Despite the title, this is not an entry about Jerry Garcia or "Truckin'" through the Jungle.
Jungle develops its own cool vibe as night falls. The crowd thins and the queue empties to a trickle. The lights of the dock flicker gently while the sounds of the Jungle intensify. Drums, bird calls, flowing waters.
As the attraction slows into the end of its normal operating day, boat after boat is taken off line and sent back to storage or, more likely, to either the spur side or catwalk side of the unload dock. You will see empty boats along the catwalk in the middle of the river.
The few remaining skippers are able to take more leisurely cruises through the rivers of the world---without boats immediately ahead of or behind them. Between trips, empty boats form a mini traffic jam along the dock, with one sitting at "load" and two or three in line behind it.
This was a time I enjoyed. Nights on Jungle. Especially in the summer. The air was warm and alive, even if the guest count was down to near nil. When things got this slow the chances increased that you would hear two words that rang in your ears as sweetly as "Mark Twain!" sounded to Samuel Langhorne Clemens. To a steamboat captain, "Mark Twain!" was music because it meant your vessel was in navigable deep water. To a Jungle skipper, the two words would be called out to you from the lead in the Jungle office: "Dead Head!"
Okay. These two words rhyme, Mike, but I'm not getting why they are so special.
Allow me to explain. A "dead head" is an empty Jungle boat that is dispatched from the load position, sending its skipper on a solo trip through the jungle. When more than a few minutes pass while a group of boats are lined up at the dock waiting for guests, the lead will occasionally send the lead boat out with no guests aboard.
If you are the skipper of that boat, you put down your P.A. mike, tilt back your hat, lean back against the bow railing and push the throttle handle forward ever so smoothly. The engine raises its voice a bit and soon you are watching the empty dock recede behind you as you and your boat embark on a tour of the Jungle alone, at night, mano-y-junglo.
The first thing you do is turn off the exterior lights along the boat's canopy. The inky, green darkness settles around you and the accent lighting glows dimly along the river's edge. The "ancient Cambodian shrine" glows silently before you, while the Bengal tiger's roar sounds as loud as you've ever heard it. With the engine throttled just above "idle," you chug up river like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The archway leading to the Sacred Bathing Pool of the Indian Elephants glides overhead and there you are, alone with your thoughts and a trumpeting elephant with its own "private shower." There are lights, but it is pretty dark for you and your boat. The trees along the shoreline form a dark canopy. You feel far from everything---smack dab in the heart of Orange County.
Pulling back on the throttle, you bring your boat to a crawl as the squirting elephant rises up and sprays your bow. Don't forget that guy! Many a rookie skipper (and even a veteran or two) has cruised along past the elephant in the waterfall---which magically triggers the squirter to start his routine---and forgotten to stop or slow their boat. The result is that your boat slips along beside the squirting elephant, which proceeds to douse you and the entire right side of your boat, with almost pinpoint precision. If you ever see a Jungle skipper come back to the dock with his or her shirt dripping wet---they forgot to stop after the bathing pool. Oops.
But not you. You're an old skipper. Been through this jungle thousands of times. As the elephant rises a second time, you push the throttle and chug ahead---quite dry, thank you---to the now extremely noisy gaggle of baboons off to your right. An explosion erupts in the waters ahead of you and there are our gorilla friends ransacking the safari camp. This scene looks really cool at night with all your boat lights off.
Derailing is a concern with an empty boat---or even a full one.
There are several spots along the river where it is important to throttle forward and avoid at all costs any slowing or dilly dallying. One of these spots is the stretch just after you turn past Schweitzer Falls. You remember to give the boat gas through this particularly dark section until you are just abreast or slightly past the first African Bull Elephant over to the left of your boat. His bellow is very loud when you are out there alone. And his mother-in-law's answer off to the right is even louder and longer.
Back in here, I would often open the door where my radio was located and bend down to take a listen. Sometimes you would catch some radio traffic, but usually not. Tonight? Nope. Nothing. Oh well, Hi Zebras! Hello Lions!! And there's that lost safari still caught in their embarrassing predicament, lo these almost 40 years. You wave to the poor guy on the bottom, have a snicker with the hyenas and prepare to throttle through the turn leading into the hippo pool (another spot ripe for a derail if you are not careful!).
Hippos surround you. It's too much to resist. You lift your .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and hold it straight out, pointing just over their heads. You quickly cap off two rounds---which is very loud when there is no one on the boat---and when you are not holding the gun high above your head over the canopy, as you would normally do, but are pointing it straight out just below ear level. Ah. That felt good. Another vessel saved from sure hippo destruction.
Making the turn into headhunter country, you lean on the throttle again until you get to the skull canoe---which looks pretty realistic in the night. If you go too slow through this turn in the river, your boat's rear guide will slip off the rail and you will be stranded until help arrives to get you back on track. Sure, in the old days, most skippers had a pretty good sense of how their boat worked. They would stride back to the box where the guide sits and do their best to try and lift it back onto the rail by themselves. Sometimes it worked. Crisis avoided. You would never do this with guests on board though. For one thing, the boat is just too heavy to handle. For another, you never leave the controls!!!
Natives dance in the dark ahead of you like a Bruce Springsteen song. Soon you are attacked by an angry tribe to your left. They rise from the darkness and create quite a noisy scene. Unfazed, you stare them down until they crouch back into the bushes.
The backside of water. There's something you don't see every day. Here is another potential derail zone, so keep your boat moving until you get to the piranhas. After they attack, you round the bend to old Trader Sam. Your eyes glance up at the two green lights in the shield near Sam. All clear. If you saw red lights flashing there, you had better stop. That means the rail switch ahead of you has been thrown to allow a boat to be taken off or brought onto the main line. Should you fail to stop your boat and keep plugging around the bend toward the dock, your front guide would slip off the track and you would derail---in the pool right before the unload dock, as your lead looks on in horror and disgust from the track switch station at the end of the unload area. The radio would erupt: "Ops 1, this is Jungle Control: Jungle is 101." More sweet words to an old Jungle skipper's ears, "Jungle is 101." It would take at least 15 minutes to half an hour to get a repair team dispatched to address the derail and get the attraction back up and running. One or two of you would be sent to man the queue and advise guests that the attraction was down. The rest might earn a quick break.
Because you are not a rookie, you cruise past Sam and round the final bend leading to the unload dock. You wave at the skips standing at unload and bring the boat to a stop. While waiting there, you pop open your revolver, discharge the two spent rounds and reload for the next trip. Believe me, you will carry this rare dead head trip with you for a good long while.