A low mist lies over iron country as we slide through the piers and into the harbour shared by the ‘Twin Ports’ of Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota, accompanied by a lazy swell that slouches shoreward along with us. It is morning and our wake churns up water that is the colour of strong steeped tea and the air is close and moist and has a metallic taste. To our left, four ore docks jut high out into the harbour like the rusted, skeletal remnants of wading sauropods. As we inch towards our berth the fog recedes and sits atop the hills beyond the cities. It looks solid and still, like an impossibly high mountain range whose jagged edges have been whittled smooth by the centuries.
There are vast reserves of iron ore in the ground here. You can see it in the colour of the water and in the soil of the surrounding hills, an earthy ferrous red. And it is ore that we are here for. It comes from fourmain deposits, or ranges impeccably named Mesabi, Vermillion, Gun Flint and Cuyuna Ridge. Of the four ore docks in Superior only one is still in operation and it’s currently occupied by a thousand-footer which is why we are heading to a lay by berth nearby to wait out their lengthy load. The other docks have been left to atrophy.
Once we’re tied up Me and Jason head uptown so I can buy him a birthday drink (ironically, he ends up paying for it as I don’t have American money and the bar doesn’t take cards). It is raining. A light but steady drizzle. We cross muddy train tracks and I’m glad I changed into my work boots before leaving the ship as the ground is deceptively soft and my foot sinks in up to the ankle in places.
‘There’s something about small town America…’ I say for no particular reason, though Jason agrees. We cross the main road, pass a gas station, a MacDonalds, a strip mall and a liquor store. I stop to rescue a worm that is stranded on the sidewalk, it squirms at my touch and I find it difficult to pick up. I finally succeed and toss it into the grass only to walk a few more paces and find another one that requires assistance when Jason snaps at me,
“You can’t stop and rescue every fucking worm we come across man.”
We find a bar, ‘Hudy’s Liquors’. The paint on its sign is faded and peeling and the building itself looks in need of some serious repairs. Inside feels like walking into a John Cougar Mellencamp song. The bar is dim and there are people sitting at the bar who look like they have been there since the Reagan administration. We sit between two of them, men in their 60s with deeply lined, hang-dog faces. One has a cane and the other’s hands are twisted; the knuckles knotted by rheumatoid arthritis. Both are silent as statues. One of them is drinking Pabst blue ribbon from a can. When he is finished, he pushes the empty forward and the bar tender replaces it with a fresh one and removes a dollar bill from the pile he keeps on the bar. The bottles behind the bar are arranged haphazardly on cheap wood shelves along with an assortment of bar snacks. There is a modern digital jukebox which no one is using and there are two televisions on mute, one plays Cops and the other one shows an episode from one of the Real Housewives franchise, two reality programs which should be subtitled ‘Dreadful People Being Dreadful’. We are served by the bar tender, a woman in her thirties, friendly but not overly so. The bar is mostly silent but for a younger couple playing pool and the familiar chatter of the bar tender and one of the regulars and me and Jason’s easy banter. The two of us have sailed together on many different ships, on and off, over the last twenty years. We have propped up bars all over the northern hemisphere and on either side of the Atlantic, from Nevis to Norway and Edinburgh to Antigua. As we leave, I snap a picture of him in front of the bar only to worry that perhaps this is a bit crass. While I love a good ‘dive bar’ I am aware that this is a rather condescending term and one used in the city where some bar owners would pay a lot of money for an interior like the one we were just in. As Jason points out, a dive bar isn’t a dive bar if the name isn’t ironic and it is your only choice of locale. Not to put too fine a point on it, and perhaps I am mistaken, but I don’t think the people in that bar were particularly happy or have had easy lives. The working man and his struggles are so much a part of the American mythos, from Steinbeck to Springsteen, many have proselytized him. But the stark reality is in these decaying towns . Viewed up close there is no romance, just a country divided with an opioid crisis and an inadequate health care system and a dream that got sold down the river for cheap labour and materials abroad.
It is humid when I strike out on a run the next day and the air is again thick with fog which only gives me 100 feet of visibility in any direction. I run on a path that parallels the train tracks and soon the fog is burnt off by the sun and replaced by a blue sky and the trail is lined with thick woods of tamarack, red pine and birch. The going is tough as I still have the stubborn remnants of a bad cold lodged in my chest but I am grateful for the company; small birds that flicker and tweet in the branches and I say hello to them all and try and remember their field markings and behaviors so I can identify them in my bird guide when I return to the ship. I see many red-winged blackbirds as well as ravens which I don’t need a book to recognize. I find myself thinking of the documentary I saw which said that songbirds in America are dying in their millions and I wonder why this isn’t major headline news like Covid is, or was, as it is conspicuously absent from our headlines now that we are witnessing the possible beginnings of WWIII. Unfortunately all the Covid skeptics are still around, now touting suspiciously pro-Putin propaganda.
Later, I’m eating dinner and reading my book when I come across a passage in which one of the novel’s protagonists rescues stranded worms from a freshly laid road. When coincidence occurs it makes me believe there is a certain symmetry to the universe, and that I might somehow and against all expectation, be wandering the right path and this is the first positive thought I have had in some time.
Finally the thousand-footer is finished and we take their place at the ore dock in the middle of the night. The load is fast and the ore, which is in pellet form, sounds like heavy rain as it fills our holds. Six hours later, and with the last of the cargo aboard, we slip our wires and get underway. I make my way forward to do some soundings and secure the anchors and I pass Jason who is on his way aft, having been up all night monitoring the load and overseeing the discharge of ballast from a control room up forward. He is tall and has a singular gait which reminds me of Robert Crumb’s Keep on Truckin’ cartoon character. As we pass each other he sings a line from a John Prine song at me,
“I’m goin’ steady with Iron Ore Betty…”
Soon we are slipping through the piers and out onto Lake Superior. A few boat nerds gather at the pier head beside the old light house and snap pics with their expensive cameras. Behind them in the wood that borders the sandy beach, osprey and eagles roost in the tallest trees. They have seen it all. They saw the first people settle on these shores and witnessed the birth, the boom and the slow decay of this mid-western town. They see all the long ships depart, with their bellies full of iron and their bows painted ocher with ore dust, like the dried blood that lipsticks the muzzle of a lion in the hours after a kill.
We have four more ore runs in the upcoming weeks. While the load and unload are swift, the passage to and from Superior to the Soo, is the length of Lake Superior and takes 28 hours, making it one of our longer transits and a time to slow down after the rigorous pace of our other trade. As I mount the flight of stairs up to the bridge to take the wheel, I find myself singing…
“I’m goin’ steady with Iron Ore Betty
and she’s goin’ steady with me…”