Frigid Passage

Holiday meals aboard a Great Lakes freighter help bolster the spirits of the crew in harsh winter conditions. // Photography by Chris Winters
A convoy of “lakers” wait for an icebreaker escort in the St. Mary's River.
A convoy of “lakers” wait for an icebreaker escort in the St. Marys River, between lakes Huron and Superior.

When the holidays arrive and winter begins to transform the Great Lakes into beautiful, frozen expanses, most of us are home by the fireplace enjoying the warmth and good tidings of family and friends. The Christmas tree is decorated or the menorah candles are lit, and turkey dinners and other traditional holiday fare are served up in abundance.

For merchant mariners on the Great Lakes, dedicated men and women who choose life aboard freighters — braving often frigid and harsh conditions — the holidays can be difficult. They, too, are made better by generous holiday feasts, traditional gifts from the captain and the camaraderie of shipmates. Their long days otherwise are defined by shifts: on watch, at station, time asleep, mealtime, what movies are showing and time in their cabins. They have cargos to deliver and deliver they must.

Cason J. Callaway, Arthur M. Anderson, Paul R. Tregurtha
Clockwise: The Cason J. Callaway loads a late season cargo of iron ore at Two Harbors, Minnesota; The 767-foot Arthur M. Anderson loads a “hot run” of iron ore pellets at Two Harbors. Above right: The current “Queen of the Lakes” Paul R. Tregurtha squeaks through the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

“Winter navigation is challenging. Crews get ‘crispy,’” Wisconsin marine photographer Christopher Winters explained. “They have been out from 30 to 90 days. People are missing their families, and once we get into the ice season, bridge and engine-room ice create a problem. People get worn out by it. They are already dealing with disrupted sleep patterns. There is a lot more worry and things to think about.”

Winters, author of “Centennial: Steaming Through the American Century,” a wonderful coffee-table study of Great Lakes freighter life, spent five seasons aboard the 551-foot S.S. St. Marys Challenger documenting life aboard the old, iron-ore steamer. It was built in 1906 and christened the William P. Snyder. The boat steamed from port to port for 107 years under six different names and celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2006, making it the oldest working steamboat in the world.

Callaway's ice-coated anchor and dockworkers
Clockwise: Callaway’s ice-coated anchor after a sub-zero transit of Lake Superior; Dockworkers, Lake Superior and Ishpheming gravity dock at Marquette, New Year’s Day.

“In the old days, it was physically demanding work,” Winters said. “Crews were gone from April to Thanksgiving without a break. So, one way the company attracted personnel was to pay them well and feed them very well. I wouldn’t call it fancy food, but many of the guys came from small towns. It was excellent quality and well prepared; the fresh bakery is legendary.

“It can be 500 to 600 feet from the front of the boat, where half the crew lives, to the back where the other half is quartered. You can have a cultural disconnect. The galley was the one place everyone got together.”

Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw
The Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw cuts a track through 30 inches of fast ice on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay.

Winters is a self-proclaimed freighter “geek.” He and his wife live in Milwaukee where he grew up. He recalls being captivated as a young boy by the tragic sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. It often was a topic of family conversation.

“My mother’s people are all from the Keweenaw Peninsula,” Winters said. “It was one of my earliest memories. I remember my uncles drinking Schlitz (beer) in the garage and arguing about what happened. The next summer, we visited an iron boat (freighter). I bought a book that day about the Edmund Fitzgerald and must have read it 8 million times. … I’ve been fascinated by maritime history in a strange, nerdy way since I was 9. This is the work I was born to do.”

Steward Roosevelt “Rosie” Robbins
Steward Roosevelt “Rosie” Robbins in the galley of the “superlaker” Edwin H. Gott.

A professional photographer for 20 years, Winters is the staff photographer for Discovery World Science and Technology Museum in Milwaukee. The museum owns the S/V Sullivan the “only example of a three-masted Great Lakes cargo schooner still afloat,” according to Winters, who arranged time off and permission from the shipping company to go aboard the freighter for weeks at a time.

Gaining the trust of captain and crew took time, he said. He was careful to dine with the crew in their mess and with the officers in theirs, opposed to taking meals in the guest quarters. Shipping is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business, and Winters was on deck at 2 a.m. shooting the crew spotting hatches or down in the engine room on throttle-watch. He spent one season following the freighter from port to port by car, dozing in darkness, waiting for it to arrive.

Deckhand Lyle Grivicich and Wheelsman Gary Elwell
Clockwise: Deckhand Lyle Grivicich brings a little holiday sparkle to the cargo boom of the Wilfred Sykes; Wheelsman Gary Elwell keeps the James L. Barker’s galley stocked with homegrown Upper Michigan-made maple syrup.

“When I am onboard, I am in my wheelhouse,” Winters quipped. “I’m being creative. It’s a delightful way to travel and wake up in a different place each day.”

Winters shot a half million frames for his book. The best 300 or so grace its pages. The St. Marys Challenger no longer sails as a Great Lakes steamer. Her hull was converted to a barge in the winter of 2013. Her pilothouse was donated to the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio, where it will be on display with other artifacts salvaged from the ship.

Second Cook “Galley Suzie” Dorman and Steward Sam Al-Samawi
Clockwise: Second Cook “Galley Suzie” Dorman keeps up with the holiday dishes aboard the Barker; Steward Sam Al-Samawi garnishes Christmas dinner aboard the St. Marys Challenger.

Here at BLUE, we are fortunate to be able to share Winters’ illuminating images with readers in time for the holidays. He is the co-author of two other books. His most recent is “Schooner Days, Wisconsin’s Flagship and the Rebirth of Discovery World.” Find his work at

Rebecca Hancock
Second Mate Rebecca Hancock calling distances on the deck of the Steward J. Cort, as the boat arrives for winter “layup” at Fincanteri Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, January 2013. Winter navigation on the Great Lakes during the 2013-14 season was the most difficult in 30 years.
Christmas festivities in the St. Mary's Challenger
Clockwise: The steamers Herbert C. Jackson and Philip R. Clarke hove to in the ice, waiting for daylight, and an ice-breaking tug escort, inbound for winter layup at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin; A traditional gift bouquet of cigarettes, cigars and gum, Christmas dinner, officer’s dining room, St. Marys Challenger, upbound on northern Lake Michigan, 2004; Off-duty crewmen dig into a five-star Christmas feast in the mess room of the Wilfred Sykes. Steward Chris Greene’s menu included snow crab, tenderloin and asparagus, Virginia ham, jumbo shrimp and the requisite fresh-baked pie of several irresistible varieties. The Sykes was downbound with iron ore from Escanaba, headed for the integrated steelworks at Indiana Harbor, Indiana, 2010; Christmas Day in the galley of the 107-year-old lake steamer St. Mary’s Challenger.
The Edward L. Ryerson locks downbound in the Poe lock.
The Edward L. Ryerson locks downbound in the Poe lock, last boat of the navigation season, January 16, 2007, Sault Ste. Marie.
Holiday provisions for the Philip R. Clarke.
Holiday provisions for the Philip R. Clarke, delivered by the supply boat Ojibway at Sault Ste. Marie.
Pilothouse perspective, steamer Arthur M. Anderson passing Detroit downbound with iron ore destined for Conneaut, Ohio, January 2015. The Anderson is remembered for being the vessel that followed the doomed Edmund Fitzgerald across Lake Superior the night the “Big Fitz” vanished with all hands on November 10, 1975.

Howard Meyerson is managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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