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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Is the new GORUCK Star Course non-stop 50-mile, 20-hour military style endurance event the new holy grail of endurance activities? Has the Ironman Triathlon, with its Emmy Award winning, reality show hype and boom growth in the early 2000’s, trended?

Both events were founded in military tradition. Both were started on a dare. One event is trending upward as participation grows, another is waning downward as participation and event integrity declines. The evolution of the two events acknowledges the normal life cycle of a brand and the typical behavior of trends in American fitness and leisure activities. One is growing, one is dying.

The Ironman Triathlon has struggled with course modifications from bad weather, traffic control concerns on the bike courses, an inability to enforce competitive rules resulting in rampant bike course cheating, escalating entry fees and costs associated with doing the three-sport event. It has also been hit by growing concern over bicycle/car accidents in training as dangers like distracted driving become more prevalent.

The GORUCK event brand, that produces over 500 annual endurance events of various distances around the U.S. has benefitted from much lower entry fees, lower financial barriers to entry, safer training and participation, fewer requirements for expensive equipment, simpler preparation and finally, that one litmus test that grants any event true credibility: Toughness.

The start of the first-ever GORUCK Star Challenge earlier this year in Washington D.C.

While Ironman has become a caricature of its original self with nearly every participant finishing, GORUCK Star Course boasts a brutal 40-50% dropout rate. Most people who enter Ironman can finish within the cutoff time. About half the field at GORUCK Star Course don’t make it, hobbled by foot problems, navigation errors, undertraining or an overall lack of the toughness it takes to survive 20 hours on your feet, in the dark, in bad weather with a heavy load on your back.

GORUCK Star Course is also a team event. Teams consist of 2-5 people. For many competitors, the social aspect of having a small team adds additional value to the experience and makes training, travel to events and participation more attractive. While the Ironman triathlon has a reputation for ruining relationships with its solo training and financial demands, GORUCK Star Course actually reinforces core relationship values.

For companies looking for team building, wives and husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters looking for a bonding experience, GORUCK Star Course brings small numbers of people onto a cooperative team competing against the rigors of distance and time more than the other teams.

This evolution in event status also signals something else in U.S. popular culture, the ascension and erosion of “street cred” in participant sports and the social status of iconic, discretionary accomplishments. The Ironman “M-Dot” used to carry significant clout and status, but as the number of Ironman finishers exploded in the early 2000’s, the exclusivity and status of Ironman was diluted over increasing numbers of finishers. Ironman was no longer perceived as being quite as “extreme” as it was prior to large numbers of people finishing the event.

One big difference between GORUCK Star Course and the Ironman Triathlon is media. Ironman rose to prominence on the back of network television coverage prior to the explosion in internet and social media. People entered Ironman after seeing it on TV. People will enter GORUCK Star Challenge as word spreads on user-contributed social media. It’s unlikely GORUCK Star Challenge will ever be the subject of a network television broadcast or spin off a version of itself as an Olympic sport. But ultimately, it will be the participants that spread the virus of the GORUCK Star Challenge as more events take place and the participation germ spreads on the winds of social media. How fast the epidemic spreads remains to be seen.


 

Author Tom Demerly training for the upcoming GORUCK Star Challenge 50-Miler in Cincinatti, Ohio. Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

There’s no politically correct way to express this, but, yeah… ahhh. I feel a little out of place.

I’m a 56-year old conspicuously Caucasian guy in the crowd-packed center of the massive Mexicantown Cinco de Mayo street celebration late on a hot May afternoon in Detroit.

There’s heavy ganja haze in the air. It’s thick enough for a contact buzz. I’m carrying a huge U.S. flag in my hand, and feeling like I’m not particularly understood or appreciated here. Other than the double file line of about 50 quasi-military, tacticool, mostly white guys and girls with a distinctly law-enforcement look that are behind me, I feel pretty isolated. And pretty conspicuous with my flag and backpack as we navigate the tightly packed downtown party crowd of tens of thousands. There is almost no room on sidewalks, the streets are bumper to bumper and packed with crowds. And smoke.

