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Travel and Adventure.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

An expedition not unlike our own, Robert Falcon Scott’s failed ordeal in Antarctica in 1912.

 

When I was a kid I had a friend named Raymond Schuckle. He lived at the end of the block, closest to the park, from me.

Winter had come and it was harsh. We were not much older than 11 or 12. Raymond and I shared an interest in model airplanes. Boredom from the long winter had set in, and there was little to do. So, we decided to launch an expedition on foot across four miles of suburban territory to Harb’s Hobby Shop on Monroe Street in Downtown Dearborn.

I had read Maurice Herzog’s book, “Annapurna”, that I bought from Mary Fera’s Dad’s shop, Little Professor Book Store, near Harb’s. The book recounted the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas by a group of bold adventurers. To my 11-year-old mind, our expedition across Dearborn to Harb’s Hobby Shop would be exactly like Maurice Herzog’s brutally difficult expedition to climb Annapurna in the Himalayas.

We prepared. I had a crude, blue, nylon anorak and a pair of mittens made of some kind of cheap shearling that came from a flea market. I also had a gray wool balaclava, that I got from K-Mart specifically after reading about them in “Annapurna”. It was $3.97. I had inexpensive vinyl “moon boots” insulated with foam. We wore blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters as our technical base layers. I was careful to wear two pairs of sweat socks. Raymond Shuckle, my lieutenant, was better equipped. He wore an impressive snorkel jacket and snowmobile boots with special felt liners. He also had covertly reapportioned a pair of genuine skiing gloves from his older brother. He wore a bright red knit stocking cap, useful for signaling in the event we would need rescue.

We had plotted our navigation and ranging based on car trips we had made over previous months and years in the region. We knew the route, up Cherry Hill, then to Outer Drive, and eventually a long slog along Michigan Avenue to Monroe over piles of frozen, plowed snow. These massive ice and snow formations were our version of Herzog’s crevasses and sastrugi on Annapurna. There was a secondary route we could take through Ford Field, but that meant a dangerous descent of the icy sled hill and grueling climb up the steep gradient of Monroe Street toward Michigan Ave. This, however, was the most direct route, although it was significantly more rigorous and involved greater risk.

After sunset, we set out.

Our first obstacle was crossing the open, wind-blown snow field of Levagood Park. This could have become an immediate disaster, as blowing snow limited our visibility. Luckily, being only a block from our houses, we were familiar with the terrain and able to effectively navigate to our first landmark, Sea Shore Pool. It was bitingly cold and the snow was deep, perhaps six inches, with a hard-frozen crust on top. After our successful trial-by-fire crossing of the Levagood ice fields, we pressed on.

Crossing Telegraph Road was a risk. Passing cars threw torrents of salty slush on us as we waited for our chance to dart across the lethal passage. It was our analogy of crossing deadly crevasses. We continued undaunted by the risks and managed to cross as a pair, making it to the other side. This is where we entered untraveled territory. In no uncertain terms, Telegraph Road marked the outer boundary of our neighborhood, and the entrance to the hinterlands.

We charted a course through side streets, abandoning the sidewalks as they were largely impassable and, instead, took to the streets themselves. This meant increased risk, but we were willing to accept it in exchange for greater speed. At one point, we came across a group of kids we had never seen before, dressed similarly to us in moon boots and snorkel jackets, but older. They were a rough looking bunch, standing at the edges of the street. Their plot was to wait until a car slip-slid down the street, then run behind it with the hope of grabbing the bumper. This would give them a wild, careening ride, sliding on the soles of their boots, until the speed became too great or the distance too far, at which point they would let go and tumble to a stop. We stopped to watch them for a while but judged that this unknown group of older indigenous kids could become dangerous at any moment and engage us with tightly packed ice-balls. We pressed on.

47 years later, I return to the scene of the Levagood ice field crossing from the original 1973 expedition.

Schuckle, for his part, was an excellent lieutenant. He seemed largely non-plussed by the ordeal, pressing on with neither complaint nor rancor. That is, until I looked at his face, drawn in discomfort and the agony from the biting wind. Although he said nothing, he was clearly near his limit.

