On Saturday, members of the Northwest Steam Society gathered around Al Dunlap and the Cheng-Tze, his sternwheel steamer whose name is Taiwanese for a boy of honor, to prepare them for the return trip after a festive weekend.
True to its name, the ship and its captain had attempted a rescue the day before, and with a few new holes in the hull, it was going to need some love before their next adventure.
A steamer got caught in the pilings near the waterfront at Elochoman Slough Marina on Friday, according to scuttlebutt, when another steamer stepped in to help, also getting itself into trouble.
It was then that Dunlap and the Cheng-Tze came into action, but they too got caught in the pilings, which tore through the hull and almost sank the boat.
These steamers are not known for their propulsion, an enthusiast told me.
When I asked Dunlap, who lives in Spokane, what got him interested in the hobby, he had one word for me. Madness.
Dunlap, a former aircraft mechanic, became enthusiastic about steamboats after seeing one in a magazine and began building the Cheng-Tze upon his retirement.
He told the story of his wife, who had spent many hours on their boat.
With work no longer taking up so much of his time, his new hobby was very much on his mind. Dunlap recalls the day he told his wife out loud that he wanted welding equipment and lamented the $1,200 cost.
She went back into the house. When she returned, she gave him ten $100 bills. Twenty years later, Dunlap was visibly still touched by his wife’s gift.
“I’ve been in trouble with other women,” Dunlap said, pausing.
I started wondering where this story was going. I didn’t need to worry. He had only been distracted by something nearby.
It was the story of his generous wife that got him in trouble with other women. They glared at him as he told everything to their husbands.
The Northwest Steam Society meets annually, bringing enthusiasts from California to Canada for friendship, fun, and a shared hobby. Three years have passed since their last visit and while there were 22 steamers the last time, this year there were only 11. Despite their numbers, they make a merry noise in Cathlamet, with the sound car horns blaring all over town all weekend.