We’re doing GORUCK Light Detroit 2018.

In the evolution of participation sports GORUCK events have emerged. With approximately 500 events scheduled in 2018, GORUCK challenges are huge now. Today I’m in my first one. I’m wondering if it’s coming slightly off the rails.

GORUCK Light is a team endurance event that includes military style calisthenics, running and a lot of walking or “rucking” between 8 and 12 miles in group formation while you wear a weighted backpack. Think basic military training, then add your new constant companion, a 10- 40-pound weighted backpack that makes everything that would have been easy for a reasonably fit person, a good bit tougher.

GORUCK events are inspired by contingency training for military special operations units.

Jason McCarthy, a fit, chiseled, dark- haired guy with that bolt upright posture that screams former military, founded the GORUCK brand in 2008. There are a lot of remarkable things about GORUCK, but the single most remarkable thing is its growth. In only ten years GORUCK has become huge.

McCarthy founded GORUCK while still in U.S. Army Special Forces and deployed in the Middle East during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). He made an emergency survival and evacuation “Go Bag” backpack for his wife who served in the Foreign Service. If there was a coup d’état, an IED attack, or any other threat in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Jason’s wife Emily could grab her “Go-Ruck” and evacuate with the essentials of food, water, additional clothing and rudimentary survival gear.

GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy (center), a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces.

Without knowing it, McCarthy had conglomerated an idea that had been around for a long time into a saleable brand, then began to parlay that brand into an image, an event and even a lifestyle.

GORUCK could have become just another military backpack brand, and in the wake of the 9/11, there are a lot of them. But Jason McCarthy also built something else along with his simple, sturdy, square, tech-free backpacks. He built a vibe.

The GORUCK vibe is a learned responsibility. It’s isn’t politically yawed, it’s not a “movement”. It’s an insight and acceptance of the real world in accelerated change. A change that in the post-9/11, Arab Spring and polarized U.S. political world can just as easily come off the rails as it can evolve into a new unified world. Either way it goes, the GORUCK ethos is adaptable. And capable.

Most participant endurance sports are compensation. Compensation for a sterile life lived too easily, too slowly, too conveniently. Our culture has become overweight and underprepared. If most Americans got a flat tire in a rural setting and had to walk six miles in hot weather to find a tow truck they would be in deep trouble, especially if their smart phone battery died. GORUCK Light acknowledges that. So, you train for the “real world” and gain some functional fitness and endurance while meeting friends and re-connecting with how to cooperate on a team. GORUCK events are no different in terms of compensating. They offer a “synthetic” or contrived set of discretionary challenges. But much of what you learn and practice at GORUCK is practical, and it may come in handy if you are ever have to walk your way to safety, or even make a connecting flight across the airport after the shuttle has left.

GORUCK Light Detroit on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in Hart Plaza.

In December, 2016 CNN reported that, “Karen Klein, 46, was headed to the Grand Canyon National Park with her husband Eric and their 10-year-old son. State Road 67, which leads to the canyon’s north rim, is closed for the winter and their car’s GPS detoured them through forest service roads.” Klein was stranded in her car and forced to endure a brutal, freezing 26-mile solo hike for 30 hours. CNN reported she, “Subsisted on twigs and drinking her own urine, to get help.”

In December, 2006 Daryl Blake Jane was stranded in snow in his Jeep Cherokee on a remote U.S. Forest Service road west of Mount Adams, Washington. He was forced to survive in his vehicle, in the depth of winter, for nearly two weeks.

In between these instances there have been many more when people had to rely on basic fitness and skills to survive. This isn’t the fringe “prepper” or “survivalist” mindset. This is basic responsibility for your own life and the people around you. GORUCK teaches and tests that responsibility.

Different from the vibe of Ironman triathlons with their finisher photos and individual stories, GORUCK is about the group. It’s about cooperation, teamwork, unity and acceptance. It is about admitting your shortcomings and about doing more than your share while not expecting an extra pat on the back. It’s about carrying someone else’s ruck when the going gets tough, and having them carry yours. Everyone has a bad moment in GORUCK. There are no solo finisher photos in front a branded banner, no medal around your neck. You get a Velcro patch for making it as a team for the hook and loop section of your GORUCK. Every tribe has its icons.

