Environmental Science Field School, Part 6

The weather that delayed Niagara’s departure from Put-in-Bay was a mixed blessing. No one had been looking forward to an 0430 wake-up, but a late start meant a long day making up for lost time.

The morning was halfway gone before Niagara finally got underway, motoring for the Detroit River. Navigating the river felt nothing like sailing on the lakes: near-constant course changes kept the helmsmen busy, while the lookouts hurried back and forth along the ship, reporting everything from boats to bouys to driftwood. Motorboats circled curiously. Freighters dwarfed Niagara as they passed by.

The science students, meanwhile, were on the lookout for something very different. As Niagara motored along, a side-scan sonar towed behind the ship was gathering data that could be viewed from a computer on deck: anyone watching the computer screen could see the ridges and valleys on the bottom the river. Object on the bottom appeared on one side of the screen and then vanished on the other as the ship passed them by. In previous years, the field school scientists had found shipwrecks using the side-scan sonar. They hoped to rediscover at least one of those wrecks on this voyage.

Crowded around the computer. (Photo credit: ship’s camera.)

Off-duty crewmembers wandered by, hoping to be there when the shipwreck finally appeared on screen. “How much longer?” one of the trainees asked.

“Twenty minutes,” said her professor, who was bent over the computer, checking to ensure that the data was being saved correctly.

“You’ve been saying that for an hour now,” the trainee said.

The professor grinned. “Wait another twenty minutes and ask again, then.”

Far more than twenty minutes later, one of the trainees watching the screen announced: “There it is!” Everyone nearby crowded around to look, and the professors began pointing out the wreck’s significant features.

It was a bright spot in a long, busy day. The ship emerged from the Detroit River into Lake St. Clair, and then into the St. Clair River. Eventually, the captain announced that Niagara would be stopping at Algonac for the night.

“What’s in Algonac?” one of the trainees asked.

“Well, there’s an ice cream place,” one of the professional crew offered, to general delight.

That evening, as Niagara began docking, one of the trainees stationed on the hammock rail pointed to a bright sign on shore: the familiar Dairy Queen logo.  The crew’s excitement was somewhat dimmed by the plague of mosquitos that had descended on the ship, but it didn’t die entirely—not until the glowing sign abruptly went out. Dairy Queen had closed for the night.

By the time the ship was finally docked, the mosquitoes had become unbearable. The second that muster was over, most of the crew bolted down to the berth deck, turning off lights and closing hatches as they went. Fourth division, who had been assigned the first dock watch, lingered unhappily amidships.

“I’ve got this,” their mate said, taking pity on them.  “Go below.”

It was almost too good to be true. For a few seconds, no one moved, except to slap vainly at mosquitoes.

“I said, I’ve got this,” he repeated.  “Seriously. Go below.”

They didn’t need to hear it a third time. The berth deck that night smelled faintly like insect repellent, and there was only one sound to disturb the quiet—the sharp buzz of the electric bug zapper.


Up next: Alpena, thrift stores, and snorkeling.

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