We had made it to the open expanse next to the Dearborn High School athletic field. This was the gateway to the Rouge River basin. There were rescue facilities there in the form of a fire station where we could, presumably, surrender to the elements, declare our mission a failure, and turn ourselves in to the firemen at the station for what would be a humiliating defeat at the hands of mother nature and human endurance. They would offer rescue but at the cost of humiliating repatriation to our parents. Whatever sanctions accompanied that were too horrible to imagine.

So, we pressed on.

Despite our condition, we were resolved to our fate under our own destiny. Ice spicules blew from east to west, assailing our bare skin around our eyes like frozen wind-borne razors. Our endurance was waning. We had both spent the day at school and would have to return tomorrow, so it was necessary to manage our physical resources. Exhaustion from our adventure, no matter how bold and heroic, would not grant clemency from a day of school.

It was at this point, in the open ice fields just north of the fire station along Outer Drive, that I took matters into my own hands and regretfully signaled retreat. I remember, to this day, the exact moment I admitted defeat. This capitulation was at least better than surrendering to the firemen for rescue, as we could return home- if we survived- covertly manage our maladies from the ordeal, and equip ourselves for another attempt as conditions improved.

I don’t remember much from the trip back. Humiliation, the harsh elements and fatigue must have blocked my recollection as with any trauma.

I do remember getting home. My boots and socks were heavy and soaked. My rag-wool balaclava had likely meant the difference between survival and oblivion, as it was encrusted with ice around the breathing hole and covered in snow. My mittens were sodden, and my hands bright blue from cold, the skin wrinkled from immersion in the damp mitts. I stripped from my jeans and T-shirt in the bathroom, and ran a steaming bath. I remember that bath. I remember it well. Plucked from the arctic hell-storm and immersed in opulent, hot water in the safe haven of my house was such a bizarrely polarized juxtaposition of fate that I could hardly wrap my young mind around it. We had survived, our dramatic failure remained undiscovered, and we had gathered valuable information to try again. Despite our failure, there was a meager inventory of success from the ordeal. It was on this I chose to focus as I made plans to check the weather forecast and begin preparations for another attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

I was once so poor, I didn’t have a coffee cup.

It didn’t matter much since I had neither coffee or a coffee maker. I had boxes of things I owned when I was rich, before I lost everything. But I wasn’t going to stay in one place long enough to unpack them, so what was left stayed in the boxes. I never unpacked. Nothing was permanent.

No coffee cup though.

My parents told stories of the depression when they were kids. The stories didn’t seem possible to me. When I didn’t have a coffee cup it occurred to me, “Well damn. Here is our depression. Exactly like my mom described.” Now you’re reading my story of not having a coffee cup.

Eventually things began to improve. I was good at what I did, a writer. Got a good job writing at a company in California. Money came in. California is expensive so you need to earn a lot of money to be even reasonably comfortable. You still won’t have any money left over, so you better keep your job or find a new one outside California. If you want to make any money, don’t move to California.

Moved from California to Michigan. Brought my two cats in a cat carrier on the plane. I had written a letter to the airline well in advance telling them my cats were the most valuable thing in the world to me. They met me at the airport and took extra care of me and my two cats on the flight from California back to Michigan. I was thankful for that. Nothing was more important. I figured if I couldn’t even care for two cats, I was pretty worthless. But in this case, with the help of the airlines, I managed fairly well. Thank God, and I’m not even religious. The airline was Southwest airlines. If you can, when you fly, fly on Southwest Airlines. They actually care about people. And cats. That’s rare these days.

Still no coffee cup though.

When I got back to Michigan I took back an old job that I liked but didn’t earn much money. I was going to help open a new business soon. There was, at least, the promise of improvement if not tangible improvement itself. Sometimes you can do pretty good on just the promise of things getting better. It’s better than knowing things are going to get worse. I’ve gotten good at sensing when that is going to happen. It’s a bad feeling and you better trust it.

My friends Paul and Sue, whom I’ve known forever, visited me right away when I moved back. They knew me before the recession, before I lost everything. I was actually well-off then. Owned a house, car, business. Those things can disappear in an instant, so fast you can’t believe it. You think you are secure. Trust me, you aren’t. A million dollars means nothing.

I know that when Paul and Sue and their sons saw how things were for me then they were… well, I don’t know what they were. They never said. Sue drove me to the store. When it became apparent I had no money for food, her and her two sons brought food to my house. I always made sure my cats had food. They came first.

