The first nation People of the Long House whom we call the Iroquois used to say winter was story telling time. Too much work needed to be done during summer. But long nights and cold days around the lodge fire were a good time for stories. Here's a winter story for the Log. It's a chapter from my newest book, “Twinkle Toes and the Riddle of the Lake”, to be published this spring. This is a tale told to Twink by an old salt named Chauncey while the cats and their yachts were kept in Oswego by a westerly gale. Reuban was Chancey's ancestor who sailed aboard a grain carrier in the 19th century. Stay tuned for more on this project, a story for the young and young at heart. Here's Chauncey (he's the fat one on the left) and Twink having a gam aboard Chancey's yacht and the story he told is below.
Chapter Five Reuban Outwits the Great Cat of Winter
Reuban could barely keep his eyes open. He had been staring at the rat hole behind the warm galley stove for nearly an hour hoping the sneaky thief would forget he was there and poke his sharp little nose out. He got up and stretched and looked at Mollie the cook who was hard at work scrubbing out a pot that the crew had just emptied of a rich beef stew. Surely there was one crumb of meat left in there. He mewed a polite inquiry.
Mollie paused in her work and looked down at him saying, “Oh, Reuban, I wish we weren't going on this run. It's late now to be trying the lake.” She set the pot down and stared off across the cabin before continuing, “But we have to make one more trip or we'll lose our boat to the bank.”
That wouldn't be so good he thought. November was no time to be cast away on a city street without a comfortable ship's cabin, a full food dish and a warm bed. A nearby voice up on deck called out “Weather's breaking. We'd better get this old wind wagon under way.”
With no hopes for a snack, Reuban turned his back on the food dish, strolled across the cabin, and leaped up the short stairway to the after deck outside. He settled down into a crouch next to the wheel box and watched Mollie's husband, Captain Ben, and the crew hustling about getting their schooner ready to sail. They had a long run ahead of them, nearly the whole length of the lake to get their load of wheat from Toronto to Oswego. Normally, their vessel would have been laid up by now, and Reuban would have been snug ashore with his captain and cook in their little house in Oswego. But there had been a huge harvest of wheat that fall, and the farmers were anxious to get it to market, so every ship that could was making extra runs and carrying cargo late this season. The farmers needed pay for their crops just as much as Captain Ben and Mollie needed the money from this last trip of the season to keep their schooner.
The cat shivered as a breath of bitter wind ruffled his thick fur and wrapped his tail tightly around his front feet to keep his toes warm. Already a skin of ice, clear as a pane of glass, had formed the night before on the harbor waters, and the Gazelle's deck was slick with frost. The Wind Witch's great white cat of winter crouched just over the northern horizon on this late November day. Time had about run out for this shipping season.
The small black and red tug came alongside, followed by a plume of dark coal smoke, to tow their two master out into the open lake. The crew passed over the heavy hawser, and soon the tinkle and crunch of thin harbor ice gave way to the steady rush of water flowing past the ship. Reuban looked up at the sky. Although the November sun gleamed low and pale through a layer of thin cloud on the horizon, he knew there was weather coming. The cat of winter was nearly ready to pounce.
Once clear of the wharfs, the tug cast them off and left them with a cheerful hoot of her whistle. She was going back to the safe harbor. But a hundred miles of winter lake lay before the Gazelle, was now under full sail, dipping and rising to the gentle swells that were shoving her down the lake towards Oswego.
By late afternoon the sun had dimmed and then disappeared behind a smear of charcoal colored cloud. The wind grew stronger and raised its voice in the rigging, moaning and growling. Occasional stronger gusts sounded the winter cat's angry yowl overhead. Back in the harbor before towing out, the crew had lashed a barrel of rock salt to each mast and Captain Ben told them “keep it flying.” The boys were throwing scoops of salt around now as the growing waves were beginning to board the ship, slapping and thumping against her sides and icing her decks. The coils of line that controlled the sails were hung high in the rigging, but they, too, were being covered by ice. The cat of winter was toying with the Gazelle, as Reuban would slap a small mouse about with his front paws.
