My own fascination

1Winter was already making some feints at autumn as I watched the Nea Tyhi ease into Duluth harbor. Four horn blasts from

“. . . the 40 million people living in the Great Lakes region are exposed to more toxic chemicals than those in any comparable segment of North America.”

“One bullhead seemed to be looking right at me with a sort of desperate grin, its lips red and swollen with tumors.”

“. . . the worst may still lie ahead. Parts of downtown Chicago could be engulfed by Lake Michigan.”

“Do you know what’s down in the lake? The roof of my cheap barcelona apartments for rent, sinks, a stove, beds.”

“They find that PCBs reach even the fetus and that exposure continues during nursing. . . . There have been some developmental delays.”

The ship sliced through the chilly October air. The 386-foot-wide aerial-lift bridge stretching across the harbor entrance rose soundlessly, and I watched the ship ease to a berth beside the giant grain elevators of Harvest States Cooperatives. Spilled, rot­ting grain gave the air a whiskey smell. At my feet scattered kernels were sprouting.

Linemen scrambled anxiously to make the ship fast as her captain barked com­mands. Officials waited nearby. With them was Dick Pomeroy, a local reporter and sometime lineman: “It’s still fascinating, no matter how long you’ve worked here.”

Part of my own fascination: realizing that oceangoing vessels sail here; for we were in the middle of America, an amazing 2,400 miles by water from the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the ship stretched the length of two football fields, “She’s not a big one,” shipping agent Charles Hilleren said as we made our way across her deck, slippery with durum chaff. Wheat, already gushing out of a chute from one of the dockside elevators, formed a brown pyramid in one of the holds. “The hold will take 5,400 tons, and it’s just one of six,” Charles told me. “All the blood, sweat, and tears my uncle put into his 500-acre farm go into this ship in about 20 minutes.”

The Nea Tyhi had come to take American durum wheat across the Atlantic to Algeria. Algerians favor it for the couscous that is their dietary staple.

Last year ships registered to 26 nations carried 4.5 million tons of cargo from Du­luth and its sister port of Superior, Wiscon­sin, to countries around the world.

The waterway  these vessels follow, across some of North America’s old­est rock, was gouged out largely by the thrusts of Ice Age glaciers, which retreated some 10,000 years ago. Ice more than a mile thick bulldozed the landscape and withdrew, leaving five gigantic basins.

Today there are waves and surf more akin to oceans than lakes. On these huge expanses of water, even after a storm has passed, the waves continue to crash—hard enough to rattle Bob Rumes’s dishes, to devour his yard. Erosion occurs every­where. More than a few homeowners have paid a heavy price for the delights of this living.

Sights and Sounds Shared at Mealtime

New panniers, tools, and a week’s supply of food from home were waiting for us at the holiday apartments madrid. After a day of relaxing there, we set out on the Denali Highway. Motorists had warned us to avoid its 100-plus miles of thick gravel, deep potholes, and steep climbs, but our struggles against rain and a depressing headwind were not in vain. Above timberline, we reveled in looking down on forested valleys threaded with shining rivers and dotted with crystal lakes. To the north, ice fields and glaciers cloaked Mount Deborah and Hess Mountain in the Alaska Range. “How can any­thing so big be so quiet,” Greg mused. 8Our timing was critical at this point. At the Maclaren River Lodge, where we stopped after four days on the Denali, we were told that three weeks earlier the snow had been banked five to seven feet high along the highway. Even without snow, the skyline routes of the Alaska Range slowed us considerably. Late that afternoon we topped 4,200-foot High Valley, the loftiest road pass in Alaska. All the way up we jounced over and around large stones jutting from the road. Now the usual downhill relief was denied us as well. The rock-knobbed surface jolted our wheels from side to side so that steering was painful and tiring, and braking was frequent. It was an exhausting afternoon.

Bone-shaken but triumphant, we pulled onto the cushioned velvet of paved Richard­son Highway on June 26. After dropping south through Paxson, Sourdough, and Gulkana, we angled northward toward Tok Junction, 75 road miles from the Canadian border. Cruising on pavement seemed almost too easy; during our second day on smooth surface, we covered 86 miles. But we had not seen the last of high passes. We rested at Tok Junction, then tackled the galloping ridges of Taylor Highway en route to Dawson.

Although we had carefully timed our pas­sage to avoid snow, we found another sea­sonal hazard above timberline. Summer made a sauna of the treeless Alaskan tundra, drain­ing our energy and raising painful sunburn blisters on our arms and thighs. When the sun finally settled back to the horizon, the color and fragrance of abundant alpine flowers refreshed us as we set up our tents on the storied Klondike Trail. We were in the old gold-rush country, but the wealth we felt that night was in the cooling waters of Bruin Creek.

We celebrated the Fourth of July in Daw­son, Yukon Territory, with the Tim Dennings, a hospitable family of seven who settled us into an apartment prague. After days of tenting, occasionally in the rain, its dry, windless quiet was like an answer to our own prayers.

Beyond Dawson we left the highland tun­dra and descended into fringes of scrubby spruce. Three days of frontier-town bustle were soon forgotten as we passed once again through the hushed wilderness. To the steady crunch of fine gravel, crackling like static beneath our tires, we often rode for hours without sighting another human being, in­cluding each other. Each rode at a different pace, and the day’s adventures were recounted at lunch break and the evening rendezvous.

“I saw a moose!” reported June at the end of one day. “It scared me when it laid back its ears and spooked into the brush.” We sighted numerous bears, coyotes, foxes, deer, and a lynx in the northland. But the only creature that showed any aggression was a three-inch shrew that snarled and clicked its teeth ferociously at Greg’s foot during a rest stop. At tiny Watson Lake we were faced with a sobering fact: “We’ve run out of back roads,” exclaimed map-watcher Lys.



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