By 1430 the sun is already low in the sky. It lingers above the tips of the mangey jack pines and spruce to my right and gives the impression that if I run fast enough, I could overtake it. I am listening to the spectral, doom-laden Irish folk of Oxn (a first listen) to which my feet provide percussion. The gravel crunch. The sharp exhalations of my breath. All of this enhances the stillness of these surroundings. Not a soul to be seen. No vehicles. Just me. Alone on an abandoned road in the woods.
I have recently switched from the 8-12 to the 4-8 watch. This has thrown an incendiary into my sleep schedule. The 4-8 is a fine watch, possibly my favourite, but it is the most difficult to adjust to. We tied up at Superior Terminals, Thunder Bay at 0030 last night. When I finished my watch at 0800 this morning I went to bed and expected to sleep through to my next watch at 1600. I didn’t, but when I awoke, groggy, in the early afternoon and saw the sun streaming in through my cabin window, I knew this was an opportunity not to be squandered. It is the 29th of December and 7˚C for God’s sake. It is usually well below zero at this time of year up here. Painfully/dangerously cold. I put on my running gear (just one layer!) and headed out.
This road is like an old friend. There’s nothing particularly special about it other than its desolation and that I’ve run on it a number of times in the last five years, any time we’ve been loading at Superior, and I am always impressed by its tranquility. The first time I ran on it, in the grip of a choking depression that made me want to sob out loud, I dubbed it ‘a days, weeks or months road’ in that that is how long it would take for my body to be discovered were some misfortune to befall me, but I felt like it offered me some comfort then and this has made all the difference to me.
This is Anishinaabe soil. The road skirts the hem of the imposing plateau or mesa that is Mount McKay, more correctly, Anemki-waucheu ‘Thunder Mountain’ as it is known in Ojibwe. A sacred place.
The road is unpaved and narrow and at its shoulder, either side, dense, head high scrub sticks up and continues to the conifer tree line five meters in. I joined the road from the busier, pothole-cratered one that runs the shore where the ship is loading at the grain elevator. There were signs warning me it was CLOSED, but I thought I’d take my chances, and I slipped through the concrete barriers.
Despite my being utterly alone, there is evidence of people. Fly tippers have left their slovenly mark in the thick scrub and, in some places, strewn across the road in the form of MacDonalds’ burger wrappers, plastic carrier bags and some clothing. In one spot a soiled mattress. Perhaps this is why they closed the road but it is not enough to spoil the feeling the land emits. The puddles gleam silver and I can see my reflection and the tops of the trees in them when I pass by.
It is what Chris, a Newfoundlander I sail with calls a ‘handsome’ day. One from the city, as I am, is unused to such solitude. Quiet like this seems loaded and I find myself thinking of the wonderful Raymond Carver, and his poem ‘Drinking While Driving’, and of its last line
‘any minute now, something will happen.’
But it doesn’t.
As I am wont to do on runs, I pore over the past days like an editor over type…
On Christmas day it was unseasonably warm. Unnaturally warm. Mild, moist air coming off the land met the cold air on the lake and created a dense mass of fog that clung, unmoving, to the St. Marys River like phlegm to a congested respiratory tract. The reduced visibility caused Soo traffic, who control navigation in the region, to shut the river down to both upbound and downbound traffic, thus causing clots of cargo ships to form on both the Huron and Superior sides. We dropped the hook off Detour, Michigan in the early morning of Christmas eve and would not raise it for 36 hours, by which time there were 26 vessels waiting their turn to transit.
Christmas Day at sea is like any other day at sea except for the boxes of candy and potato chips that were laid out in the crew mess, and the posh grub, steak and lobster tails for dinner. I’m not much for candy or potato chips, I don’t eat red meat and having eaten a lifetimes quota in my time on the east coast, I’m no longer a fan of lobster, so it was less then thrilling for me. I thought of the turkey dinners being served in the homes of my family and friends around the world, and more so of their company, for which I felt a palpable sense of longing at that time.
In Thunder Bay, there was yet more traffic at the grain elevator and we dropped anchor for another 48 hours. The days were warm. Crisp blue skies and the bright, blinding sun only magnified the beauty of our surroundings. The sleeping giant in eternal repose at our stern and the high, flat-topped plateaus that spill from the land out onto the lake like steppingstones placed there by the weary colossus himself.
I ran 10kms on deck and listened to a BBC podcast about ghosts for which I have had a lifelong fascination and is possibly what explains my nervous disposition and poor sleeping habits.
At the 5km mark I turn around and head back towards the ship.
I recognize the first line of the song I am listening to. It is a cover of Scott Walker’s ‘Farmer in the City’ and it somehow manages to be even bleaker than the original. It builds to an almost industrial coda as I count off the kilometers to the ship. Scott Walker, another hero of my youth who is gone, like my youth is gone, like this year is gone.
A few days ago I heard the captain offering counsel to Denver on the perils of winter sailing.
‘We have everything to lose and nothing to gain,’ he said. Meaning there is no sense rushing, especially when there are so many risks inherent at this time of year and of course, the inevitable weather and traffic delays. Essentially, what he was saying was, take your time. Perhaps it is good advice for me, for all of us, in this new year.
In the distance I can hear the heavy trundle of a lumber truck bound for the mill nearby. The sun, behind me now, warms my shoulders as I run back to the ship. It too feels like the touch of an old friend.
Generous. Gentle. Comforting. Consoling.
Happy New Year.
Mind yourselves. Mind each other.