LAKE MICHIGAN—MONDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2005
Second Mate Patrick Pettit was in the map room as the American Spirit sailed out of sight of the Upper Peninsula and eased its way into Lake Michigan. Pettit was chatting up a visitor while hunched over a map on the drafting table, charting the boat’s course with a pencil, triangle, and plastic compass. Unlike oceangoing ships, Pettit noted, boats on the Great Lakes don’t make use of celestial navigation or Morse code.
Like the other mates, Pettit has a first-class pilot’s license. He is a big guy with glasses, a beard, and a long pony tail the color of steel wool. He laughs loudly and often. Raised in Chicago, he grew up cruising around Lake Michigan on sailboats. He started racing yachts as a young man, and recalls the time when he was out in the middle of the lake during a trans-Superior race. “I saw one of these big ore boats out there,” he said, “and I thought to myself, that’s what I should be doing for a living.”
By 1979, Pettit was working regularly on ore boats—“Getting paid for sailing,” he calls it. As the American Spirit made for Indiana Harbor, he had been on board for fifty straight days, and was slated for a vacation when the boat docked on its return leg, at which time he planned to jump on a plane for his winter place in Florida.
We were standing near the windows in the pilothouse, staring down at the waves boiling up around the deck, when Pettit observed dryly, “That water temperature’s forty degrees. If you go overboard out here, by the time we get the boat turned around to come back for you, you’re a goner. You probably aren’t going to drown, strictly speaking. What will happen is first you’ll go numb, then you’ll get a little giddy and you’ll lose all feeling and go into shock, and then your heart will stop. That’s what you call a very slow way of committing suicide.” I don’t believe these words were meant to scare me exactly, but rather to impart a simple fact of Great Lakes seamanship. Either way, the scenario Pettit described sounded almost comforting compared to straight-up drowning.
Once the boat was out on the lake and socked in by fog, I ventured down to the galley to grab a snack and see if I could catch up on the news. A couple of crew members were engrossed in an Eddie Murphy movie, however, so I perused the modest library in the lounge. There, tucked in among the paperback thrillers, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and a copy of Milton Berle’s B.S., I Love You, was a hardcover edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The book, which was missing its dust jacket, didn’t appear to have ever been read.
As was often the case, things were a lot more interesting below deck. Under the American Spirit’s engine room, there are innumerable dark and noisy labyrinths that spiral downward via a series of narrow catwalks, staircases, and tunnels—four cramped and infernal layers tucked away in the bowels of the ship. Storm tunnels run the length of the boat, along with a system of massive, automated conveyors (some of the belts are more than a quarter-mile long and nine feet wide) designed to unload taconite from the thirty-six ore hatches lining the deck. I spent an hour or so exploring this netherworld in the company of head conveyor man Mike Kruse, a guy who spends much of his time on board covered with ore dust. Considering the noise of the machinery and the congested atmosphere of the hatch tunnels, Kruse would seem to be a man facing some serious occupational hazards, yet he appeared unfazed by the weird and perilous conditions in which he worked.
The wind was really blowing on the lake, causing the boat to rock and roll. As Kruse and I staggered along the catwalks and down into the tunnel at the very bottom of the ship, the close metal chamber echoed with ghostly creaks and moans—the strain on bolts, beams, and hatches—along with a persistent and chilling high metallic cry that sounded alternately mournful and human and like the songs of whales. I’d never heard anything like it, and when we paused for a moment to listen, Kruse smiled and shuddered. “It puts a spook in you,” he said. “There are guys who don’t like to come down here.”
All the way down, at the very bottom of the hull, there is an opening where you can see the boat’s bow thruster—sort of a propeller inside a tube. I have absolutely no idea how the thing works, or why, but right there in the bowels of the ship I peered through the opening and straight into the blackness of the churning lake. It was dark down there, and creepy, and roaring with strange noises. And I realized that if I stepped over the rail into the hole, I would get mulched up and whatever was left of me would sink into the water and be eaten by fish.
At pretty much all times of the day or night, the engine room is the liveliest place on the American Spirit. Part of that impression is undoubtedly a product of decibel level, but there also is a sense that it serves as a communal haven for the men who work below deck. Other than those times when the boat is in port and unloading, much of the onboard action—such as it is—takes place either all the way up top in the pilothouse or down in the engine room, where the essential technical and operational gear is located.
