‘Tis the Season
23 December 2020

There are places your mother warned you about.  You know.  Past the train tracks on the outskirts of town.  The Rouge River in Detroit is one of them.  It’s here we unloaded our cargo of slag two nights ago.  It is a pestilential place. The water is muddy, the colour and consistency of Dickensian gruel and its full of dead fish, floating branches, condoms and cigarette butts. Its banks are lined with mountains of coal and sprawling empty lots, broken-down brick buildings, burnt out cars and coarse reeds that mohawk the shore. There is a sewage treatment plant and numerous derelict factories around whose perimeter walls pace the furious ghosts of frozen vagrants and murdered hookers.  The whole place is lit up by the blue refinery glow cast by flaming smokestacks that tower overhead and the nearby city’s nimbus of light.  Rail bridges crisscross it’s width as does a large highway overpass.  It was raining as we unloaded.  The slag kicked out the ammonia reek of cat’s piss as it streamed off our boom ashore.  Every so often we could hear the lonely whistle of trains passing in the night.

Two images are stuck fast in my mind when I think of the Rouge.  Not things I saw, but as they were reported to me by sailors I work with.  And though I did not witness them firsthand they remain fixed powerfully in my imagination.  The first is of a bloated corpse floating by one summer night.  The crew called the police but were told they were too busy and to let the body be and that they would try and get out there to collect it in the next couple of days.  The second was described to me by an old hand who said he was monitoring the discharge of cargo in the dead of night when he turned around and saw a burning sofa float slowly past on the current.  He said he literally had to rub his eyes to make sure he wasn’t imagining it.

Yes. The Rouge River. Rouge in name only.

dreamt last night that I was in an empty stadium.  I walked the field and up through the bleachers and empty concession stands in the deafening silence.  I found an old stray dog there.  A retriever.  I took her home with me.  I named her and I cleaned her and fed her and brushed out the tangles in her coat.  I walked her and I made her a bed on the floor by my side, but she would not warm to me.  Instead she fixed me with her doleful dark eyes and unhappily followed me about.  I woke up feeling a profound sense of sadness and failure and it is this that informed my waking hours.

We are headed north to Thunder Bay for a load of canola.  There are storm warnings in effect for Lake Superior.  The eye of the system is in the middle of the lake and though the wind is blowing southerly now, it is expected to do a 180 and come howling from the north by mid-afternoon.  The captain wants to get north before the wind can really come around and the seas have a chance to build.  If it gets too snotty, we can shelter in the lee of Michipicoten Island off the western shore.  

‘I don’t care about the seas,’ he says.  ‘It’s the cold temperatures I’m worried about.’  Cold temperatures mean freezing spray.  Water that freezes the second it hits the ship and builds up layer atop of layer of thick ice, creating treacherous conditions for the ship and crew.  It is expected to blow up to 50 knots and the temperature to drop to -20˚C.  They are calling for 50cms of snow.  The grain elevator in Thunder Bay where we’re due to load will be closed until boxing day, but if we can make it there,we will be tied up for Christmas and able to enjoy some rare downtime. There will be cell reception and the crew will be able to call and receive calls from far away loved ones.  The cook will likely lay out a spread and for once it might be possible to sit down to a meal with the entire ship’s company.  Maybe play some cards. Swap yarns and perhaps share a smoke and a joke or two.  

Yesterday, on Lake Huron a call came over the VHF fromanother ship, the Strongfield, and enlivened the drear of an uneventful night watch.  They were downbound and wanted to inform us of their intentions as we would be passing in close proximity.  The running lights of their vessel were the only thing visible out there in the blackness.  

‘Two whistles?’ They asked, meaning is it ok if we pass each other starboard to starboard.  Fitzy the mate of the watch replied,

‘Two whistles.’  

‘Thanks,’ they said.  ‘You guys have a safe night out there, and a Merry Christmas too.’

Assuming we can punch through these seas, dodge the worst of the weather heading our way and seek shelter in the snug nook next to the grain elevator, there’s a chance we’ll be able to heed their counsel,

and it may just be Merry yet.