Things kept getting better. Made a little money. Lived in a house with a big yard, grass (we didn’t have that in California) and plenty of windows. The first warm day I went outside and just laid down in the grass. It was the first time I felt safe in a long time. My cats watched me through the window. That was a good feeling. I still remember that moment, lying there in the grass.

Eventually things got much better. That’s America. You can have everything, lose everything, and get everything back again.

On one trip to the store I bought a coffee maker, $22, a huge can of coffee (don’t remember how much) and a coffee cup. It’s still my favorite cup. I worry about breaking it. It would be a bad omen.

So with this new coffee cup, I am pretty careful.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

 

I was coming back up Hines Drive this morning. Headed east. About 15 miles done, another 5 to go. It’s hot. 88° and climbing, feels like 98°. Humid. Wind is still, maybe a puff of tailwind going east.

Hines Drive is closed to cars on Saturday morning. A Dr. Seuss procession of every imaginable pedal-thing fills the parkway. There are riders with kiddie trailers, on recumbents, riding unicycles, pedaling tandems and pace-lining on inline skates. If it rolls, glides, skates, tows or walks on a leash it’s on Hines Drive on Saturday morning.

It’s like surfing a crowded beach. You go out there, paddle hard hoping to catch the perfect ride in. About twice a year you hit the turnaround point at Ann Arbor Trail and you catch it coming back toward Dearborn. The perfect ride.

It’s an ugly reality that most Americans can’t ride a bicycle well. It’s never more apparent than Saturday Morning on Hines Drive. Tonight, there will be a new litany of social media posts with emergency room visits and X-rays of broken collar bones. Americans know everything. As result, you can’t teach us anything. It is more apparent in U.S. cycling than almost anywhere in American culture. Do a group ride in Belgium, France, Italy- there is a hierarchy, organization, unwritten and unspoken rules for how to ride.

In the U.S. it’s mayhem. People ride four abreast. Because the entire road is open to cyclists (and every other means of ambulation), cyclists feel compelled to use as much of the road as possible. Riders push knee-busting cadences below 50 RPMs. Orthopedic surgeons should park a van at either end handing out business cards. People on $10,000 aerodynamic bikes in the wrong frame size sit bolt-upright over their unused aerobars wondering what saddle they should try next in pursuit of that elusive “best bike seat”. Triathletes do long training rides in tri shorts to “get used to them”.  In short, it’s a mess.

But once or twice a year you catch that perfect ride. That perfect wheel.

Not sure who he is. Rides a Trek triathlon bike. Wearing a jersey from the Ford Athletic Swim and Triathlon (F.A.S.T.) club. His bike was clean and well assembled. Cable housings long enough, derailleur cables short enough. Rear wheel true. Tire relatively new. Saddle height and fore/aft looked good, aerobars fit him too, hand on the shifters and elbows on the elbow pads. He sat on the bike well. Pedaled well. No rocking. Knees straight up and down. Snappy Cadence, about 86 RPM. Good for a time trialist or triathlete.

I don’t know who he is, but he can ride. Really ride. Straight. Smooth. Good cadence. Pre-acts to other riders up the road before he passes, doesn’t shout “ON YOUR LEFT!” when he goes around them. Like I said, not sure who he is, but he can ride.

Got on his wheel. When you get on someone’s rear wheel to draft your front tire is only about 4-6 inches at most from their rear tire at over 20 MPH. Ride off to one side for “safety” and the first time they decelerate imperceptively and alter their line just a trifle- you go down. Your X-ray is on Facebook on Monday morning.

So, I lined up on his rear tire and used the back of his saddle as a reference. Focus. Hold. Relax.

He shifts when you are supposed to, and I can’t even see him do it. His body does not move when he shifts, only his right thumb and index finger. Smooth. When the resistance starts to increase with the gentle roll of the flat road he touches his shifter for one easier cog. Me too.

This is a luxury. The perfect wave. The perfect draft. The perfect wheel. The perfect rider.

He rides straight, smooth, predictably and holds a steady effort just a few percent above my fitness level. Given the smooth, comfortable draft swirling off his body just four inches in front of me I can go 2-3 MPH faster than I normally would be able to at the same effort.