Tom Sufak, the chief engineer, seems to have a remarkably close and symbiotic relationship with all of his assistants, and there were always several members of the engine room crew assembled in the booth whenever I visited. Sufak has been at it a long time—he got his first boat job in 1966 and is now number three on the seniority list for the entire American Steamship fleet. Like so many of his colleagues, he seems straight out of central casting: big, scruffy, deadpan, and something of an agitator. Sufak started working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand when he was sixteen years old. “My dad had a career sailing,” he said, “and then he busted up his back and my mom had a heart attack, so I went sailing basically to support the family.”
Sufak is responsible for all vessel maintenance and oversees the boat’s ballast tanks. He also acts as the American Spirit’s unofficial, and somewhat unlikely, social secretary, organizing the ship’s football and Powerball pools, as well as, once upon a time, softball and basketball games (these were often played on deck, but I also heard tales of the boat’s crew taking on local teams when in port). Besides those considerable chores, he runs an overworked meat smoker just off the engine room—the engine crew produces formidable quantities of jerky. “We’ve run a bear through that smoker,” Sufak said, “and in a couple weeks here there will be a deer hanging out there on the deck.” Every year, it seems, somebody from the boat manages to sneak away to the woods long enough to lay in a store of venison for the smoker.
The chief engineer’s grandest scheme—a plan to race pigs in the American Spirit’s storm tunnels—has yet to come to fruition, but as he talked excitedly about the idea, it was clear that he had not yet given up hope.
Later, after dinner (pizza and chicken wings and eggs Benedict), I settled into the rocking recliner in the penthouse lounge and tried to read a collection of William Trevor’s stories. The boat lurched and heaved through the waves, which seemed to grow larger by the hour. The clouds had lifted and we were treated to a full moon that illuminated waves crashing over the bow and rolling down the deck. The spectacle got to be mesmerizing after a while, like watching fireworks. I sat there until the early hours of the morning, waiting for the next big wave to explode off the bow and shatter into millions of dazzling fragments that caught glints of moonlight as they scattered and dispersed along the deck.
CHICAGO—TUESDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2005
The morning was pretty much all lake—high skies, sunshine, wind, and endless blue. Early in the afternoon, though, the spectral skyline of Chicago came into view, a jagged, extended silhouette looming in the smog on the horizon. As the boat crept slowly south, the skyline became longer and more detailed, until finally I found myself on the bow, staring out at the almost terrifying sight of the Lake Michigan shore, stretching from Chicago some thirty miles southeast to Gary. The horizon was clogged with huddles of belching smokestacks and blast furnaces from steel mills, oil refineries, ore docks, and scrap yards.
As I stood on deck looking at this smog-shrouded vision, Stuart Klipper, the photographer who was on board with me, raised one of his cameras to his face and muttered a line from William Blake: “And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic mills?”
Somewhere out there among the industrial sprawl was the Mittel Steel factory, where we would unload our 62,000 tons of taconite, a process that was supposed to take eight or nine hours and during which there would apparently be absolutely nowhere to go. Between the dock and gates of the steel factory—beyond which there was supposedly some version of the free world—were several miles of zealously guarded and densely packed factory grounds, and these were purportedly surrounded by dodgy neighborhoods. Leaving the premises, we were told, was pretty much out of the question, and as the unloading process would be loud and dusty; there wouldn’t, crew members insisted, be a whole lot to look at or do.
By four o’clock, the industrial shoreline of Lake Michigan was splayed out like a grubby toenail before the bow of the boat. We gradually sailed out of the clear sky and into the hazy, gray atmosphere, toward our port, Indiana Harbor.
Just as the sun was about to set, we eased into the dock channel—a sort of narrow, utilitarian canal carved off the lake to allow access to the ore piles—churning along in the muddy, shallow water between two gargantuan steel mills. With the crepuscular twilight creating wild shadows and exaggerating the color scheme of black, gray, and rust, this grimy, dystopic landscape was beyond the imaginations of even the most visionary filmmakers and harebrained futurists: an Erector set gone haywire; everywhere towering, architecturally inexplicable structures. There were flame-throwing smokestacks, giant, iron-spoked wheels, huge cables, rusted corrugated tin towers and sheds, and miles of black and ochre trellises, girders, and catwalks; blunt, phallic silos and sinister-looking networks of ducts and pipes and elevated train tracks along which crept a steady procession of piecemeal contraptions that looked like crude armored vehicles from the Mad Max movies. Despite the constant scuttling of these strange machines, there were no actual humans to be seen anywhere on the landscape.
