back to a bench near the open rear door of the large shop.  He held up a piece of ¼” strap steel.  “That do?”

“Coupla holes?” He walked over to a large drill press with a 5/8” bit in it, cut one hole and handed it to me to mark for the second.  I guessed 3” and he drilled it, then cut the strap off and burnished the edges on the abrasive wheel.

He wouldn’t take anything for the parts.  The flange with the oversized holes fitted perfectly and I was under way in short order for a leisurely drive up Hwy 2 and home with my new tractor.

This story could have gone off in a much different direction except that an off-duty Cruickshank employee at 7:30 on a Thursday night gave a stranger a break.   Thank you for the help, Matthew Barkley.

I tow the Ranger on a 6X11 custom built trailer.  A winch pulls the front wheels up against a solid “headache bar” at the front and the bar and the side rails hold it in place.  That system had worked well for a year.  And then it didn’t…..

It was time to clean the chainsaw oil out of the back of the Ranger, so I loaded it onto its trailer and headed for the local car wash in Elgin. The road was a bit bumpy with frost heaves and all of the sudden the tandem trailer started to sway. I pulled off and checked the load, expecting a flat tire.

The tires were fine, but the Ranger had unhooked itself and was on the verge of dropping off the back of the trailer. YIKES!

Chastened, I moved it back up into position, set the brake again, and checked the retaining strap. Turns out the cutout I had selected on the pan underneath the Ranger doesn’t allow the hook on the webbed strap to seat very well: there’s a beam welded to the upper surface of the plate about 1/4″ from the hole. I hadn’t noticed that, and had blindly hooked at the most convenient cutout. I certainly won’t do that again.

I re-hooked in a safer cutout and proceeded on to Elgin. When I got to the car wash the thing was loose again, though it had not come adrift this time. Why would this slick system go so wrong, so suddenly? Frost heaves on the road! The way I have the thing hooked, a bump which causes the front suspension to flex will temporarily loosen, and potentially unhook, the strap. Clearly I need to develop a more secure fastening system, and as well come up with an additional safety strap which I can monitor from the driver’s seat of the truck.

To get home I tied a stout rope to the bumper of the Ranger and to a cross bar on the A-frame of the trailer. If the rope got tight, I’d know I was in danger, but it would keep the UV from rolling off the back of the trailer until I could stop.

Once home I checked tire pressures. In mid-winter this is always embarrassing. Three of the trailer tires were low. All of the Ranger tires were below 5 p.s.i. as well. Much puffing later, the rig was ready for another cautious roll-out, but I’ll look for a snap system for that web strap which will hold securely without making a mess of the bottom of the Ranger.

No kidding, this morning in Portland I examined a 15′ aluminum landing craft/trailer.  It was hitched to a full-size Mitsubishi SUV and had a 25 hp Merc mounted on the transom, which faced forward, surrounded by the trailer’s A-frame.  The frame decoupled with pins, then a handy little hydraulic pump raised it to provide a radar arch, I guess, above the motor.  Two seats at the stern protected fuel tanks and allowed for tiller steering.  Amidships, wells allowed the wheels to rise into compartments which were then shielded, if not sealed, by sliding panels to improve the hydrodynamics of the hull.  But the clincher came at the bow of the craft (back of the trailer).  A wide, boiler plate aluminum ramp unclips and drops for beach landings.  It’s all carefully sealed, but you can drive your lawn mower ashore and up onto hostile crabgrass in one easy motion if you haven’t been hit by artillery fire on the way in.

I stopped and gaped at this thing for quite a while.  It’s Ontario-registered, and I think it might be Ontario-built.  It’s an amazing bit of misplaced ingenuity, to my view.

The utility trailer has emerged as the best transportation value in our modern world.  Its overhead is negligible:  $35. will license it for life.  Insurance is unnecessary.  It will do all a pickup truck will do, but you don’t have to worry about scratching it, and you can unhook it and leave a partly-completed task behind.

