Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Drive 5: Burnt-Out Clutch

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Start: 306249
End: 306573
Driven: 324 km

I set out in the early afternoon, heading northwest from Saskatoon up highway 12 on the advice of a co-worker at a party the previous evening (the Roughriders won). Anyways, I was told there is an interesting bridge and some terrain that includes more than flat wheat fields about an hour from town in that direction.

Near town, it’s the now-expected flat prairie.

Approaching the North Saskatchewan River and the Petrovka bridge.

I pulled over at a driveway near the bridge and took a few pictures.

For whatever reason, several shoes were nailed to the top of some fence posts here at the edge of the property adjacent to the Petrovka bridge.

The proud tradition of prominently displaying rusting farm junk is alive and well in Saskatchewan.

Looking upstream.

I crossed the Petrovka bridge and continued northeast along highway 40, intending to re-cross the river via the ferry at Wingard, but the ferry was closed, presumably due to ice conditions or water level. Finding myself with plenty of time and no particular destination, I turned northwest for Emerald Lake regional park.

Some farmers were active in their fields on the north side of the river, harvesting hay or wheat, I think.

This facility, which I think stores either fertilizer or pesticides, is visible from a long way away.

The road to the regional park is about 30km of gently rolling dirt and gravel. Many of the adjacent fields were pastures for cattle.

Corners and trees and hills, oh my! I had fun driving too quickly on this road.

I think the speed limit along here is 40km/h. I was going faster than that.


The regional park, like so many others, was closed. However, this doesn’t mean the gate was locked, rather it means I didn’t have to pay to check things out.

Emerald Lake from the small beach.

Boba found no rebel scum at Emerald Lake, but did enjoy a chance to frolic on the beach.

I checked out my map, and determined that secondary highway 792 continues to highway 12 near the town of Shell Lake. 792 is a fun road, so I kept on it. After a few kilometres I reached a paved road, which from my map I thought was highway 12. It was actually highway 3, and I reached Shell Lake after a few minutes, and turned south on highway 12. I really want a GPS unit for my car.

Parts of highway 12 are good…

… but much of it involves following a debris-throwing pickup truck at slow-and-variable speeds.

I had intended to drive straight back to Saskatoon on highway 12, thus driving the full length of that short road. But I got bored of the straight-and-narrow, so I impulsively turned west on secondary highway 781 just before the Petrovka bridge, intending to return to Saskatoon by highway 16 instead.

781, like I think the majority of the “grid” roads in Saskatchewan, is gravel surfaced. Zipping along at probably unwise speeds, I noticed my engine was revving much more than it usually does. At 100km/h in 5th gear, I’m used to seeing the tachometer at about 2000 rpm, not swinging up to 5000 at random intervals. I slowed to about 70 and geared down, thinking there was something wrong with the higher gears of my transmission, but the engine continued to alternately race and slow, so I pulled over on a gentle uphill slope. I thought maybe the wheels were slipping a bit in the patches of softer and deeper gravel scattered over the road, and that this was causing the engine to work much harder. The temperature gauge was comfortably in the safe zone, but when I stopped I could hear some fluid boiling somewhere in the engine bay, so I thought perhaps the gauge was not working and I’d overheated the engine. My previous car, the Minivan of Doomed Love overheated frequently, once to the point that the entire vehicle was shaking from the violence of the boiling coolant in the radiator, so I tend to assume the worst when it comes to engine temperatures.

I got out and popped the hood, to discover a wisp of smoke from underneath the middle of the engine – and nothing untoward happening around the radiator. I could smell a bit of burnt clutch, which has been normal for this car. Between the age of the car, the previous owner’s advice about the age of the clutch, and my own less-than-skilled driving, a faint smell of burnt clutch has been normal operating procedure for this car. Still, smoke was not a previous feature of the transaxle. I thought maybe I’d simply overheated the transmission, sticking with the hypothesis that the drivetrain was working much harder on gravel than it does on dry pavement, so I checked the fluid level (right where it should be) and left it to cool off for about 10 minutes.

I closed the hood, got back in, and started the engine. Reassured by the lack of error and the quiet state of my warning lights and gauges so far, I put it in gear and tried to move off. No go. I tried reverse, I tried starting in 2nd, but nothing worked. The engine revved just fine, exactly as if it was in neutral. The clutch pedal felt fine, so I think the clutch was being pressed against the flywheel, but there wasn’t sufficient friction to get the entire car moving. I couldn't even stall the car, putting it in any gear and releasing the clutch pedal resulted in no change from the engine.