GORUCK events include a community service component where participants have to plan and execute a project that benefits the community. Every participant is required to play a role in the community service project. Our event participants collected food and clothing for homeless people in Detroit and raised cash donations for shelters.

GORUCK events vary in intensity from the GORUCK Light, the easiest and shortest introductory event, to the difficult long distance, non-stop GORUCK events like GORUCK Tough and GORUCK Heavy. GORUCK also provides practical skill training events.

The GORUCK events mesh well with the Crossfit, veteran, law enforcement, emergency services crowd but don’t have an exclusive mindset. This is about teamwork, integration, doing more than your share and accepting help when you inevitably have a weak moment. And everyone has a weak moment sooner or later. But the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that is one of the lessons of GORUCK. Two is one, one is none, and synergy gets everyone to the finish as a group. In GORUCK, you are never more than an arm’s length from a teammate. Stray too far, and you are doing another combination of push-ups, bear crawls or eight-count body builders. You don’t even go the bathroom in a GORUCK event by yourself.

We’re through Mexicantown now in full Cinco de Mayo swing. Now we’re making our way at a fast trot along Vernor Highway, underneath the iconic Detroit ruins of the Michigan Central Train Depot. We hump our packs up from underneath the train tracks and through Roosevelt Park where we pose for a group photo. From there it is double-time east on Michigan Ave. as we enter the final miles of the event at a fast clip.

Our team carries a simulated casualty on an improvised litter in the final miles of the event.

But one man goes down from heat, dehydration and the workload of moving fast with a heavy pack. Our “cadre”, the instructor/administrators of a GORUCK event, show us how to rig an expedient casualty litter from an eight-foot section of 1” tubular nylon climbing webbing. In only minutes, we have the “casualty’s” ruck off, I wear it on my chest with my ruck on my back, and we continue east at combat speed on Michigan Ave. You never know the distance or course in GORUCK. We may have another three miles to go, or another five. We may have to climb four parking structures, or one. We may have to cross open waterways (the GORUCK Light event earlier in the day in Detroit was in the Detroit River four times). Not knowing the course or distance is a component of the event.

Finally, we reach Washington Blvd. and take a right, still moving fast, still carrying our “casualty”, a roughly 230-pound lad who is finding out that riding in a field-expedient improvised litter isn’t much more comfortable than humping a 40-pound ruck. Everyone is out of water. There are no aid stations in GORUCK. No support. No mile markers. No course map before the event. Like selection for the most elite special forces units you never know when the instructors will stop the “class”, circle you around, and declare “ENDEX” or “end of exercise”.

The GORUCK baby elephant walk.

One of our scouts veers off into a parking structure two blocks from the Detroit River. It’s dark now and I wasn’t looking forward to figuring out how to move our “casualty”, our rucks and ourselves through the dark water of the Detroit River as the air cools way off. So, I’m glad when our team hits the stairs and begins to run up eight flights to the roof of the parking garage. I’m glad until I realize I am at the front of the group running up flights of stairs wearing two 35 pound rucks. By the fifth floor I am destroyed. Three to go.

At the top of the parking garage our instructors “Wild Will” and “DS”, one a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controller, the other a former U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations member, both with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, circle us around. What now? When does this thing end?

Wild Will unzips one of the team weights we have been carrying over the last 8 or nine miles, a massive and awkward cordura duffel, and produces a can of Dos Equis. We’ve learned a lot today at GORUCK Light Detroit, and perhaps the best lesson is that, whether it is in a big party crowd in Mexicantown on Cinco de Mayo or carrying your new buddy in an improvised litter down Michigan Ave in Detroit, GORUCK Light brings people together. Then we hear those magic words:

“ENDEX! You made it.”

