I was five years old. That was 1936, the winter I went across the lake with my father on a railroad car ferry. He was the captain. What else could he do? My mother was sick, and by the time we got back she was dead.
In school, the first thing we learned about the Great Lakes was that HOMES was the way to remember all their names, and we should have no trouble remembering HOMES because the Great Lakes Region was our HOME. But the problem with remembering them that way was that it put them all out of order. They were not in an order in which one might sail from one to the others, not in alphabetical order or any other order that would have made sense to me. And anyway our home was Michigan. You might as well say you were from the world as from a region so big it included six states and two countries.
It came as a disappointment to learn that Michigan was only the third largest of the five lakes, though I was glad to know it was the sixth largest freshwater lake on earth. Sailors called the Great Lakes our inland seas, the sweetwater seas, and I wanted to be a sailor, I wanted to talk like one, but my teacher talked like a book, which meant that she was forever correcting me. I don’t mean she punished me for cursing—there was far less of that among my father’s crew than you might imagine, and not because they watched their tongues when I was around but because blasphemy is bad luck on a boat, along with cats, women, and preachers. No, it was my names for things that she objected to. An ice devil was not an ice devil but a waterspout, and they were fairly rare on the Great Lakes, I couldn’t possibly have seen one. Nor had I seen the wooden ghost steamer Chicora blowing distress signals and should not tell my classmates that I had because there was no such thing as ghosts, and South Manitou Island was not haunted by cholera victims who been dropped off by immigrant ships enroute to Chicago and buried alive, though every sailor on the lake has heard their cries, and it was the Coast Guard that showed us a picture of the Chicora and asked if that was the ship we had seen, because other ships had had reported seeing it too. There was also no such thing as a snow wasset, but I knew there was, because Rudy had encountered it on Lake Superior. It was as big as the Chicora, a cross between a whale and a giant snake, with scales on a big belly that was bulging with blubber and you didn’t want to think about what else, because it could swallow a man as big as my father in one gulp and would follow a ship for days in a blow, just waiting for a chance to sink it and eat the crew, and even though it lived in the frigid waters above the UP, I kept an eye out, because if a ship could sail from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan a giant snow wasset could get there too. For all she knew it could be the monster people kept seeing in Grand Traverse Bay, and that was in the newspaper so it had to be true. My problem, she told me, was that I had an overactive imagination. On my report card she wrote that I told lies.
She liked numbers. Lake Michigan, she said, had 3200 miles of coastline, but I thought she meant the lake was 3200 miles long, and so I put my hand up to tell her that it was actually 307 miles from top to bottom, with a width that varied from 118 miles at its widest to 63 between Frankfort and Kewaunee, which was a regular run for our ferries, but she didn’t care, and anyway it was not the distances but the difficulties, the weather, the harbors, the channels, the passages, the currents, the reefs, the shoals. That was how a sailor knew the lake.
She had her own stories. Once upon a time where we lived had been ocean. That was in the Paleozoic Era, the time my teacher called the age of ancient life, six hundred million years before any of us were born, and there were no people then, only corals, mollusks, brachiopods, and trilobites, so many that when they died and sank to the bottom of that sea they were smooshed by their own weight into limestone. The Petoskey stones I liked to hunt along the shore each summer were not stones at all but prehistoric animals, fragments of fossilized coral polished by the waves until they looked like honeycombs.
And even longer ago than that, before the ancient sea, there were volcanoes. The volcanoes erupted, and then the molten rock cooled and hardened and plates beneath the surface of the earth collided and pushed up mountains, but by the time she finished her next sentence those mountains had already eroded, they weren’t mountains anymore but a low region of exposed bedrock she called the Canadian Shield. I liked picturing the volcanoes and the mountains and then a big shield like the one a knight might carry into battle, but the millions and billions of years were impossible to grasp, and so I imagined the land riding up and down like the waves in a steep storm on the sweetwater sea. This shield still bordered the northern shore of Lake Superior, she said, but around the rest of the Great Lakes that bedrock lay buried beneath sediment from the ancient ocean and debris from the glaciers that came later, that she hadn’t told us about yet, because her story was all out of order like the lakes she called HOMES. In the middle of the shield there was a circular bed of shale that eroded to form river valleys that were surrounded by escarpments of hard limestone made from the skeletons of all those dead sea creatures. Then she told us about how it got very cold, and the glaciers came, pushing down from Hudson Bay in sheets that were hundreds of miles across and a mile high and or even higher. I liked thinking about the glaciers, because I felt that I had traveled one the year I went across the lake, though I didn’t see how she could tell me there was no such thing as ghosts when according to her the very ground beneath our feet wasn’t ground at all but a bunch of dead animals and no one really knows what happens after you die, if you keep on thinking, and if you do then I guess you would be a ghost, that’s the problem with ghosts, they’re dead but they can’t stop thinking, and I thought that I would probably be that way too. As for the glaciers, they were so dense the ice was a like a bulldozer, a giant tank smashing up slate and other soft rock, pushing it along in front and to the sides until it built up walls that separated the ice into lobes that plowed through the river valleys, making them deeper and deeper, thirteen hundred feet in the basin that became Lake Superior, nine hundred feet in Michigan. When a ship went to the bottom of one of those lakes, it went a long way down.