A bit of skill is the main requirement to benefit from this transportation boon.  The driver has to be able to back it up, and thus we come to one of the defining tasks of manhood for my generation:  backing up a trailer.

Learning the skill was a long and difficult journey for me in my sixteenth year, committed to a summer of mornings hauling firewood into Alan Earl’s basement with a tractor and trailer.  The firewood followed a serpentine route down a driveway, between a shed and a brick house, then around a 180 degree turn under a clothes line and up a slight incline to the basement door.  I had to back a loaded trailer through this maze, several times per day.

I soon knew every inch of that route, and still rue the day I left a series of bolt-shaped swirls in the gray boards of the shed wall when I edged the tractor too close in an effort to make the turn.  No doubt those scratches are still there today.

Later on I learned that it’s much easier to handle a trailer with a vehicle which has a rear-view mirror.  All you need do is take a sighting of the corner of the trailer in the mirror, and then if you hold that image still as you back up, the trailer will go straight.

Longer wheelbases are easier, as well, but if you want to observe the true test of a marriage, just watch a couple launching a boat at a ramp without a dock.  Logic indicates that if one partner is in the boat at the time of the launch, nobody need get wet.  The trick is to have one trained to start and free the boat from the trailer and the other equipped to back the vehicle and its load down the ramp into the water.  The problem is that usually the same partner feels uniquely qualified to do both jobs.

The first time Bet tried backing in at Forrester’s Landing, my shouted instructions didn’t seem to help, and she actually ended up sideways on the ramp before leaping from the vehicle in disgust.  From that point on my wife has put trailers out of her mind.  When I asked for her opinion for this article she paused, thought, and said, “They’re for hauling garbage and moving university students.”

A friend from Ottawa was more forthcoming:  “I have a history of poor choices with men, and not one of them could back up a trailer.  Maybe it’s that men who eat quiche can’t back up trailers.”

Of course the trailer challenge is specific to my age group.  Our son’s generation never had to learn.  From hours of play with remote control cars, reverse-steering is hard-wired into their brains.  You see, with an RC car the controls steer one way going out and the opposite way on the return trip. The crossover to trailers is a breeze.  Charlie was about twelve when he learned how to drive his Grandpa’s Jeep around the farm, and the next day I looked over to see him with a trailer attached, backing the rig straight across an eight-acre field.

One of the most insidious things about trailers is how easily an owner can be persuaded to add another to his fleet.

Last fall when I bought a utility vehicle I gradually realized that I couldn’t take it anywhere because it was too big to fit any trailer I owned.  Soon a Kijiji ad put me on to a pair of axles, so I drove to Kingston and picked them up.  My neighbour Peter Myers straightened one axle and lengthened both to give the 6′ bed width the UV required, then guided me through the design process to produce quite a wonderful flat-bed trailer. He accepted that I wanted a trailer which was neither too big nor too small, and all it took was a week of work and a lot of steel. I quickly added low wooden sideboards and stakes to go with the magnificent “headache bar” he rigged across the front to provide a positive stop for the front wheels of my UV.  Before I got at it with a paint roller, Peter’s creation was a thing of beauty.

Painting steel in late November is strangely difficult, but Tremclad will dry at below-freezing temperatures.  It just won’t spray, so the roller was a must.  Wiring trailer lights is never fun, but it’s worse when your fingers stick to the pliers, the trailer, and even the bolts.

Notwithstanding the crude paint job, the new trailer has fitted in well with the other eight in the barn.  Bet suggests this fondness for trailers must be compensation for my utter inability to back up a farm wagon.  There, I’ve admitted it.

The photo shows four people stuffed into snowmobile suits, mitts and helmets, standing along the edge of a frozen lake and leaning on a pair of old snowmobiles.  The shot could have been taken anytime, but in fact it is only a couple of years old.  It marked the final winter expedition to the cottage on Schooner Island.  That’s right.  Never again.  Both our wives insisted.

