The Freighter, the Great Lakes and God

The Freighter, the Great Lakes and God

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Spring is usually a longed-for season of the year. It represents the verge of warmer days, though just gradually.   At the same time it hints at the diminishment of snowfall, if not instantly and completely, at least slowly and partially. And it teases inhabitants of northern climes with little green shoots struggling up through the ground. All in all, it is the epitome of promise.

Promises, of course, are not always kept. Or, at least, not always kept promptly or completely. And, when that happens, it is often accompanied by the qualifying phrase: “What I meant by that promise was…”   With reference back to the weather system again, what the weather man or woman must often do is qualify the promise of spring with the cautionary remark: “…this is not how it OUGHT to be…”

Now, in addition to mother nature’s signs of spring’s arrival, there are other indications to fall back upon, depending on the part of the country in which one lives. One might be the reduction in size of the rocksalt piled up throughout the city by the Streets and Sanitation department, signaling that much of the winter has passed, since the salt used to cope with the snowfalls on the streets has already been reduced in size, suggesting that it’s unlikely to be needed in any significant way in the coming days. Or, bundled-up fishermen and women head out to the waterways in their part of the country to catch great amounts of small smelt fish in their nets, one of the reliable signs that, regardless of the cold, spring is at hand.

In the Midwest, one such waterway is the Great Lakes system forming borders of several states. The lakes are good, not just for smelt fishing. They’re also good for transporting: raw materials like iron ore and limestone from places like Duluth Minnesota to reprocessing plants in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. They can be large ships, as big as ocean-going vessels. They are a key component in the chain of plants representing various stages of the manufacturing process so central to the economy of a nation such as the U.S.

And it is interesting to note that they are a key element in another aspect of this interlocking system of heavy industry: the movement phase of raw material, from one part of the country, to another. Key components in heavy industry have to be transported from one part of the country to another, and much of this occurs on the waterways provided by the Great Lakes. And it is these large freighters that move these raw materials from one part of the lake system to the smelting and refining process found at another part of the Lake.

It is this background that provides another way of noting the arrival of spring, at least for those living in and around the Great Lakes. It is based on the inter-lake transport carried on by these large freighters as they ply their way from one part of this waterway system to another. For during the winter season these ore carriers, big and powerful as they are, are unable to make their way through this water system because of the freezing temperature conditions that prevail in the upper reaches of the Great Lakes. This results in a formidable sheet of thick ice covering the surface of the entire lake (Superior), preventing its usefulness as a waterway. Not even ice-breakers can make their way through this daunting ice mass, in effect ending any commerce on the lake(s) for the three/four months of the winter season.

The inhabitants living around these waterways grow accustomed, during this period of time, to nothing but ice sheets covering the surface of the lake(s) as far as the eye can see. There’s not much to be done but to accept it with more or less resignation.

But as their calendars, hanging on the kitchen walls, signal the move through February and onto March (definitely, into April) the hardy folk walking the footpaths around the lake begin to cast an eye toward the horizon enfolding the lake to see what is worth noting at this time of the year, and, eventually, the eye will blink once or twice to refocus its gaze on what begins to take shape on the lake’s surface: the silhouette of a giant slow-moving freighter several miles out in the waterway, making its ponderous way south, toward the elaborate system of factories dotting the far end of the lake system, that have been dormant for several months, waiting for the first arrival of hopefully many such ships hauling cargo to their destination point.

Thereby, for this part of the country, the first signs of spring have emerged. It’s not the song of a bird, or the sight of one with a straw in its beak, nor a blade of grass peeping from the unforgiving ground, nor the shape of a pod on the tree limb above the pathway, nor a bulb struggling out of the ground. None of these are as significant a sign of spring for this part of the country as the slow-moving massive shape of a freighter bearing down on the dock ahead. The good news is out that the waterway is open, for freight-transport is underway. The factories can fire up, the work force can gear up, for another productive manufacturing season.

There’s no need for the nest-building robin, or the budding tree, or the peeping blade of grass to provide an incontrovertible sign of spring so long as the prow of a massive lake freighter majestically overcoming the formidable ice obstruction left behind it as it makes its way toward a familiar port and docking berth to provide the raw material for starting the manufacturing cycle once again. Overcoming the ice mass is as much a sign of God in action as other indications of spring’s arrival.

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