GORUCK Light Detroit 2018 ENDEX, “End of Exercise.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Aqua Cat’s engines purr a low hum as she glides on blue-glass crystal seas casting a dark shadow on the white powder sugar sea floor. A squadron of flying fish flutter their skimming escort across low wave tops at our bow. The golden sun simmers the water in comforting warmth. Besides the gentle chortle of our engines at low throttle, there is a blissful, structural silence here in the eastern Caribbean.

We have left the earth as we know it, transcending turmoil and scarcity and fear. We skim across open ocean to a new world, a world so fantastic and exotic and improbable it can only be described with fictional analogies. Nothing on this earth is- in fact- this remarkable.

Fiction is full of this: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Star Wars. These made-up tales of unlikely journeys to unreal places with fantastic creatures. But this journey is real, and our gravity-enslaved earth is only separated by the thin surface tension of the sea to a place where we float and fly and glide like superheroes, where frightening beasts displace us down the food chain but become our companions, guides and guardians.

And amongst their opulent welcoming embrace, the sea and its beasts convey quiet worry.

We are tourists. I make no apology for that. We are aboard the dive ship “Aqua Cat”. She is a three-level, 102-foot live-aboard with a luxurious 35-foot wide beam. She draws only about 6 feet of water. As a broad, stable catamaran, she is fast, quiet and maneuverable. She transits rolling seas in comfort. Aqua Cat sails from Nassau, Bahamas east across an open Atlantic strait to the Exuma island chain. It’s about 100 miles of open ocean.

Three weeks ago, I knew little about the Exumas. Few people do, mostly only SCUBA divers, billionaires and cocaine traffickers. Lying as the first real landfall of substance along the latitude between the African Western Sahara and the Americas, the Exumas are the natural reef fence that separate the inner Caribbean with the vast ocean wilderness and abysmal plains of the deep Atlantic. Beyond the Exumas, there lies only the bottomless wild sea.

For the 32 divers aboard Aqua Cat, the gate to the wild, open sea and the deep Atlantic has been left open. We gaze beyond it and even swim through it.

Now I hover in silence 60 feet below the surface gazing into the true abyss, the blue-black transition to the open Atlantic. This is where the continental shelf plummets to depths measured not in feet or fathoms, but miles. I watch in silence, waiting. Perhaps something will emerge from down there. Something really big.

Michele, call her “Shell”, is our divemaster. When we reach the abrupt cliff at about 40-feet of depth plunging into the abysmal plain of the continental shelf, Shell gestures with both arms like an underwater ballerina taking a bow in front of the vast submarine theater. As Shell is a prima ballerina of the undersea world, her gesture seems appropriate. This is it, she indicates, the end of the continent. Shell is one of our instructors back in the U.S. where we got our NITROX diving certification. Shell’s goal on this trip is to complete every dive, five dives each day including a night dive. It’s a tough schedule with about 4 hours plus of underwater time per day. She has inherited us as human pilot fish during our dives. While I gawk around looking for creatures and adjusting my camera, she makes sure I don’t wander off underwater, run out of NITROX and forget to surface. It is so remarkable down here that’s not out of the question.

Terrestrial travel is encumbered by gravity and the hard platform of earth with its constant horizon. Not down here. Down here the rules are completely different. We don’t even breathe normal air. Each inhalation through my SCUBA regulator is enriched with more oxygen than we breathe in the atmosphere. The NITROX gas in my large capacity SCUBA tank allows me to stay down longer and recover faster on the surface so I can return to the edge of inner space more quickly. But should I descend too deeply or rise too quickly, that same benevolent gas mixture of oxygen and nitrogen could put me in a dangerous corner of the dive envelope. To avoid trouble floating in inner space I watch a bank of computers on my arm measure my depth, pressure, time and remaining NITROX gas. But it is hard to stay focused on the numbers down here. It is just too… fantastic. And this NITROX goes down pretty easy.

Billionaires’ superyachts transit the Exumas regularly.