Mollie stood wrapped in her heaviest wool cape beside Captain Ben by the wheel. She said, “It's freshening. We should get some sail off her before the gear ices up.”
The captain nodded agreement and cupped his hands to his mouth to shout orders to the four young men that made up the crew. Then he went forward to assist the boys, while Mollie took the wheel to steer. Reuban watched the spray that was now beginning to freeze into a solid coat on the tall masts and the rigging. He was worried about that build up. Ice was heavy. If enough of it built up on the ship's masts, it could roll her right over. And if it coated the ropes and pulleys and froze them solid, the crew wouldn't be able to lower sail. It would be impossible then to control the ship in the rising wind.
“Reuban, you'd better get below. There's weather coming,” said Mollie.
He looked aft. A cloud darker than the fur on a rat's back filled the sky to the northwest behind them. Wisps of pale gray smoke- like snow slanted down to the lake from it. As he watched, he heard a sudden boom of thunder oddly muffled by the snow. Reuban jumped up onto the big wooden box that held the ship's towing hawser and other ropes. The top wasn't too icy yet, so he could hold on. He'd stay on deck and stand watch with his crew.
The cloud raced down the lake and overtook the Gazelle before the crew had finished furling the mainsail. When the squall's strong wind slammed against the ship and seized them in its grip, Mollie at the wheel had all she could do to keep sailing before it. The wind grabbed the mainsail and tore it from the crews' hands. The stiff heavy canvas rose up and flogged and snapped in the wind, but Ben and two of the crew fell upon it and held it down before it could rip into shreds. The cat of winter had stopped playing with them. Now the Witch had taken over and she was all business. Snow swirled so thick around them that the boys up forward were lost from sight. They were working to get the last jib in, pulling on ropes and staggering about on the icy deck to tie down the thrashing heavy canvas. The wind driven snow burned and stung like fury against bare flesh. Reuban couldn't feel his nose or his ears any more, and he felt sorry for the humans who had no fur on their faces to keep them warm.
“We'll heave to and wait it out,” gasped Ben when at last he came aft still breathless from fighting the sail. In the thick driving snow that surrounded them they were blind as new born kits. Even Reuban couldn't see anything beyond the ship's rail. But Reuban could clearly hear the icy spray striking against the reefed foresail and the deck. There was nothing else to do. After adjusting the single stay sail forward and a bit of the mainsail aft so the ship could ride the waves more easily, Ben lashed down the wheel and everyone went below to escape the snow and bitter wind leaving the ship to look after herself.
No one slept much during the night as the Gazelle drifted slowly down the lake under reduced sail. The wind eased around midnight, and the waves dropped so the ice stopped building up on the ship. The horrible din in the rigging quieted, and at the first dim gray light of dawn in the east, the crew pounded the stiff frozen canvas free and raised sail again. It was now intensely cold, and clouds of mist rose from the steel gray water and swirled around them forming a freezing bone chilling fog. As they got underway, Reuban wondered and worried. Where were they? He heard Captain Ben speaking to Mollie about the danger of missing Oswego. The deadly wave washed shore of Mexico Bay at the end of the lake lay beyond it. If their schooner blew down into that bay she would have little room to battle her way out against the wind and waves. It was shallow down there, too. When the waves felt the bottom, they grew higher and steeper. Such seas would strike and smash with vicious fury against a ship driving it down onto the shore. No sailing vessel once trapped there in a winter storm had ever escaped from Mexico Bay. Dozens of good ships and crews had died on its ice bound shores at the end of the lake. Reuban did not want to be added to the toll.
“I think we should steer south. I want to be sure we don't miss Oswego so we need to get closer to shore,” said Captain Ben as he peered into the gray mist that surrounded them. Once again Reuban took up his lookout post beside the captain. Every other member of the crew did the same, listening and straining to see through the fog. Though they must sail close to land to hear the fog signal at the harbor, if they worked in too far, underwater rocks and shoals waited ready to rip into their hull and tear the life out of their ship.