I wandered up to the bow to watch the early stages of the unloading and take pictures. The American Spirit is a remarkably self-sufficient operation, and much of that self-sufficiency is a product of economic necessity (downsizing and the inevitable consolidation of jobs) as well as a testament to the boat’s massive self-unloading conveyor system that carries the ore from the hatches, along the length of the hull, and then shuttles it up the boat’s two hundred and sixty-foot boom, from which it gets dumped onto piles onshore. The ship’s crew supervises every aspect of the unloading process; deck hands are floated over the side of the boat aboard a boatswain’s chair, a primitive conveyance that resembles nothing more complicated than an old-fashioned tree swing. Once on solid ground, the hands secure the boat to the dock and keep an eye on things.
Mike Kruse runs the conveyor operation below deck, while Dave Greig, the boatswain, or deck foreman, supervises most of the activity up top. Generally, one of the mates—whichever is on watch—will be on hand as well, monitoring the unloading from the catwalk out at the end of the conveyor boom. The whole seemingly complicated process clips along at a brisk pace. The disgorgement of the more than 60,000 tons of taconite from the hatches is carefully staggered so as not to create structural strain and to avoid throwing off the balance of the boat.
As the boatswain, Greig strolls the deck, stands at the rails, and maintains regular communication via a handheld radio, while the taconite rolls up the conveyor. Greig is among the younger crew members on the American Spirit, and he’s been working the Great Lakes for fifteen years. With his long hair and huge and elaborately tattooed arms, Greig looks like he’d be right at home working as a bouncer at a rock bar, but he grew up on the Detroit River and fell in love with boats.
“There wasn’t much shipping going on when I got started,” he said, “and it was a lot more complicated to get a job. Those days you had to have a letter from a captain or a steamship company telling you they intended to hire you, and you took that to the Coast Guard in Ohio to get your shipping papers. There was a lot more paperwork in the hiring process. Now you can just buy your shipping papers—I think it’s ninety bucks—and there’s not even a test involved.” While this would seem to make it easier to get work on the Great Lakes, at least at the entry level, things are inevitably balanced out by the relative scarcity of jobs under present economic conditions.
The steel mills presented an even more striking and almost fearsome spectacle in the dark, and I have no idea how many hours I spent wandering up and down the deck in a sort of mesmerized stupor. That stretch after the sun set was, I believe, the closest approximation of a conscious dream I’ve ever experienced.
Days earlier, on the way out of Duluth, when I was told that any escape from the American Spirit would be unlikely during our time aboard, I experienced a wave of slight panic. I’m not generally claustrophobic by nature, but I am restless, and I assumed I’d be stir-crazy by the time we reached the port. The restlessness never did materialize, however, and after a time, exhausted by all the walking and visual stimuli (not to mention all the ore dust I’d inhaled), I retired to the penthouse to read for a bit and try to sleep before the boat’s departure from Indiana Harbor.
LAKE MICHIGAN—WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2005
The gale warnings—which go into effect when winds on the lake reach thirty-nine miles per hour—took effect shortly after the American Spirit had backed out of the channel, gotten itself turned around in the harbor, and moved out into Lake Michigan. It was two-thirty in the morning, and the wind was ripping between thirty-five and fifty miles per hour, kicking up whitecaps and causing the deck of the boat to ripple and writhe like a Chinese parade dragon. It was disturbing to sit there watching the thing buck and hump and undulate as the waves exploded again and again off the bow. Earlier in the trip, the captain had assured me that this phenomenon was not an optical illusion. The boat, he said, was designed to flex in just such a manner; it’s built sort of like a giant shock absorber to minimize structural stress. All the same, as I sat there staring out at the long deck shimmying through the waves I couldn’t help but be reminded of Patrick Petitt’s words: First you’ll go numb, then you’ll get a little giddy and you’ll lose all feeling and go into shock, and then your heart will stop.