Our undersea party skirts the drop-off to the Atlantic abyss at the edge of the Caribbean in a “wall dive”. It’s a dive along the edge of a deep drop-off that forms this underwater cliff between the coastal shelf and the deep sea. Some of our divers descend deeply along the wall past 100 feet. At that depth color and light are filtered by the water overhead to merge into a blue-grey monotone less sensational in appearance to the human eye than the moderate depths I favor. My party is contented with the middle-depths of 30-80 feet. There is more life here, more color. And less danger.

A placid nurse shark rests on the white sand bottom.

Our schedule aboard Aqua Cat this week has been brisk. Wake, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive. Five dives per day are available to divers on Aqua Cat, although few divers will do every dive, except, of course, Shell. There is too much else to do.

During breaks from diving we laze on the upper deck in Caribbean sun, watch the rocky islands slide by, stay on the lookout for passing whale pods (we spotted rare pilot whales during dinner) and take excursions to shore on one of our two dinghies.

The barren islands are worth exploring. The weather here in May is calm and warm. One island harbors a shallow saltwater marsh with crystal clear water, home to exotic great hammerhead sharks. We take the dinghy to shore amidst a covey of weathered, practical sailing yachts and a pair of mammoth, billionaire luxury superyachts crewed by polo-shirted Ken dolls scrambling around the decks in hurried chores.

It would appear someone lives here, at least part time. An island caretaker who watches over the yachts moored in the lagoon and makes sure that the same number of people who land on the island each day actually leave it. Beyond that there are only scrub plants, palms, an assortment of reptiles ranging to quite large iguana, sea birds and the fish, sea animals and crustaceans that occupy the littoral environment.

On one expedition from Aqua Cat to a remote deserted island my girlfriend Jan Mack and I discover a hidden trail into a low mangrove thicket. A sign has fallen into the sand at the trail’s entrance. It offers only one word, “DANGER”. We follow the overgrown trail and discover it is, in fact, quite treacherous. Coral and rock outcroppings have been eroded to razor-sharp sinkholes easily large enough to swallow a person. Fetid pools draped by spider webs lurk at the bottom. The crusty terrain feels unstable under our amphibious sandals. After a half-mile push inland we retreat, satisfied that there is slim chance of finding anything remarkable in this low jungle mangrove. As it turns out, we are wrong. Four days later another person from Aqua Cat in the same region shoots a photo of a mammoth hammerhead cruising through the mangrove shallows. It would have been a spectacular sight.

A remarkable slipper crab seems excited to pose for a portrait.

Before we are barely able to savor our experience, Aqua Cat is crossing the open strait back to the Bahamas at the end of our expedition. There has been too much to digest, too much to take in, too much to experience. We’ve packed a month into a week aboard Aqua Cat. To try to take in the grandeur of the sea in a one-week trip is an absurdity, like trying to get a satisfying drink from a gushing firehose. There is simply too much to contemplate, too much to absorb, to many sensations to manifest.

A great barracuda guards our boarding ladder beneath the Aqua Cat.

But as remote and pristine as the Exumas felt we heard a quiet cry from her waters and her beasts. They are threatened, retreating, shrinking, dying. On the remote beach we found, Jan Mack and I spent the first thirty minutes picking up plastic waste and trash from a passing yacht crew who had made a bonfire on the empty beach and left their offal behind. In these waters plastics are dangerous to turtles, rays and sharks. They take years to decay, if at all, and can trap marine animals and strangle them or choke their digestive tracts. Some of the big sharks who guarded each of our dives showed signs of fin damage from boat propellers or had fishing hooks lodged in their mouths. On one dive, I swam after a cloud of drifting plastic bags to retrieve them before they drifted into the deep where they may wind up in a whale’s stomach.

Divers Phyllis Indianer, Divemaster Shell Robinson and diver Jan Mack surface after a drift dive.

I knew we would see the impact of man even in the remote Exumas. Part of the reason we wanted to be here was a looming sense that the clock ticking toward environmental calamity has passed the point of no return. That we are losing the Exumas and all places like her at an irreversible pace. I hope that is not true, and I’ve made an internal effort to manage my life at home in Michigan so I use less plastic, recycle more trash, drink from reusable water bottles and give to the organizations that protect the sea and her creatures.

