Cool Tools Part II: The Amphib
August, 2016 -- There’s still a light rain falling when I meet up with SCDNR Wildlife Technician Gary Carnaggio before daylight for the short drive up to Samworth Wildlife Management Area, and that’s kind of a good thing, because it’s been pretty dry hereabouts for the last month or so. We’re standing outside the SCDNR office at Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area, where I spent the night after a day of riding the impoundments here with SCDNR technician Sim Thornhill on the “Marshmaster” [see Cool Tools Part I] and walking the trails and boardwalks at SCR’s Washoe Reserve. It showered hard yesterday afternoon while I was hiking and photographing, then again off and on all night long. At least it cooled things off.
But the rain is also not so good, says Carnaggio. Reason being, yesterday the crew under his supervision started – but were unable to complete – the placement of a new “trunk” in a dike at Samworth WMA, located up the coast from SCR, where the Great Pee Dee River meets the Waccamaw above Winyah Bay. Samworth began as a 500 acre former rice plantation bequeathed to the state of South Carolina by Thomas G. Samworth in 1962, but today the property has grown to include approximately 1300 acres of managed wetland impoundments. It’s a place -- just like Santee Coastal Reserve and nearby Santee Delta WMA – that is near and dear to the hearts of many South Carolina waterfowl hunters. The delay is actually good news for me, because I was hoping to get photos of the trunk being lifted into place, but Carnaggio is worried the all-night soak could have filled the hole that was dug out for the device yesterday, which will cost the crew some time and aggravation this morning.
With the sun just peeking over the treetops, the five-man crew consisting of Carnaggio, Wendell Tucker, Ricky Deavers, Ovi Caradinto and Jeremy Bendt load two skiffs with a wide assortment of tools that might be required for the task of replacing a water control structure (trunk) that is leaking with a new one constructed in the shop at Santee Coastal Reserve. It will require the skills and know-how of everyone involved – Carnaggio has a background in construction, as well as having been a cop, firefighter and working as a waterfowl hunting guide. When asked what brought him from Columbia to the Lowcountry in order to take on the challenging task of keeping up three of South Carolina’s premiere waterfowl areas (the unit the men are assigned to includes the Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee Delta and Samworth Wildlife Management Areas) Carnaggio just shrugs his shoulders and grins. “I just always wanted to work with the DNR,” he says. I really have a passion for the outdoors and for waterfowl in particular.
A short run up “Big Carr Creek” brings us to the work location, where a floating barge holds the trunk, ready to be placed in gaping muddy hole that Tucker carved out of the dike separating Big Carr from the impoundment known as Middle Carr the day before. But Carnaggio’s worries prove true, and the crew begins their day improvising ways to drain the water from the hole.
If you’ve never encountered a rice trunk, you’re missing a treat. They are a fascinating thing to see; a piece of “primitive” technology hundreds of years old that is used to control the flow of water into and out of thousands of acres of man-made impoundments along coastal plain rivers in the Lowcountry. And as anyone who has taken photographs in this part of the world can tell you, they are also beautiful to look at.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the point of these elaborate networks – essentially shallow ponds linked to freshwater rivers by hand-dug canals – was the production of Carolina Gold rice, made possible by human ingenuity and the back-breaking labor of thousands upon thousands of enslaved Africans. In the decades following the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, many of these former rice plantations became sporting meccas, as avid duck hunters discovered that the old rice fields made for amazing habitat for large number of migrating waterfowl, and wealthy northerners discovered the properties could be bought very cheaply and turned into hunting clubs.
That’s the history behind DNR properties such as Samworth, Santee Coastal Reserve and others, and today anyone can apply to hunt these areas that were once the exclusive preserves of the very wealthy. Ongoing maintenance of the dikes and trunks remains an integral part of managing these special places, which, in addition to benefitting ducks and duck hunters, also provides critical habitat for hundreds of non-game birds and other species. It’s a fascinating historic legacy that all South Carolinians can be proud of.
