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Essay: A boat rower's slumber

The swells of Lake Superior and the quiet of its northern shore draw the writer to thoughts of sleep.

By Dave McDermott / May 26, 2009

At rest: A dingy floats tied to a dock in Port Phillip, Australia.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

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When I can't sleep, I imagine being in places so snug that sleep becomes overwhelmingly inviting. My favorite of these places, the best for inducing sleep quickly, is under a rowboat on the northern shore of Lake Superior.

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The bays along the shore have small beaches covered with fine, rounded gravel. Cliffs of black basalt and dark red rhyolite rise vertically from the shore, creating cozy rooms enclosed on three sides by rock walls and by the lake on the fourth. Waves hiss up the gravel, then rattle the loose rocks as they retreat. I have napped on those gravel beaches in the warmth of a summer's afternoon sun, tired from just a mile or two of canoeing. The smooth stones shift to fill the hollows under weary limbs, and support a tired paddler better than a mattress.

In the last few years of the 19th century, the US Mail was delivered to the communities on the north shore of Lake Superior by a letter carrier in a rowboat. In the depth of winter, mail came by dogsled up a trail through the woods, and in midsummer a schooner delivered to the isolated coastal towns. Between seasons, as snow melted from the dogsled route but drifting ice floes kept the sailboat in port, a rowboat was the best way to navigate the 90 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais.

The letter carrier was a near-mythic Ojibwe with the English name John Beargrease. He worked for the immigrant family that held the mail delivery contract, then won the contract in his own right. He traveled a lake that routinely sank large ships, and so dominated the dogsled delivery business that the modern Minnesota version of Alaska's Iditarod race is named in Beargrease's honor.

While braving a wilderness trail in the middle of winter is certainly a valiant act, navigating Lake Superior by small boat is much more daunting. The lake is cold and startlingly clear. In a small boat, you feel as though you are suspended over the rocky bottom dozens of dizzying feet below, as the boat rises and falls on the long swells of the big lake. A day of rowing over those swells, punctuated by a couple of visits to the tiny fishing or lumbering communities along the shore would make anyone ready for a good night's sleep.

In my imagination, I drag my mailman's rowboat up the beach and flip it over, bracing one gunwale on a rock to create a lean-to, and spread two blankets under the hull for the night. I can feel the pleasant fatigue in my back and the soreness in my hands from pulling at the oars since early morning. The wind never blows too hard in my imagination, and my stroke is strong and steady, so the boat slices through the water the way that only a long wooden rowboat can.

Then when the sun goes down, the evening gets cold, so I make a driftwood fire and feel its heat reflected off the rock walls and under my inverted boat. I lie on top of one heavy wool blanket and pull the other one over me. The rough wool is warmer than any nylon-and-goose-down sleeping bag. Sometimes it rains in the night, and I'm lulled to sleep by the sound of cold drops striking the cedar planks of the hull.

The shore of Lake Superior is filling up with large homes and towering condominiums. If, today, I made the camp I imagine, it would be lit by security lights from neighboring houses and disturbed by the roar of trucks along the highway that follows John Beargrease's old dogsled route. My driftwood fire would attract attention and probably a midnight eviction by the county sheriff. So to take myself off to sleep, I turn the calendar back to 1895 and let a century of time and the lapping waves of the big lake wash away the anxieties of a 21st-century night.

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