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Commentary: Safety spout fuels colorful encounter in the boonies

Brad Dokken

BAUDETTE, Minn. — This is a rant — about those new-style gas containers equipped with safety features that make it impossible for most of us to dispense the gasoline they're designed to hold.

How do I hate them? Let me count the ways.

Someday, I'd like to find the people who developed these safety features and turn them loose on a remote northern Minnesota highway. Then, I'd like to see them try to pour fuel from one of their devil cans into a car that has run out of gas.

If the goal is to pour gas everywhere except where it is supposed to go, these new-style gas cans are a brilliant success.

For the life of me, though, I can't figure out how that's a good thing either for safety or the environment.

The encounter that inspired this rant occurred on the eve of Minnesota's Fishing Opener when friends Pete Howard of Stillwater, Minn., and his son, Peter, of St. Paul, suddenly found themselves with a stalled car on state Highway 72 south of Baudette, Minn., on their way to meet us for the weekend's fishing festivities on Lake of the Woods.

The gas gauge on Howard's car showed a quarter of a tank, but the vehicle stopped and wouldn't start after he steered it to the side of the highway.

The words "Now what?" definitely come to mind. Along with one or two others I'll leave to imagination.

To the rescue

Scott Jensen of St. Anthony, Minn., another member of our fishing crew who'd pulled into our cabin at Ballard's Resort a short time earlier, was dispatched to rescue our stranded fishing partners, and I joined him for the 25-mile excursion.

Even though the gauge on Howard's car showed a quarter of a tank, gas gauges have been known to fail. So — just in case — Jensen and I stopped in Baudette en route and picked up a 5-gallon gas can, the contents of which we planned to pour into the stalled vehicle.

You can probably guess where this is going.

Unbeknownst to us, a kind man who lived nearby had stopped by the Howards' stranded vehicle and was able to reach a tow truck service in Baudette. On a Friday night when most businesses in small northern Minnesota towns have called it a day, that in itself was an accomplishment.

The tow truck hadn't yet arrived when Jensen and I reached our friends stranded along the road. Pouring gas into the tank was the first order of business, just in case the gauge was faulty.

Here's where things got dicey.

Unlike the old gasoline cans that actually worked, these newfangled containers have a safety spout that won't dispense fuel until a doohickey on the nozzle is engaged with downward pressure.

That sounds good in theory, but it quickly became apparent that engaging the nozzle to allow gasoline to pass through the spout while using a funnel wasn't going to be possible, even for the elder Howard, a recently retired electrical engineer.

He's a smart guy, a handy sort who has rebuilt engines, wired pole sheds, builds clocks and brews his own beer, but he doesn't have three arms, which he would have needed to engage the safety spout.

Cry of anguish

The only other option as darkness descended was to remove the spout and try to pour the gasoline directly from the container into a funnel that wasn't quite as long as it should have been to reach the opening of the vehicle's gas tank.

Jensen, normally a mild-mannered sort, stepped in to help and quickly found his shoes soaked in gasoline, prompting a string of words I rarely hear him utter. I'm pretty sure the bog and its assortment of noisy frogs and fowl grew quiet, if only momentarily, at the sound of Jensen's cry of anguish.

From now on, I think we'll call him "Fuel Foot" Jensen.

As for me, I'm not a mild-mannered sort, and so I kept a safe distance to avoid getting soaked with gasoline and repeating Jensen's colorful words.

By some miracle, they managed to pour maybe a gallon of gasoline into the tank and not on the ground or Jensen's already fuel-saturated shoes. An anguished turn of the key, and Howard's car was back in commission.

The tow truck driver by this time was just a few miles away so the Howards flagged him down on their drive north to Baudette and reimbursed him for his efforts.

Both of our vehicles reeked of gasoline fumes by the time we got back to our cabin.

Howard later learned that his vehicle stalled because a valve that switches the flow of fuel to an auxiliary gas tank when the main tank runs low had malfunctioned. The gauge was correct — the car still had a quarter tank of gas — but the fuel in the auxiliary tank wasn't able to reach the engine.

He topped off the tank in Baudette that night and fueled up at regular intervals on the drive back to the Twin Cities. By Monday afternoon, the car was in a repair shop.

I'm guessing fixing the faulty valve was easier than trying to pour gasoline out of that devil can.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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