The rumble was more a feeling than a sound, almost subliminal. I glanced outside, expecting a UPS truck, but the streets were empty.
“Must be the shipyard,” George said. “They must be moving a boat.”
“Boat” is a gentle term used affectionately for the behemoths that grace our harbor each winter, huge ore boats 700 to 1,000 feet long. The come to Bay Shipbuilding for winter layup, many of them getting their 5-year inspections done at the same time. While some are “parked” in one place until they leave in spring, some have to be moved in and out of dry dock as they take turns lying under skilled ship worker’s hands.
The rumble was that movement–but not, as you might think, from the giant engines. Ore boats can creep in and out of harbor barely making a sound, most of us unaware that they’ve been here and gone.
Now, their engines were running, along with the engines of the tugs that help them maneuver in tight quarters through ice thick enough to hold pick-up trucks, but the engines weren’t responsible for that persistent vibration. It was the ice.
Stretching from shore to shore, the ice has to be broken by the workhorse tugs creating paths for the ore boats as they are pulled out from the dry dock and into the harbor, turned, then towed into a new spot, thus making room for the next boat’s turn. For every turn, however slight, the ice has to be cut by the tugs.
I remember the year one of the big boats slid through the bay in mid-winter, its several-stories-high bow going head to head with that ice–and finally coming to a grinding halt. Big as it was, the ice defeated it, and it took the tugs to release it, riding on, plunging down and pushing through that ice.
And therein was the source of our vibration, the rumbling that seemed to echo in our bones. The ice on our side of the bay, firmly attached to shore, was shuddering with frozen ripples that tremble more than roll, ripples that even reverberated through the land itself, right up to our doorstep, since we’re relatively close to the bay. Our world was groaning.
A groan needs acknowledgement. We grabbed our cameras and
headed for Bullhead Point, half a mile away, a launching pad for ice fishermen and a graveyard for sunken boats. From there, the thousand-foot Indiana Harbor loomed in front us, tugs in front, tugs in back, moving slowly, slowly, heaving its giant shoulders against the persistent ice sheet. Behind it, the Gott, another thousand-footer, was inching forward, seemingly impatient to switch places and get its turn in the dock, like a restive horse at the starting gate.
We shot the tugs, we shot the boats, we even shot the tiny plane that buzzed around like a steroid-laden mosquito, flying at eye level with the struggling boats. Another photographer, we assumed. Maybe someone doing a documentary. Maybe just another boat aficionado, getting good views because he could.
When we had our fill, we headed home. We’d paid homage to the groaning, which continued long after we were snug inside, downloading photos from our cameras. The pictures are here, no captions necessary. The saga of winter, and boats, and ice.