Night Watch

The pleasure I discovered in those hours surprised me. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff
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Reflections Night Watch

When I was a kid I wanted a life of adventure. What kid doesn’t? But I had the wrong idea about it. I thought you had to risk your life. I thought you had to travel to distant places and throw yourself into difficult situations. I didn’t know that ordinary moments can be adventures, too.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a moment that occurred one night when I was motoring in a boat through the Straits of Mackinac. It wasn’t exactly an ordinary experience for me — I was helping deliver the two-masted schooner Malabar from Lake Michigan to the Atlantic. There were many rowdy adventures ahead, yet 14 years later it’s the quiet moments I remember best.

We had just passed beneath the Mackinac Bridge and were approaching the low, dark bulk of Bois Blanc Island. Ahead was open Lake Huron — a blackness stretching to the horizon. The night was cold, the wind still and the Milky Way sprayed a river of stars across the sky.

I stood alone in the bow of the boat and hoped the night would never end.

Hours had gone by without much happening, but suddenly there came a moment of radiance.

I loved night watch on the Malabar. Usually only the captain, Hajo Nuttle, and I were on deck, and many nights we stood together at the helm and talked. But at some point we always separated, one of us at the helm and the other in the bow. The pleasure I discovered in those hours surprised me. Being on the water was part of it, but there were deeper satisfactions at play.

Maybe it was being in motion, the boat cutting resolutely through the night. And probably it had a lot to do with seeing new places, or old places in new ways. And of course it was exhilarating to be in the Straits, at that crossroads of geography and history. For years I had been studying all we have done to mistreat the Great Lakes and was growing disheartened. But that night the lakes seemed to have changed little over the centuries. It was possible to believe our stains would wash away.

A moment can swell to fill a bigger space. Hours had gone by without much happening, but suddenly there came a moment of radiance. The lake in every direction was glass-smooth and bright with stars, and when I turned to look toward the stern I was startled to see the long trail of the moon on the water stretching to the Mackinac Bridge. The bridge arched in a spray of lights across the Straits, and the gibbous moon was suspended above it.

I wanted the boat to stop.

I wanted time itself to stop.

I needed the entire night — my entire life — to think about that moment.

Already I knew it would stay with me as long as I lived.


BLUE Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books including the national bestseller “It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky” (DCA, Inc.; jerrydennis.net).

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