That was nearly two million years ago, she said, but then it warmed up again, the glaciers went away, the plants and animals came back. The way she told the story it was like a Frankfort winter, longer than anything you could imagine, but then it was summer again, and then winter, everything died, and the glaciers came back, and this happened over and over, and I didn’t see what was to prevent it from happening again, any more than the Sault locks would prevent a snow wasset from swimming from Lake Superior to Grand Traverse Bay, and so all the while she talked about the glaciers I kept looking out the window to make sure the snow and ice weren’t piled any higher than they had been that morning, but it was so cold there was no one out, I couldn’t see if there were any people or if everyone had died and the minute we left the heated brick schoolhouse we would all die too and have to wait a million years and then turn into rocks.
“Pay attention, Fern,” she said.
Finally the weight of the ice made those valleys so deep that when the glaciers melted for the last time—I took another look out the window—they filled with water and turned into our Great Lakes. But even then, she said, sometimes winter ice still blocked the water farther north, so Lake Superior found a narrow valley in the Upper Peninsula and poured into Lake Michigan through the little Whitefish River, and Lake Michigan found the Chicago River and drained into the Mississippi, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, which worried me, because if all the water drained out of the lake what would happen to my father’s ferry? But there was more, because a mere seven to ten thousand years ago, she added, as if it were yesterday, the St. Mary’s River opened, connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron, and it became possible to sail all five of the lakes without ever crossing land, and on up the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.
“And that,” she said, “is the story of our special lakes.”
HOMES, she had us repeat. Because this region and its history was our HOME.
It was an interesting story, but it wouldn’t get you through the Manitou Passage or the Straits, wouldn’t help you navigate Gray’s Reef or the Wobbleshanks (“Waugoshance,” she corrected, though all the sailors I knew called it Wobbleshanks), that graveyard of wrecks between the mainland and Hog and Beaver Islands, wouldn’t teach you never to put your boat broadside to the waves in a storm or how to quarter them in a heavy north or south wind until the ship could turn and run downwind, didn’t tell you that the lead line was useful only in calm waters or that iron and steel throw the magnetic compass off its marks and there was no formula for correction because every load was different. It didn’t tell you that anything sent overboard should go leeward, which you would think only common sense, but more than one ship has burned because someone flung a bucket of coals into the wind. It didn’t show you how to load a ferry to balance the weight and keep it from capsizing at the dock, how to place idlers, empty flat cars, between the cars to be loaded and the locomotive, wouldn’t warn you never to board a ship if the rats were leaving or teach you how to clear the limber holes in the bulkheads when they clogged, how to rig and fit a steering tiller to the end of the rudder stock if the pin in the steering quadrant broke or how to steer with the engines if the quadrant came loose, how to back and how to spud, didn’t caution you never to christen a ship with water, change its name or choose one with too many A’s and especially never a name with thirteen letters, didn’t tell you never to start a trip on Friday or use gear salvaged from a wreck or let you know that a starboard list coming out of port forebodes an unlucky trip or that whistling aboard ship will bring on a gale, and it was important to know these things, because for all her knowledge about how the lakes formed, she failed to tell us what all sailors on the Great Lakes know, which is the most important geological feature of all, because when the lakes formed they shaped themselves into a horseshoe, but the horseshoe’s upside down, its prongs at the bottom, pointing south, where all the luck runs out, and that’s why most ships carry a horseshoe nailed right side up, and the Manitou was no exception. And when you set out on any of the lakes you’d best keep these things in mind, because what you need to know is not about brachiopods and glaciers but that a halo around the sun means rain and so does a red sky at dawn, that most storms take three days to blow in and another three to blow themselves out but there are other storms that come up without warning, and even without looking at the barometer you know a storm is coming by the pressure in your ears and the way your voice seems to echo inside your head, you need to know that in a storm waves come in sevens and the seventh is always higher than the previous six, that when a ship is going down lifeboats aren’t really of much use because they take too long to launch and any storm furious enough to sink a ship is going to break up a lifeboat anyway, you need to know how to call for a breeches buoy just before you scuttle a ship to keep it from smashing against the shore, but most of all you need to know when to call Mayday and fly the flag upside down.
She knew a lot, my teacher, but the sailors knew more, because they also knew that no matter how much you know your ship can still go down. And land is just as dangerous to navigate, I learned, because while you are at sea back on land your mother can drown.