Sailing on the Aqua Cat gave us a look into the wild sea and her massive expanse, exotic wilderness and remaining pristine beauty in a way no other experience could. That is priceless and ephemeral. It is something to be treasured and protected for as long as we can.

 

 

 

 

 

Author and photographer Tom Demerly has to be kept from petting things underwater around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Our neighborhood feral cat, Mr. Blackie, photographed in our back yard in October, 2017. (Photo: Tom Demerly)

Feral cats, alpha predators atop a complicated, evolving food chain in suburban neighborhood environments, may be the most exotic and remarkably adapted animals we’ll ever encounter. In most cases, we don’t even realize they are living among us or the benefits they provide to our suburban environment.

Feral cats live between being wild and domestic. They include us in their food chain as an integral part of it, usually without us even knowing. Their adaptation to a changing environment is masterful, as only an apex predator can manage. It is so complex it takes months or even years to fully understand, even as it changes right before our eyes.

Feral cats use sophisticated camouflage, mimicry, stealth and adaptation to benefit our neighborhoods and survive. They manage rodent populations, cull bird and small mammals who may carry disease and conduct a secret, covert “policing” of suburbia. They even manage to adapt and survive across wild swings in seasons, from freezing winters to blazing summers.

Most remarkably, feral cats form a dynamic evolutionary bridge between wild cats like the North American lynx, the African sand cat, the ocelot, cougars and mountain lions and domestic cats like the tabby, Maine coon and Siamese. Feral cats are smaller cats that resemble domestic cats in size and appearance and are not only predators, but highly adapted scavengers. Feral cats exploit both wild food sources, including mice, rats and varmints, and food sources shared with them by humans. Both are an integral part of their food chain.

In 1999 I traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa on safari. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the greatest natural game spotting destinations on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive natural game preserve is over 3,000 square miles in area and home to a boggling population of African wildlife, from primates, lions, hyenas, gazelles and impala to elephants, zebra, wildebeest and nearly every exotic species of land animal on the continent. We toured the crater by day from Landrovers. By night, the crater took on an entirely different life. What I learned about the food chain at night in the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, I began to recognize in my own neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan when I began watching the feral cats.

In 2002, I spent nearly a month in the high jungles of northern Vietnam, a remote, mostly untouched region left alone by the long war. I saw the difference in behavior between animals during the day in the jungle, and at night. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic change in their behavior from night to day was the presence of one of the last large land-based alpha predators on earth, the tiger. When I remarked to a local Vietnamese Hmong tribesman that I had not seen a single tiger in Vietnam during the entire month, he told me, “Ah, but they have seen you…” It is exactly the same with elusive feral cats in our neighborhoods.

 

A little more than a year ago we became aware of a feral cat in our neighborhood. The more I saw him, very late at night and early in the morning, almost always in the dark, the more fascinated I became with him. When I started to study his life and behavior, what I discovered was incredible beyond my wildest expectation. The feral cat behavior and its effect on our neighborhood was nearly identical to the influence big cats exerted on the dense jungles of Vietnam and the vast, wild game lands of Tanzania, Africa.

We soon learned there was not just one cat,  but two feral cats. We cataloged them as “Mike Charlie 1” and “Mike Charlie 2” for Mysterious Cat 1 and 2. The two are related and members of the same clan, possibly the same litter, and divide the neighborhood up into to regions from what we have observed. Our yard sits at the central border of the two regions. The night-vision video from a remote camera shown above is Mike Charlie1, the photo with the mouse at the beginning of the article, Mike Charlie 2.

The feral cats were influencing the behavior of every other animal in the neighborhood, from birds to small mammals. While other neighborhoods in Dearborn reported problems with rats and other pests, our neighborhood had no problems with pests. Our ferals kept rodent populations in check.

What I saw was not just one feral cat, but a complex nexus of several feral cats and the evolving, complex drama of their existence playing out secretly right outside our windows. The cats belong to a “clan”, or lineage of cats that is over 50 years old in this neighborhood.