So he tows me along. In utter perfection. I’ve caught the perfect wave.

It’s rare to see a U.S cyclist ride this well. Smooth, calm, confident, skilled. Even his clothes fit him correctly and he is wearing bib cycling shorts, not triathlon shorts, even though he is out on his tri bike.

This was likely my best wave of the year. My best free ride. I don’t know who he was, but he could ride.

 

 


Tom Demerly is old, fat and slow, but occasionally still rides.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Lofting along on rising waves of turbulent early summer heat boiling up from the fresh blacktop his variable geometry swept wings make minor trim adjustments to change his flight attitude.

At 130-feet of altitude and a leisurely 10 knots of airspeed he spots a target just east of the fire station south of the old tennis courts along Outer Drive at Dearborn High School. The Rouge River has flooded here driving targets north into the open fields and making for, what seems like, an easy kill. Easy that is, if it weren’t for these flying conditions in the strangely hot spring afternoon.

He banks hard right, pulling 3.5 G’s in a turn a fighter pilot would be envious of, especially this close to the ground.

His target is acquired, a scurrying field mouse driven up from the Rouge River basin by the heavy rains and rushing floodwaters from the past week.

He locks-on his target with eyesight that is nearly eight times better than yours and mine. He has eyes like a hawk, because he is a two-year old red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The aerodynamics of a hawk compared to a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

He commits to the attack, wings quickly swept back, angle of attack tipping downward to nearly a 70-degree dive exactly like a fighter plane in a diving attack. In an instant his weight and efficient, aerodynamic body shape allow him to accelerate to over 60 MPH, almost straight down. Even though he is only two years old, his targets seldom escape. The local environment depends on him even if few people notice his daily aerial patrols.

Nearly every hunt over this suburban wilderness area near the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Outer Drive in Dearborn, Michigan is successful.

But not today.

He made a rare error, however slight, in his attack trajectory. His angle of attack relative to the scurrying target was just a bit too steep. His vision is optimized for locking on and tracking a distant target camouflaged against the colors of the ground. It’s not optimized to detect fence tops and power lines when in a terminal attack dive.

Speed, normally part of his arsenal, now becomes his enemy. As his target grows in his telephoto eyesight he suddenly detects a minor miscalculation in dive angle. But at over 70 MPH of airspeed, it is too late. Just as he drops the feathers at the trailing edge of his 3&1/2-foot wingspan to generate more lift and deploys his razor-sharp talons as airbrakes he hits the top of the 8-ft fence. Hard.

The impact is crushing. His right knee is torn, leg broken in three places. The collision with the high fence at the edge of the tennis courts causes him to flip tail over beak in uncontrolled, tumbling ballistic flight. The impact with the fence top stunned him, and he has momentarily lost situational awareness. Any pilot will tell you, losing lift and situational awareness this close to the ground with no room for recovery is usually fatal, especially at high speed.

Hitting the pavement stuns him. He’s not used to this. He is always the alpha, the hunter, firmly on top of this suburban food chain occupying the only rung above the silently stalking feral cats that hunt on the ground mostly at dawn and dusk. Even the cats know they are vulnerable to the hawk. There was the occasional fox in this area, but they haven’t been seen for five years now.

For a moment he is motionless, wings akimbo and sprawling, upside down on the hot, black asphalt. Hard wired instinct sends the alert that when he is on the ground he is vulnerable. Vulnerable to a cat or a fox or a dog or to the greatest threat in his environment, a human being.

He rights himself, but cannot fly. Shakes his head to clear it. Cannot get purchase on the air for more than a few meters at a time. He tries to fly, but his landing is uncontrolled on his shattered right leg. In only a split-second the buffeting ground turbulence, target fixation and collision with the fence top moved him from the top of the food chain to the bottom, now vulnerable to predation from anything on the ground.

Spectators at the soccer game at Dearborn High School on Tuesday night spotted the wounded juvenile red tail hawk alternately lying in the field and trying to fly and posted a photo on the Dearborn in The Raw community group on Facebook.

Mark Trzeciak, a local community baron, educated man and teacher, alerts me with a tag in the Facebook post. I grab my car keys. There is already a backpack in my beat-up old Ford Escape loaded with what I need to rescue a cat or an owl or a snapping turtle. But this is my first red-tailed hawk rescue.

