Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Over and Under Bridges

The GW

For a time while I was truckdriving, I delivered office furniture; not like a mover but new stuff by the truckload. West Michigan has a history of building furniture and a lot of office furniture is still produced there. New York City is the office capital of the world, home to many furniture buyers, and always an adventure in a semi. Many drivers were reluctant to take those Big Apple furniture loads, so the company paid a $250 incentive bonus just for crossing the George Washington Bridge. I made several trips into the city. It’s funny how that $250 sounded like a good deal all the way across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but as soon as I was near that bridge, it wasn’t such a good deal at all. Long Island loads were the best because I got the bonus for crossing the bridge even though I passed over Yonkers and escaped to the wider spaces beyond. 

I don’t know why anyone would want to drive a car in New York City, let alone a big truck. And yet, I’ve been into Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Staten Island, and even to Manhattan many times driving a semi pulling a fifty three foot trailer. It was never boring. I’ve been in wall-to-wall traffic on Broadway and witnessed a fire truck slowly wrestling it’s way through, sirens blaring. Somewhat bemused at first, I watched the mayhem as people tried to move their cars enough to make a little room. After a few minutes, however, it occurred to me that there was a fire somewhere! As you might imagine, when I was able to sail under the George Washington Bridge and observe the incessant buzz and chaos of the Big Apple from the water -- that was a special day for me.

Bridge on Lost Lake Trail

I’ve always had an affection for bridges. I’m not sure when it started but it likely got a boost as a kid camping with my grandparents at Ludington State Park in Michigan. In the park, the Lost Lake Trail ran from the campground over several tiny islands on the western shore of Lake Hamlin. I haven’t been back to the park in many years, but back in the day the trail was very special. It had been built by the Conservation Corps during the Depression. Wooden walkways hovered over the marsh areas and gloriously quirky bridges of log and plank jumped between islands. We often got roused early for a morning hike with Granddad; each kid equipped with their own Dixie Cup. Toward the far end of the trail was a large patch of wild blueberries. We all came back with a cup full of blueberries, smiling through berry-stained teeth while trudging over quaint little bridges. Grandma was waiting at the campsite to make a spectacular batch of wild blueberry pancakes. 

I don’t remember the first time I saw the Mackinac Bridge but every kid from Michigan feels they own a part of it. I’ve lived and/or worked near many iconic bridges: the Ambassador in Detroit, and the Sunshine Skyway, the Gandy, the Howard Frankland, and the Courtney Campbell Causeway all in Tampa Bay. And, of course, the George Washington, Throgs Neck, the Whitestone, Verrazzano Narrows, and the Goethals; most of the NYC bridges that allow trucks. 

Foggy Ohio River

More recently, I’ve had a love affair with the bridge that crosses the Ohio River at Ravenswood, West Virginia. The William S. Ritchie Jr. Bridge is a beautiful example of a cantilever bridge; recently painted, shiny, and proud. During my truckdriving years, any load going from Michigan to Richmond, Charlotte, Charleston, or even Savannah, took me across the Ohio River at Ravenswood. I often stopped to take a picture. My favorite pic, though my eyes are closed, might be from when I stopped there with Dad. We were on the way to check on my boat after a hurricane. I had been fretting in Michigan while Dorian had gotten a little close to Wilmington.  

Dad and me at Ravenswood

As I finish my boatwork and get ready to set sail, I’ve been practically living under another bridge. The L. Bobby Brown Bridge carries I-140 over the Cape Fear River. The bridge also looms over the dock at the boatyard where Ruth Ann currently abides. The boatyard is fairly remote and the modern concrete span of this bridge bursts out of the piney riverbanks like some alien structure. It makes for an interesting contrast when the sky is awash with sunset colors. 

The Wilmington area rivers are somewhat counterintuitive. The Cape Fear River comes up to Wilmington from the Atlantic; right into downtown. The river seems to continue on past the city to the Northeast. There is also a smaller river that comes in from the west right across from the downtown Riverwalk. When I brought Ruth Ann to the boatyard, I came up the river into Wilmington. Downtown was on my right and the Battleship North Carolina on the left, when I turned up that smaller river to get to Navassa. I don’t know the history or the reason, but the smaller river is actually the continuation of the Cape Fear River. It wanders to the northwest through the wilderness, up through Fayetteville, and on to Jordan Lake just south of Chapel Hill. The larger river that seems contiguous with the flow out to sea is called the Northeast Cape Fear River once it passes Wilmington. The Northeast Cape Fear does a good amount of wandering too, but peters out somewhere northwest of Buelaville, NC; not near as far north as the Cape Fear gets. 

The L Bobby Brown

When I am headed to work lately, I get on I-140 at Cedar HIll Road and cross the Cape Fear right away. Then I cross the Northeast Cape Fear before I get to my exit into to the city for work. It is a glorious way to start my workdays. The sun is just coming up and painting the sky in pinks and oranges every single day. The Cape Fear River snakes through the cordgrass marshes toward Wilmington, glowing like liquid topaz as the morning light fills in. Then crossing the Northeast Cape Fear, the limbless, naked, swamp-dead cedars stand in uneven rows on the far bank. In the morning stillness, the trees are perfectly reflected in the flat calm river like an old comb; not quite evenly spaced, not all perfectly vertical. It’s frustrating that I can’t take a picture for you, but over the rivers and the marshlands, the highway is basically a continuous bridge for the first five or six miles. There is too much morning traffic and not enough shoulder to pause for a quick snap. Trust me though, it’s better than coffee to get your day on track. 

CSX Bascule Bridge, Navassa

Ruth Ann and I will be back on the water in Late September or Early October. We will launch just south of that bridge and head away further south. We won’t go under, but I will salute the bridge that I’ve been enjoying for a couple years now. Around the bend, downriver from the boatyard is an ancient bascule bridge operated with sauntering southern grandeur by the CSX Railroad. Coming up the river in July 2019, I circled below the bridge for quite awhile waiting for the bridgetender to actually open it. He has to walk across the bridge to close a safety gate before raising the span. You would think he had nothing on his mind but the stroll as he ambled across, shut the gate, and ambled back. He disappeared into the bridgehouse and it was several minutes before the bridge creaked and groaned. The counterweights finally quivered and began to move. I thanked him anyway as I knew I would be back the other way sometime.

Next month after reaching Wilmington, I’ll go back under the Memorial Bridge downtown and head down the river. It’s then we’ll actually be on our way. I’m either going to head straight out into the Atlantic and then up toward the Chesapeake or, more likely, I’ll sneak through Snow’s Cut ‘north’ on the ICW to Wrightsville Beach and spend a few days sailing and adjusting the rig and sails before sailing on.

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