But the trip had gone well; it’s just that the weather changed a bit.

Tom and Kate get homesick for their cottage on the Island during the winter, and I can tell by the frequency of emails and phone calls about when the pressure will become unbearable for Tom, and up they will come.  Much planning is required:  ice reports are filtered through runoff records to determine if the ice is strong enough for a passage across Newboro Lake to the Island.

A few years ago in a fit of optimism I asked a snowmobile collector to locate me a serviceable Ski Doo Alpine, the two track, single ski behemoth which crowned the Bombardier line for many years. From the first time I drove it the thing intimidated me:  I could barely pull the starter cord on the monstrous engine.  It refused to turn without running into something.  Its suspension ignored my considerable weight, and only rode smoothly if I had a full oil drum on the back.  But it would float over any depth of snow, and could it ever pull!

Not to be outdone, Tom found a 1970 Evinrude Skeeter, also with reverse, which had been kept in its owner’s living room in Ohio since it was new. 

Tom and I decided to run out to the island without wives or luggage to make sure the ice was strong enough to support us.   Tom’s machine made a ghastly racket at its maximum speed of 25 miles per hour.  The Alpine is actually a lot faster than that, so I had to idle along to let him keep up.  Then Tom spun out on the ice.  This looked pretty funny, but the third time the machine flipped, tossing Tom clear and rolling until it had divested itself of its windshield.  Chastened,  Tom made the rest of the trip at a more modest pace.

Back at the SUVs we discovered far too much luggage to load onto the little sled I had brought, so Tom took it and I hitched the 5 X 8 trailer to the Alpine.  Down the ramp we went with everything but the kitchen sink in the trailer.

As long as the shore was nearby, our wives’ morale was high.  As we pulled out into the open lake, though, and the only reference points became the large bubbles of air just beneath the black, transparent ice, I began to notice a persistent vibration coming from the rear of the Alpine.  It didn’t vary with engine revolutions or speed.  In fact the shaking continued when we’d stopped.  Bet was shivering.   This did not bode well, but we were over half-way there,  so on we went.

The cold-weather camping was good fun at the cottage, and then the morning dawned to a five-inch drop of slushy snow, with clouds and wind which indicated more on the way.  Yikes!  The trailer!

The retreat from Schooner Island occurred  more quickly than our hosts would have liked, but we had to get off the ice.  With the wide track of the trailer I would have to maintain a steady speed until we hit dry land, or we’d be stuck.

We tossed the luggage into the snow-filled trailer, Bet clamped her arms around my waist, and I gingerly urged the rig along the  shoreline  until we had gained enough momentum to brave the deeper snow.

With a roar the Alpine hit cruising speed, and the next three miles was quite a ride. The open lake alternated between hard portions of frozen snow and liquid puddles of goo.  We plunged straight through them.  I didn’t dare look back.

Down the lake we went and up the ramp.  Newboro had never looked so good.  The Alpine shut down with a grateful sigh; I pried Bet’s arms free and staggered off the machine.  She still sat there. When I knocked on her helmet, an eye opened through the frosted visor and she gradually became aware that we had arrived.

She pawed at the visor a couple of times with her mitt.  I helped her open it and remove her helmet.  “I … will … never … do … that … AGAIN!”

I’d  sorta expected that, so I checked the load behind.  Nope, nothing there but a snowbank which had somehow slid up the ramp and into the parking lot behind us.

Tom  couldn’t get over the remarkable turn of speed the Alpine had shown on the trip across the lake.  “We were following in your track, but your machine was just a dwindling yellow dot, with a great big snowball forming behind it!”

Perhaps the governor on the huge Rotax engine responded to the weight it was pulling, or maybe the beast just sensed its master’s panic and ran for it, but the Alpine has never gone that fast since, and perhaps it’s just as well.