I tried to lie down to read, but my tiny bed was rocking and creaking like a cradle and the wind was howling through the ship’s ventilation system. The shuddering from the cavitation was so violent that everything—books, pop cans, notebooks, and pens—on the nightstand kept sliding off and crashing to the floor. I’d put it all back only to watch it go tumbling across the room again a moment later. Eventually I decided to let it all go, and I got up and wandered around the boat, to get used to the motion. Apparently, nobody else could sleep, either; I kept encountering other wobbling zombies staggering down the narrow hallways and up and down the stairs. I noticed that when things got rough, no matter the hour, guys tended to congregate in the galley to eat leftovers.
Aside from when they’re loading or unloading the boat, I was never quite sure what most of the twenty-seven crew members did with their time. For the most part, they retreated into the privacy of their tiny cabins between meals and watches. There were long stretches out in the middle of Lake Michigan where, other than in the pilothouse or down in the engine room, I never encountered another soul anywhere on the boat.
Because of a late start and two days of wind and heavy weather that required slower speeds, we were running behind schedule. Destinations and timetables get shuffled all the time out on the Great Lakes, and by midweek it was apparent that we wouldn’t make Two Harbors by Thursday night, when the American Spirit was slated to dock and take on another load of ore. It wasn’t even clear, in fact, that we’d be returning to Two Harbors at all; at one point our return port had been switched to Duluth, and then, eventually, Superior, Wisconsin.
Dan Bartels, the captain of the American Spirit, was clearly the cautious, prudent sort, an apparent departure from the boat’s regular skipper, “Hurricane” Bob Gallagher, whose name was regularly invoked by crew members with a combination of good humor and head-shaking respect. Seeing as this wasn’t Bartels’ usual boat, he admitted to being a bit wary of the way the thing handled in rough water (or even under decent conditions), and was inclined to take it slowly. These thousand-footers don’t get up much of a head of steam no matter who’s at the helm; when they’re navigating in harbors or in rivers or channels they creep along at five miles per hour. Out in the middle of the lake they might crank it up to seventeen miles per hour, but tend to average between nine and fifteen.
All day there wasn’t a thing to do but stare at the water, walk the decks, and read. I went up and watched the sun set into the lake from the deck outside the pilothouse, and then went back to my book and my rocking.
LAKE HURON—THURSDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2005
By the sixth day out on the water, I’d lost all track of the calendar, and found myself sort of numbly following the progress of the boat on the maps in the pilothouse. I have a difficult time sleeping under the most ideal and comfortable conditions. Yet while onboard the American Spirit, I found myself so exhausted from the fresh air and my routine treks up and down the deck that at night I often sank into an immediate and deep sleep. I never managed to sleep for more than an hour or two, however, before being jolted awake by a sudden lurch, something tumbling across the room, or a loud and startling noise (there always seemed to be loud and startling noises). Inexplicable alarms and sirens went off at odd times, usually, I was assured, signaling some routine concern from the engine room or bridge. Even so, these clangs and whooping sounds always came as something of a shock. Because my cabin was beneath the pilothouse, I didn’t miss a thing.
At four o’clock in the morning, we once again sailed out of Lake Michigan and into the Mackinac Straits, essentially retracing the route we’d followed on the initial leg of the trip. This time around, it was dawn when we cruised under the Mackinac Bridge—already strung with green and red Christmas lights—and by the time we moved into Lake Huron the sun had risen. The American Spirit entered the St. Mary’s River under clear skies, and the view, with a string of islands, picture-postcard lighthouses, and vivid fall colors along the shoreline, was markedly different from when we had crept through in lifting fog at sunrise a few days earlier.
It was also startling to go through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in daylight, under bright sun, after making our first pass in the dead of night, when the place was virtually abandoned and eerily quiet. During the day, the locks bustled with activity, with boats of various sizes queued up for the various slots and people milling about and strolling the footpaths along the U.S. side of the St. Mary’s.
All day we’d been crossing paths with other boats coming and going. Traffic is heavy on the Great Lakes late in the season, and there always seemed to be at least two or three other vessels popping up on the American Spirit’s radar screen. Everybody is in a race to lock positions on docking and unloading slots, because if too many boats get ahead of you, you’re likely to either spend a good deal of time waiting or get dispatched to another port altogether.
The American Spirit, originally slated to pick up a new load of taconite in Two Harbors, had experienced several itinerary changes since leaving Duluth, and now, from Sault Ste. Marie, we were once again supposedly heading back exactly the same place we’d started. The scheduling was, as I said, all very fluid.
