by Jim Hettinger
Working the 4 to 8 watch provided the opportunity to see nature’s many bounties and assets. When the watch coincided with a run up or run down the St. Mary’s River, a clear evening or morning could be breathtaking.
Before any scenery is to be enjoyed, I had to sweep and mop the dunnage room, the hallways and the bathrooms. Sailors know how to make a bathroom dirty. Sometimes, when the ship is rolling, it is difficult to hit the target. I would not venture to say it was deliberate, but carelessness in the bathroom produced the same result.
My mother always pointed out there is dignity and honor in all kinds of work, even in cleaning a toilet. I am glad she emphasized the toilet part because I cleaned many, many toilets while working on the boats. And I did not feel disrespected in the workplace. It was part of my job and I signed onto it.
The deck watch relieved the watchman occasionally during the shift. When, in a fog or a river, the Coast Guard required a set of eyes in the bow of a ship at all times.
When the watch came together with great weather and a ride up the St. Mary’s River, there was no better experience sailing.
It was a five-hour trip from DeTour, at the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, to the Soo Locks.
Wikipedia describes the area: “The DeTour Passage carries almost all of the commercial water traffic that is entering or leaving Lake Superior. Ships pass between DeTour and Drummond Island. Once beyond DeTour, toward the Soo, the river curves and turns, but it can be a beautiful ride.”
Haydamacker writes in “Deckhand”: “The thick woods and many islands in the St. Mary’s River System enthralled me.”
Haydamacker’s sentiments were echoed by Richard Hill in “Lake Effect: A Deckhand’s Journey”: “The St. Mary’s River is a beauty to behold. It’s breathtaking islands and sparsely populated shoreline capture the imagination in a way that only nature can.”
Piloting up the St. Mary’s River on a clear dawn morning was something special. Things were generally quiet with the most noise being generated by the hum of the ship’s engine and waterfowl on their morning feeding. As a ship would glide by, dozens of fishing birds would take to the air leaving water trails behind.
As one can see, the trip up or down the St. Mary’s River was always interesting, but if you overlay that passage with something different like a thunderstorm with plenty of lightning, you respect the strength of nature.
The best trip of all occurred in my second year. Getting out of my bunk at 03:30 a.m. to get some coffee for consciousness before going on watch, I stepped out on the open deck and was thrilled with a spectacular display of the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights Center describes this unique phenomenon: “The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.”
I had witnessed a couple of displays of Northern Lights while hanging out or camping in the Upper Peninsula. But this was extraordinary — billowing curtains of light, pulsations across the heavens. I became totally absorbed in the natural display as the ship glided quietly up the river and across Lake Munuscong. The dunnage room and toilets would have to wait. Besides, I had just cleaned the Johns eight hours ago.
I have never forgotten that very early morning in late April when I was fortunate enough to have coffee with the Gods.
Jim Hettinger is a laker, a Western Michigan University trustee, an economic development professional and the chief executive of Urban(e) Development Services.
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Source: Battle Creek Enquirer