Since we first became aware of the feral cats living in our neighborhood I’ve stepped up efforts to learn more about them, to help them where appropriate and to support their survival. Feral cats aren’t pets. Although some are converted to domestic cats most live their lives as some version of wild, an evolving predator in an evolving environment.

The series I am beginning here is the story of their lives and survival in our neighborhood.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

Author Peter Benchley’s marginally successful novel “Jaws” was released as a movie 42 years ago today. The film shattered box office records, rewrote the rules on movie release methods and touched off a succession of progressively awful sequels and occasionally credible documentaries that continue to fuel fascination- and mostly unreasonable fear of sharks- to this day.

Since “Jaws” every shark attack makes headlines. Nearly everyone remembers seeing the film with its shocking surprise visuals and its oddly floppy fake rubber robot shark. But most terrifyingly, everyone remembers the scenes in the water when you can see… nothing.

Director Steven Spielberg did an incredible job of building tension and terror in the unknown with soundtrack, lighting, foreshadowing and a looming sense of unseen menace. And of course, those two low notes of music that now universally signal impending doom: “duh…DUH.”

Speilberg’s skill was so effective it has created several generations of people with an irrational fear of the water, absurd notions about sharks as wanton maneaters and a general and wholly unwarranted misconception about the sea.

My girlfriend was afraid of the water. Not just what was in it, but even putting her face in it. Eight weeks later she swam unprotected at 70-feet depth off Roatan Island in Honduras in a school of 10-foot sharks in a feeding frenzy while I photographed her. Her only anxiety stemmed from my penchant to swim too far away from her to try to photograph, and pet, the swirling mass of “man eaters” as they swam around us.

My girlfriend Jan at 80-feet depth in a school of nice-sized reef sharks.

The truth is, sharks aren’t really that dangerous. In fact, I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars in travel and equipment just to find them for the chance to swim with them. And when I have been successful, which takes time, money and work. I have always been rewarded. They are beautiful and majestic. Often they are even gentle and playful.

I have swum in schools of sharks, petted sharks, fed sharks, and photographed sharks while in the water with them. No cages. Not one has ever tried to bite me. One shark in Curaçao demonstrated aggressive behavior toward me, she may have been playing with me, but she was big and she and I did not speak the same language so I simply swam away from her. She left.

Sharks are not wanton killing machines as Peter Benchley’s fictional novel suggests. Benchley’s novel is based loosely on a real life incident that took place between July 1 and July 12 in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline and, oddly, far up a small, brackish water rivulet named Matawan Creek. Sharks, or a single shark, attacked five people. Four of the victims died, more from poor first aid in 1916 than the severity of their wounds. One survived their attack.

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened as American news media was growing and people were on summer holiday. It made for sensational (and grossly embellished) headlines. It sold newspapers, pamphlets and books. And it created an absurd level of hysteria and fear so vast it continues today. Talk to any modern triathlon competitor about their biggest fear, and they will tell you it is swimming in the open ocean.

While the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks were terrifying, they were a bizarre anomaly likely attributable to a unique happenstance in shark behavior. A large shark was likely confused by the moon phase that influenced the tide and accidentally swam upriver as the water salinity (salt levels in sea water) increased in the usually fresh water. As the shark became increasingly distressed, it became increasingly aggressive and panicked. And it bit people. The same behavior is common from a squirrel, a house cat or a panicked dog. But a medium size shark can inflict a larger bite than a dog.

Since Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s movie was released conservationists have had to wage war on the terror-driven misconceptions that have caused unreasonable fear and wanton killing of sharks. To this day the unwarranted fear continues, not only of sharks, but of the ocean in general.

Could a shark bite you? It could. But the chances are more than remote. They’re astronomical, even when you are in the water with sharks. Think about this, if you were on a street with three strange dogs would you be panicked about them attacking you? Common sense dictates you observe their behavior and go about your business. The exact same is true of sharks. Even the rarest of sharks, the holy grail of shark spotting, the great white shark, is relatively placid when not feeding. If you are ever lucky enough to actually find one it will likely swim away in disinterest.