Back out on Lake Superior, the wind came up again, and the boat labored through choppy waves. After sunset, I walked laps on the deck, waddling into the wind that inflated my jacket. For the first time aboard the American Spirit, I strapped on headphones and cranked up the volume on my MP3 player to drown out the wind. The first song when I hit “shuffle” was Wilco and Billy Bragg’s take on Woody Guthrie’s “Airline to Heaven,” which was exhilarating and perfect; I felt that with a good running start and a ecstatic leap into the air, the wind would have carried me miles out over the lake.
I finished my three miles to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and then went back up to the penthouse to rock and read through the night, as the American Spirit continued to heave westward across Lake Superior.
LAKE SUPERIOR—FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2005
I sat up all night, alternately reading and staring out into the darkness, at the pumpkin-glow of the hatch lights running down both sides of the deck.
The sun rose on a hazy morning, and the deckhands were outside winterizing the boat, covering the winches with bolted sheet-metal boxes, in preparation for the onslaught of ice that would come in another couple of months. With the shipping season now extending well into January, boats on the Great Lakes require constant assistance from icebreakers in stretches of shallower water—in the Mackinac Straits, for instance, and the St. Mary’s River. At the tail end of the season, and also early in the spring, ships can spend hours, even days, stuck in the ice waiting for Coast Guard icebreakers. There have been occasions in recent years when four or five freighters were trapped in the ice of Whitefish Bay, waiting to enter the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
As things eventually sorted themselves out, the American Spirit would return to port in Superior, but after taking on fuel in Duluth. We approached the port late in the afternoon, under low skies and a light mist. Duluth, huddled on the hillside with the Enger Tower rising high above the city, is a marvelous-looking place when viewed from out on the lake. The Mackinac, a handsome Coast Guard vessel being prepared for retirement, was docked in the harbor, and crowds of people lined the break wall under the Aerial Lift Bridge at Park Point. It seemed quite a large crowd for a Friday afternoon in late October, but, apparently, people always turn out to greet the ships in Duluth.
“We used to go out and throw them candy,” Bartels said. “But it just seemed to confuse people more than anything else—they’d be ducking and covering themselves; I guess they didn’t know what the heck we were doing, so we pretty much gave up on that.”
As the American Spirit idled at the fuel station in Duluth, Stuart Klipper and I said our hasty goodbyes to the ship and crew—most of the guys were bustling around preparing for loading or holed up in their cabins, so there was something of a feeling of anticlimax to our departure—and hauled our gear down the gangway. Pam Samways, the wife of Randy Samways, the first mate, was waiting for the boat’s arrival and volunteered to give us a ride to dock six, on the other side of the harbor, where we had parked our car a week earlier.
Pam was in high spirits, and looking forward to having her husband home for Christmas for the first time in twelve years. Crew members are allowed to bring family onboard for the occasional trip, though, so the Samways haven’t always been separated at the holidays. “We’ve celebrated plenty of Christmases on the boat,” Pam said. “That’s always been fun—we’ve had a tree, opened presents, the whole bit—but it’s going to be so nice to have Randy home. It’ll almost be strange.”
When we pulled away from the fuel dock in a sport utility vehicle that felt cramped compared to our cushy quarters on the boat, the deck of the American Spirit was bustling with activity as the crew readied for another 62,000-ton load of taconite and another week-long stretch across the Great Lakes.
For me, the trip had been one of constant surprises. I hadn’t known what to expect when I’d climbed aboard. There had been plenty of vague fears—of seasickness, restlessness, claustrophobia, drowning in the middle of the Great Lakes, drowning in the middle of my life—and I was thrilled that not a single one of those fears had materialized. For a week I had lived without all the things I had come to believe I couldn’t live without, and I felt newly balanced. The boat had afforded me solitude and engagement in equal measure, a routine in which the wholly familiar and the absolutely unfamiliar had been in perfect proportion. I’d spent my time on the lakes ceaselessly rolling, yet it wasn’t until I set foot back on solid ground that I sensed a wobbling beneath my shoes.
I thought of something the steward, Mark Hosey, had said to me in the galley a couple of days earlier. “I don’t know if anyone really starts out thinking this is going to be their life,” he said. “But it grows on you. After thirty-one years I’m still blown away by the things I see all the time. People don’t realize that one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is sitting right here in the middle of America, and I don’t think you can truly explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it how incredibly beautiful it is.”