Drummond Island, Michigan, 11km’s
In the past few days, as though a switch has been flicked, winter has come to these upper Great Lakes. Overnight the complexion of the sea seemed to change, its pallor darkening by several shades to an ominous inky blue and the sky turned clear and cold and gulag grey and as though to let us know this is not a season in which to trifle, a blast of Arctic air dropped the temperature below zero and brought sideways snow squalls and whiteout conditions our way. In the St.Marys River, the evergreens have adopted a ginger hue and their deciduous neighbors, which a few weeks ago bore the fullness of nature’s pallet on their limbs, now are naked, their multi-coloured memento mori lie rotting at their roots beneath a layer of snow.
A few days back we were unloading coal in the Canadian Soo. This is known colloquially aboard as a ‘coal scrape’. It entails the crew descending into the cargo holds and climbing chains up a steep incline to the outer walls to scrape, shovel, hack, bludgeon and kick the tons of coal that sticks to the ship’s side and gets stuck in the angle-irons and i-beams that form the vessel’s frame, and to coerce it onto the slope so it can slide into the open gates below. This is utterly brutal work. In summer it is hotter than hell’s own furnace and now, the low temperatures further hamper our progress as the cargo freezes and becomes even more recalcitrant. The whole process can take anywhere from 10 to 24 hours. I have heard of one unload taking as long as five days as the coal was so frozen, they had to lower back-hoes and jackhammers into the holds to dislodge it. This ship is 70 years old and the work has not gotten any easier since then, if anything it is more difficult, for as the greed of corporations has grown, crew sizes have shrunk to save on wages. By the end of the ordeal the crew emerge from cargo hold one, blistered, bruised and black-faced, resembling a Jim Crow era minstrel show of jaw-droppingly poor taste.
It is the time of year that I begin to envy the grizzly and the groundhog their cozy dens. The freezing work conditions mean that when I’m off, my bunk has an almost gravitational pull and I spend many hours in it, not just sleeping but reading and watching TV. Today it takes great effort to rouse myself from my bed and warm cabin, to don the layers of the outdoor winter runner. I forego stretching as I’m already sore and impatient to get going if I am going to do this thing at all. Almost immediately after disembarking at the dock where we’re loading stone, my seasonal malaise is leavened by the brisk air, the startling whiteness of the ground and by John Fogerty singing Rock and Roll Girls on my ‘Ultimate Workout’ playlist. I round a bend onto a wooded road and see a white-tailed deer slowly stalking into the tree-line. We both stop and regard each other curiously. I tread carefully towards it taking pictures with my phone. It is a doe and she seems unbothered, her gaze, unlike a dog, holds mine and there is such poise and grace in her stance as to lend her an almost regal bearing. I get to almost 15 feet of her. Up close her eyes are an opal black like the large marbles with which I played as a kid. We seem to share a mutual admiration and we stand there together for a minute or two until I’m forced to break away, as in this weather to stop is to freeze.
Soon, I’m rewarded again by a snowmobile trail just off the road on which I’m running. It is wider than a foot trail and covered in a pristine layer of untouched snow, not a footprint or tire track on it. The universe, normally tyrannically indifferent to my plight, has bestowed two early birthday gifts on me and I feel a twinge of something like grief when I think of how close I came to not running today. This will be my final outdoor run of my 43rd year and I am thankful to be fit and able-bodied.
It is easy for me to get bogged down by the details.
These sore muscles I have, from exercise and from work, lift me from the ashen pall I am disposed to shroud myself with, and temper this over-active mind. They are a reminder of accomplishments achieved, which though trivial to some, to one man, offer great reward. If it weren’t for an intestinal imperative (familiar to any runners out there) that suddenly presents itself and cuts my musings short, I would run much further, but I’m forced to turn back and follow my own footprints back to the boat.
Winter sailing is a different beast and one not afraid to bare it’s teeth. 44years ago today, two days before I was born, 29 men not unlike myself and my fellow crew, died when the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship almost identical to ours, sank in a storm not far from here. When the wind pipes up in these climes it is savage, and as the temperature drops the decks ice up making each step treacherous. And then there is the freezing spray that can overwhelm a ship and force us out with mallets and shovels to beat it off…
But for now,
the wind is down,
and my blood is up,
and that old Bahamian spiritual
sung by Kate & Anna McGarrigle
comes on my playlist
and I belt it out
to the cobalt sky.
‘Travellin’ on for Jesus’.
Except I’m not doing it for Him.
It’s all for Me.
It’s god damn glorious.