Our fear of sharks and the ocean is like nearly all fears. It is founded in lore and ignorance. The remedy is learning and understanding while developing a strong respect for this vast remaining wilderness and the marvelous creatures that live in it.

 

Author Tom Demerly will pet just about anything, even sharks, but never catches any fish. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for Tom Demerly.com

Only a mile and half at its widest, The Detroit River has been a geographical barrier between opposing tribes, rum runners and nations. Few rivers hold this much history. Globally, the Detroit River shares its historical relevance with the Mississippi in the United States, the Bosphorus in Turkey, the Rhine in Germany, the Ganges in India, the Volga in Russia, Paris’ Seine River, Egypt’s Nile, China’s Yangtze and other globally significant waterways like Iraq’s Tigris and Vietnam’s Mekong.

Last Wednesday, as members of the Detroit History Club, my girlfriend Jan Mack and I sailed the historic Detroit River on the 85-foot long Appledore IV two-masted schooner. Appledore IV transports its crew and passengers back in time as soon as they step on board. It is a fitting vessel for a trip back into the remarkable history of Detroit and its unique river.

Our guide on board Appledore IV was Miss Bailey of the Detroit Historical Club. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit history was matched only by her wit and talent. She delivered a fascinating running narration of Detroit’s sensational history from Native conflicts to daring rum-runners driving modified Ford Model-T’s across the frozen river in an occasionally unsuccessful attempt at defying prohibition.

After casting off from the dock in front of Detroit’s Renaissance Center and General Motors headquarters we set sail on moderate winds and calm waters north and east toward Belle Isle and the Hiram Walker distillery. As we sailed across the Detroit River the strong and delicious scent of baking bread drifts off the Windsor shore from the Hiram Walker complex. The yeast processing for spirits production at the distillery produces the delightful aroma, lost on powerboats to their exhaust smell but blissfully preserved onboard the sail-driven Appledore IV.

Once at the top of the river we reversed course under jibbing canvas sails, ducking under swinging booms and picking up winds that brought us downriver toward the majestic Ambassador Bridge. We sailed under, marveling at the incredible volume of truck traffic engaging in the free exchange of goods between Canada and the U.S. that typifies the relationship between the two countries.

To the south we saw the dark silhouette of the industrial monolith of Zug Island, formerly one of the most polluted places on earth, now in the midst of reform into at least a slightly less toxic habitat. Today foxes, peregrine falcons, feral cats and other unusual species share the island with its heavy industrial tenants like steel mills and coke ovens. A rare species of sturgeon lives on one side of the island because of the deposits of coal cinders that collect on the bottom of the river from the industrial activity.

Mystery surrounds much of Zug Island, a private, manmade industrial otherworld that has produced an undefined loud humming sound to the distress of residents as far as ten miles away. Some say it is the sound of wind through industrial structures on the island. Over a million dollars has been spent on studies to find the source of the bizarre sound but the maker of the mechanical music remains a mystery.

Shipping traffic is a huge part of the Detroit River. During our cruise we saw two passages, one a massive ore freighter and the other a smaller cargo vessel, our radios crackling to life with instructions from the river traffic control as Customs and Border Patrol vessels zipped back and forth. The Detroit River is one of the busiest commercial rivers on earth, and ship spotting along its banks is a popular pastime.

This cruise aboard Appledore IV with the Detroit History Club is a rare and intrinsic perspective on Detroit, and one all Detroiters ought imbibe in. People who live in Detroit and its suburbs often have a deep affection for something undefinable about the city that makes it unique. An intrinsic authenticity and resilience belonging to a place that survived riots, wars, fires and economic collapse. Detroit has produced iron and steel, innovation and art. But few people own the deep historical context of Detroit’s remarkable and repetitive penchant for survival and prosperity.

To join the Detroit History Club and enjoy their many fascinating and varied events follow this link:

 

http://www.detroithistoryclub.com