So what is a trunk, and how does it work? It’s basically a large, sturdy rectangular box, built from heavy timbers and open on both ends. “Doors” or flaps hang from uprights on either end and can be adjusted to open and close with the tide, which can serve to either lower or raise the water level in an impoundment. Though the overall design of the trunks has changed very little since the 1700s, the materials they are built from have. Instead of hand-hewn cypress and wooden pegs, SCDNR technicians construct modern-day trunks from sturdy, marine-grade lumber and stainless steel hardware. The result is a heavy-duty device that can last as long as 30-40 years.
But how do you get something so large and heavy in place? For that matter, how do you construct a dirt coffer dam, dig an enormous hole in an existing dike, place new pilings and bulkheads, and drop the new trunk precisely in the right spot using only a small crew of workers? Well…. For that you need the right tool – in this case, a very specialized piece of equipment designed to move water, earth or whatever else needs moving in some very wet conditions. In short, you need an “Amphib.”
That’s what Carnaggio, Unit Wildlife Biologist Joachim Treptow, and the other highly dedicated SCDNR staff members charged with maintaining these properties call the 3200 Series amphibious hydraulic excavator built by the good folks at Wilco Manufacturing Co. in Lafayette Louisiana.
This large (17 feet by 32 feet) tracked vehicle consists of an undercarriage supported by a pair of 6-foot-tall water-tight pontoons around which its massive steel treads turn. It’s powered by a 225 horsepower Caterpillar diesel engine and has a long boom and bucket to provide the extra reach necessary for the type of specialized work required on these properties. It holds 450 gallons of fuel; unlike smaller track hoes, it doesn’t have a counterweight – that was removed in favor of the larger fuel tank, which makes sense when you think about the distances the machine travels across sometimes miles-long dikes. Refueling in the middle of the impoundment would be a time-consuming endeavor, but the Amphib can run eight to ten days on a full tank of fuel.
The above description is provided to me by SCDNR technician Wendell Tucker, the machine’s primary operator, while we stand on the dike in the early morning light, waiting for the pump that Carnaggio and the other crew members have rigged up to finish emptying the hole of last night’s rains.
“You can feel the difference in the way the machine handles” when it’s “getting light” i.e. low on fuel, says Tucker. “The load in the bucket will shake more without the counterweight [or fuel weight] to keep it steady,” but the Amphib has such a big footprint, the counterweight doesn’t make as big a difference as it would on one with a smaller carriage. “In other words, it’s harder to tip it on that 32 foot carriage.”
The Amphib has already been running, the pump’s job was made considerably easier by Tucker first using the Ambphib’s bucket to scoop water from the hole. Sitting up high in the machine’s cab, Tucker's movements are quick and precise, and it’s obvious he brings a great deal of skill to the task at hand. Like Carnaggio, Tucker also has a background in construction. In fact, the Charleston County native has been operating tractors of one kind or another since he was 10 years old and growing up on James Island.
“I learned the dike work since I’ve been here [with the DNR] just picked it up through the guys that I worked with,” he tells me, “but I’ve been running machines – track hoes and stuff – since ‘85. I started driving tractors about when I was about 10 years old. My father was in the construction business. All my uncles were in the construction business. And I was just around it all my life. I did foundation work….built houses…I’ve done a lot of different stuff. I was a welder…which, it kind of takes a guy like that to run something like this [the Amphib], because you gotta be a kind of a fix-it guy too, you know? I do all my own maintenance, all the track adjustments and anything that needs done on it. It requires a good bit of attention, maintenance-wise. You gotta keep your eye on it. When those tracks get loose, you gotta tighten em up. Loosen up your idler pulleys and there’s actually a screw on the side that pushes them forward and tightens them up, kind of like a motorcycle chain.”