Time to call CAA. I’d had a bit of cell phone reception when I’d first pulled over – I’d been able to check my voicemail, to discover that my supervisor had provided an update on the invitation to his house for dinner: show up by about 5:00. As it was now 4:30 and my car was immobilized some 80km from home, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it for dinner. For whatever reason, my phone reception evaporated, and I wasn’t able to use my phone to call for help. As I’d had reception, then lost it, I thought I might be on the edge of a tower’s range, and that perhaps I’d get reception if I walked to the top of the slight rise I was on. Before I reached the top, only about 200 metres away, a pickup truck pulling a trailer coming the other way stopped beside me.

The very friendly locals, a middle-aged couple out visiting their daughter, were happy to loan me the use of their phone, on Sasktel. Sasktel is the provincial crown corporation for telecommunications, and competes aggressively with Rogers and Telus. They also apparently have by far the best rural network, and I had excellent reception on the borrowed phone.

The friendly locals predicted a 15-minute phone call with CAA, apparently based on experience – this was neither their nor my own first experience with a non-functional car at the side of a lonely highway. I thought this was needlessly pessimistic, as I knew where I was (they were able to confirm my location) and the problem was pretty clear – car no go, need tow truck. Sadly, the 2 calls I had to make did take about 15 minutes. It seems that CAA doesn’t like it when one moves between provinces. I was transferred between the Saskatchewan and Ontario offices a few times (including the failed transfer that necessitated me calling again), I gave both my old (Guelph) and new (Saskatoon) addresses multiple times, but eventually it was confirmed to me that a big orange truck was on its way from Saskatoon. Fine, can we do this address-change malarkey some other time, when, you know, I’m not on a borrowed phone at the side of a nearly-empty road? I can’t really complain, having that phone number in my pocket makes a huge positive difference, regardless of the bureaucratic weirdness.

I thanked the friendly locals and returned to my car, mentally calculating the truck’s arrival in about an hour. The sun set shortly thereafter. A few other locals stopped on their way past, but after I thanked them for stopping and told them of the expected arrival of the tow truck they were happy to continue on their way. After dark, one told me to turn on my 4-way flashers because I was nearly invisible at the side of the road even with the dome light on. The 4-ways include a clicking noise and noticeably dim the interior light when they come on, but I thought that less annoying than getting rammed in the dark by some local’s ½ ton pickup.

The nearest farmhouse to my stranded position. One of the people who stopped told me that Jim, the owner, was mostly likely at home and was very friendly should I decide to seek shelter.

The weather was unseasonably warm, a few degrees above zero, so I wasn’t too worried. In addition, while my car was incapable of movement, the engine and all electrical systems were working, so I ran the engine for about 10 minutes to warm up and keep the battery happy. I was using the dome light to read a book I’d thrown in the backseat on a whim a few weeks prior; I was very happy to have it, and the blanket I’d also stashed back there.

Just after 7:00pm the tow truck arrived. Huzzah! The driver told me he’d had some trouble finding me, and had called my phone to ask for better directions, but no matter, I was rescued after really only minor discomfort. He was a friendly sort, and told me stories of other rescues and vehicle salvages he’s attended over the past few years. Apparently, highway 11 for the 30 kilometres south of Saskatoon is the road with the highest number of deer-strikes in Canada, particularly around this time of year. The combination of evening rush hour coinciding with sunset and hunting season making the deer a bit jumpy results in many deer venturing onto roads just as traffic levels are peaking. The good news is that most deer-strikes do not result in serious injury (to the humans), but there are an alarming number of elk (Cervus canadensis) and moose (Alces alces) strikes every year, too, which are often more dangerous to the drivers.

He got my Honda hooked up, and we were off back to Saskatoon. Back to highway 12, then down into town. The drive took about 45 minutes, and he deposited me and my car at the transmission shop that’s only 2 blocks from my apartment, just before 8:00. He’d recommended that particular shop, having taken many other tows there in the past, and the fact that it’s so close to my home is just a nice bonus. And the tow was free, even though it was 110 km (I think my basic membership normally includes a first-25-km-are-free restriction) because apparently a truck from Saskatoon was the closest available. Yay!

I can’t say enough good things about my CAA membership, despite the phone-run-around-weirdness. My day would have been really ruined without it, as it was I experienced only an inconvenience, not a crisis.

I called Steve when I got home (reception is fine in town, of course), and told him of my adventures, and that I wouldn’t be coming over for dinner 3 hours late. Rather than the excellent fish supper I’m sure was prepared, I grabbed some McDonald’s.

The next morning I dropped by the tranny shop and said “that’s my Honda”. I told them of my experiences as they related directly to the transmission, and asked them to call me with a quote when they’d had a chance to look at it. It took until Thursday afternoon, partly because of the Remembrance Day holiday on Wednesday, but they put in a new clutch, a new slave cylinder, and a pair of axle seals for me. For slightly more than the purchase price of the car. Oh well, this wasn’t really a surprise.

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