OCTOBER 2008 – NO. 27
Growing up with a shipwreck
For as long as I can remember I have been haunted by shipwrecks. One of these boats is a prosaic wooden tug called the Metamora that was built in Cleveland in 1864 for service on the Great Lakes. It sank in 1907 about 200 feet from the slippery pink rock that half a century later would become my father's family island on the east shore of Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. The Wreck, as people in the area know it, sits in about six feet of water in the middle of a wide inlet strewn with treacherous shoals and glacier-rounded islands, smooth in places like a child's skin. On the islands, twisted white pine and dwarf cedar trees have found sustenance in the rocks. They lean and poke at awkward angles, frozen in movement.
The Metamora today is little more than a few rusting pieces of machinery that jut out of the waves, yet it has become an icon in the area — a channel marker and a marker of time. We're near The Wreck, we tell people when they ask for directions to our island, knowing they'll understand where we mean. The water certainly is low (or high) on The Wreck, we say to each other every summer, monitoring the spring thaw.
But even more, it has become a measure of our family lore. Remember when Dad dumped us in the dinghy near The Wreck? That friend of yours who wanted to go snorkeling there? Remember that summer when it was so windy you could barely see it rising out of the waves?
When I go swimming off the front dock, I rarely stay in for long because I imagine skeletal fingers tracing a line along the bottom of my foot. I think of the fish who swam near The Wreck and then brushed by me. I won't touch its rusty hull below the waterline and I give it a wide berth when I am forced to go by in a boat. On the rare occasions I am alone on the island I imagine I hear the silver whispers of drowning sailors calling for help.
The Metamora was a tug and coal carrier when she sank, but in her early days she had a more fearsome task. Fitted with armor-plating and a cannon, she was commissioned to patrol the waters of the Great Lakes for Fenian invaders. In the 1870s, the threat of an Irish invasion gone, her combat gear was removed and she was returned to freight and passenger service. By the day in late September 1907 when she steamed by our island in Shawanaga Inlet near the village of Pointe au Baril, the boat was a confirmed workhorse, plying the channel between Midland and Killarney, towing log booms and handling freight.
Coming up the bay beside Nadeau, one of the larger of the 30,000 islands that are scattered along this rugged shore, the Metamora was towing a boom destined for the mill town of Byng Inlet. Just west of Turning Island, a nearly treeless rock now outfitted with a solar-powered light, the boat hit a shoal, listed and caught fire. Like many wooden boats of her vintage, she quickly burned and sank, coming to rest on the submerged reef that rises and dips from a point off our island.
The crew reportedly made an easy swim of it to the nearby shore. Some of them must have sat on the smooth, undulating rock at our point – the place my family calls Pirate's Cove – breathing heavily, watching the flames gorge on the hull of their ship.
Only the stern section of the 115-foot boat survived the fire, and the rudder, steam engine and propeller remained largely intact. For many years afterward the charred wooden hull rose above the waterline, drawing scavengers and sightseers in wooden rowboats and skiffs. Today, it's only the boiler you can see, a green and black channel marker secured to the rusting metal, and when the water is especially low a set of wooden ribs, looking from a distance like a family of wood ducks floating in a row. Each summer the Coast Guard paints the boiler white, a warning to those who pass by. One year, someone attached three garden gnomes to the metal. They appeared to be marching single file out of the water. Their goofy grins and droopy hats made The Wreck seem benign, silly even, but if you go up close, peer through the undulating water, try to make sense of the garbled remains, it is menacing: a rusted, rotting tangle of metal and wood.
Excerpted from the book Into the Blue: Family Secrets and the Search of a Great Lakes Shipwreck by Andrea Curtis. Copyright © 2003 by Andrea Curtis. Used by permission of the author.
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