You have to keep the tracks running “true” for the machine to steer properly, explains Tucker, the operator steers the Amphib by increasing the power to one track or the other, so it’s imperative for both to be turning straight. “You’ve really got to stay on top of it…it’s a lot easier to adjust them than it is to put a track back on, you know what I’m saying? You roll a track off of it you can lose a day’s work just getting it back on.”
Between scooping with the Amphib’s bucket and rigging up a generator-driven pump, by 8 o’clock the crew has the water cleared from the hole, and Tucker begins re-shaping it to the needed size and depth to accept the box with Deavers directing him from below and Carnaggio taking constant measurements using surveying equipment.
When the moment of truth comes and the box is lifted into the hole, both Tucker’s skill and the indispensableness of the Amphib are readily apparent. It’s kind of a tense moment, and it’s hard to imagine what it would take to even get this thing in the hole using a lesser machine – not to mention men and mules – but when crew member Ovi Caradinto puts the level to the top of the box, the bead sets within a whisker of dead level.
“Close enough for government work,” someone makes the inevitable joke, and everyone grins – another job (mostly) finished. Once the box is in the ground and covered up, the crew will build bulkheads at either end supported by piers. Then additional piers and connected walls called “wings” that are designed to direct the flow of water through the box will be added.There’s still a lot of work to be done completing the bulkhead and wings and hanging the doors, but the trunk is basically in place.
Wendell Tucker on operating the Amphib
“I’ve had a couple of moments in it – it’s an exciting job –You have to be careful. When you drive it down in the water, sometimes those pontoon will go down completely underneath before they come back up level. When it floats level in the water, the red line is where the top of the water is,” he says, pointing to a line painted across the top of the Amphib’s pontoons. “That’s about six feet… ideally, you don’t want to be working in water over about that deep. The machine will start to move and float a little bit – it’s not really made to operate in deep water. If you can’t touch bottom, the machine is not going to be stable, and that’s not what it’s designed for. Water any higher than about halfway up the pontoon, when you lean out there to get dirt, it comes up on one pontoon.”
Keying it in.
This, Tucker explains, is the process of building up the center of an (often very long) dike one Amphib-long section at a time by placing mud from the impoundment edges on top and re-shaping the sides with drier dirt from the center.
“I just keep working that same pattern all the way through. That way I have good material to work with. If I tried to take that mud and just pile it off onto the sides, it would just slide right back into the water, whereas the dry soil that comes out of the center, I can make it stay. So I take the good soil [from the center of the dike] and fix the sides like I want them, reach over and get mud to fill the trench in, that’s called “keying it in,” that trench will hold that mud, then six months later you’d hardly even know I was there. I try to pile it up a little bit to compensate for the shrinkage in the mud. It shrinks pretty good; it’s pretty much just organic material. I dress it all the way as I go, and usually when I get to the other side they’ll pick me up. It’s a one way trip. I usually, if I can try to keep one side or the other nice enough that I can walk back and forth to the machine every day – sometimes I’ll walk as far as a half a mile just to the machine…or come by boat…sometimes I have a 4-wheeler, but usually I’ll walk. It’s just more convenient.”
Those trips to and from the machine can result in some memorable wildlife encounters.
“I’ve seen bobcats pretty frequently. Once I was coming out on a 4-wheeler and [points] as a matter of fact I was right over here on this same compartment. I came down the dike and there was a bobcat with his head in the bushes. I sat there and watched him for awhile, and then when I finally said something to him he jumped up and looked at me and took off,” laughs Tucker.
“I see deer…I’ve come around corners and had deer take off and kick dirt in my face…then I forget about them and sometimes get down the dike a ways and run into them again. Snakes…we had a snake down here the other day – a big old cottonmouth laying up on the sandbags where we were working….we see a lot of alligators and birds…you name it. I’ve seen it….coyotes, I’ve had deer swim the river right there where I’m working…just all kinds of stuff. If you can imagine it, I’ve probably seen it.