I do a quick Google search: “How to rescue an injured hawk”. Then I am on my way.

I can’t find him. Searching the upper tennis courts, the entire lower field close to the Rouge River where Dearborn High School’s track is, I divide the area into a grid and carefully walk each section looking for him. I ask where he is on the Dearborn in The Raw page, but the replies in the thread are disorganized. One of the custodians at Dearborn High School notices that I am walking around with a backpack looking for something.

“Are you looking for the hawk?” asks Will Denton of Dearborn High School. Will has been keeping an eye on the hawk since he had his accident a few hours earlier. “He’s up here by the top tennis courts, just flew over there and landed. Doesn’t look like he can fly well.”

Mr. Denton directs me to an open gate behind the school and points out the juvenile red tail hawk sitting calmly in the grass, alert, looking around, but not moving.

I resolve to spend the night there with him but a friend messages me about Dr. Kevin Smyth of the Morrison Animal Hospital. Dr. Smyth is a veterinarian and specialist in birds and raptors including hawks and owls. I text him at about 9:30 PM. He replies quickly, “Call me”.

 

After I pick up the wounded hawk and drive him home my girlfriend and I make a nice temporary house for him on our back porch, safely sequestered from our three cats who are now very curious about our large, feathered overnight guest.

The hawk is majestic, even in his wounded condition. His body is massive and his wings huge and muscular. His talons are nearly the size of my hands, with inch and a half long hooks optimized for his high-speed diving attacks. But he is weak, seriously broken leg bleeding on his new, soft white sheet.

The next day we’re at Dr. Smyth’s office first thing. Transporting a large, wounded raptor is a bit tricky but we manage to keep the Mr. Hawk calm and comfortable.

At the veterinarian office Dr. Smyth handles the large hawk with confidence and the raptor responds with calmness, allowing the doctor to hold him and test his vision.

The news is not good.

It would appear the hawk’s vision is compromised in one eye, possibly from his crash. His right leg is broken severely in three places, including directly through the knee joint. The hawk is dehydrated and weak. Dr. Smyth gives him a mild anesthetic and administers I.V. fluids for the hawk’s dehydration. He is comfortable, but very weak.

We cannot know how a hawk thinks. Since we have begun observing and writing about them we’ve ascribed a nobility and power to hawks. Throughout the night, the hawk rests at the veterinary office. I want to say that he somehow knew we were all trying to help him. That he did feel a little better from the I.V.’s and the pain medication. He sat normally in a large cage on a soft blanket, maintaining his noble appearance throughout the night and into the next day.

But when the sun came up his spirit took flight, and his broken body remained grounded. Despite the best care of the doctor and the efforts of rescuers, he did not survive the morning. He died a peaceful, pain free, dignified death in the company of people who revered, cared for and respected him.

The loss of the Dearborn High School hawk is significant. He controlled the population of mice and other pests every day. He could have started a family of hawks that would have managed pest populations on each side of Michigan Ave. from Telegraph Road all the way east to Military, where the hawks from the Henry Ford Nature Preserve take over. He could have patrolled the two Kroger parking lots and the parking structures near the Village Plaza building.

But instead, he died from a collision with a fence we put there, in his environment. WE seldom give thought to the animals we share the city with. They occasionally show up in a Facebook post, or on a smartphone photo. For the most part people don’t pay attention. But their role is critical in maintaining the delicate and complex balance of nature in our neighborhoods. Losing the Dearborn High hawk is a significant loss in maintaining that balance.


If you want to help protect and care for local hawks, owls and other large birds in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Garden City and the surrounding neighborhoods you can make a contribution directly to Dr. Kevin Smyth at 33607 Ford Road in Garden City. His phone number is (734) 425-6140. His website is morrisonvet.net. Dr. Smyth, a 1980 Dearborn High School graduate and Dearborn native, cares for wounded hawks and owls on his own. He did not charge anything for his extensive emergency care of the hawk we brought him. Contributions to his practice are used to pay for the expenses such as food, supplies and drugs used to rehabilitate hawks and owls and return them to their environment once they have recovered. Dr. Smyth’s contribution to our community is significant and worthy of support.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has petted most things with legs, fins, feathers or scales.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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