It began to snow again. Now big soft feathery flakes came down as thick as white fog. With less wind, the lake was calmer, but big swells still pushed them along. And again they were blinded. This was even worse than the freezing fog. Beyond the Gazelle's outward pointing bowsprit, a wall of swirling snow wrapped around them like a cold white blanket. It blocked sound, too, so the lookouts couldn't hear Oswego harbor's warning fog horn or the noise of the city somewhere ahead of them. Guided only by her compass, the schooner sailed on. Somewhere ahead lay unseen a shore. Had they already sailed past Oswego?
Reuban's keen ears heard it first. A deep growl, filled with menace and threat. Despite the icy footing Reuban leaped up onto the deck box glaring into the white void before him. Now muffled heavy crashes interrupted the steady growl. Reuban growled back. He raised his own voice in a warning wail challenging the voice of winter's cat.
“What is it Reuban?” asked Captain Ben who was standing beside the man at the wheel. Reuban yowled “Danger. Danger ahead!”
Captain Ben shouted to the lookout forward “Get the lead line out. Take a sounding. Hurry.”
Moments later the crewman called back, “Four fathoms”.
“Standby to wear ship-there's no time to bring her about!”
The crew hurried to their positions to shift the sails and heavy booms as Captain Ben at the wheel spun it quickly to turn the ship away from the land. Still, the waves pushed them onward towards the invisible land, and to Reuban it seemed as if the Gazelle would never turn. Now even the humans could hear the surf pounding the shore. They must shift the sails quickly, yet if they acted too fast, the wind might catch a sail and rip it as it slammed over. Without her sails, the Gazelle would be helpless. The hungry surf and the rocky shore waited. The lake was all too ready to wash over her, pound her to pieces, and devour her.
“Now Tommy-jibe ho! Nate, take up on that tackle!”shouted Captain Ben. With a rattle and a thud the heavy mainsail suddenly slammed across the deck as the wind caught it. The ship swung around and began working away from land, pushing steadily against the waves that tried to press her down against the shore and crush her against the rocks. Watching the schooner fight her way through the water, splitting and shouldering aside the waves with her strong bow, Captain Ben nodded approval and said, “Good job Reuban. We'll sail out to ten fathoms and then run along shore and keep the lead going. That'll keep us close enough in to hear Oswego.”
If we didn't already miss it thought Reuban to himself. An hour later the snow stopped. As the curtain of white lifted, the crew saw the dark land along with the buildings and coal smoke of Oswego's factories. The crew also heard a tug's steam whistle sounding to guide them in, and they saw Oswego's stone lighthouse tower with its flashing beacon. Guided by her captain's sure hand on the helm, the Gazelle slipped safely into the harbor where a little tug waited to take her hawser and tow her to the elevator where she could unload her wheat.
Chauncey concluded his story; “That was the last trip they made that year. A week later the harbor was frozen solid. But now they had money to pay the bank and keep their boat.” Chauncey paused to look out over the quiet sun lit harbor. Then he added, “A lot has changed since the old schooner days. Now we have engines, and radar, and satellite navigators to help us get into harbors. We don't sail in November either like they did. But nature still calls the shots out there. Even in the summer boats get into trouble and people die. You must never let your guard down while sailing on the lake. And never trust the water.”
Twink thought of yesterday's squall and of how Dusty had nearly drowned in Sodus Bay. She nodded. For sure Chauncey had that right. The lake could be treacherous.
Chauncey continued, “A mariner can cope with some pretty heavy stuff if he's prepared and skilled. And if his crew all works together and watches out for each other. You need to learn and then practice your skills all the time, and keep a good watch, too, while you're sailing. It's not always easy, but you have to do it if you want to sail the lake and come back.”
Twink looked around the marina with its rows of boats sitting at rest in the strong afternoon sun. It all seemed so safe and orderly in the harbor. Yet even here dangers lurked. Dogs lunged, cars rushed by, and always the water waited. Tomorrow they would cross the lake. Anything could happen out there. She wouldn't let her guard down. The Witch of the Waves wasn't going to catch Twink unaware.