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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

As a commentator, he was a master. Measured. Well-paced. Gifted with dramatic inflection and a lilting accent that brought credibility to his narration. As a dramatist, he was a rare thespian of the microphone. He paced his voice, volume and inflection to build a crescendo that hammered on the edge of control. And perhaps most importantly, as a person, he humanized and dignified a sport that is rife with indignity and subterfuge.

Paul Sherwen died last week at the age of 62. Far too soon. His untimely passing is gutting to the world of cycling, not just for fans who loved him, but for the complex synergy of broadcasting the Tour de France and all of professional cycling in the English language.

You can read of Sherwen’s impressive professional cycling career in any of the many eulogies published around the world for him over the last 72 hours. But Sherwen rose to greatest prominence as a broadcaster, commentator and even moderator of cycling’s most turbulent era.

Sherwen began broadcasting with Phil Liggett in 1989. That is when he went from great cyclist to mega-star. The combination of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen was not just good, it was magical synergy. The sum was greater than the total of its parts. By themselves, Sherwen and Liggett were excellent commentators. Together they became the institution of cycling in the English language.

It would not be an embellishment to suggest the team of Sherwen and Liggett saved cycling.

The damage inflicted by the Armstrong era cast a dark cloud over professional bike racing and the Tour de France. Its creditability as a legitimate sport was shattered in the post-Armstrong era and didn’t recover even after the brash Texan doper and extortionist was forced into exile. The doping scandals and accusations continued. For any informed observer, cycling had a titanic image problem. It was dirty.

Enter Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett. Commentating next to the thousand-pound doping elephant in the room the duo would chat during slow stages as the group rode together at a pedestrian pace. Cycling coverage had changed from a 45-minute recorded and scripted highlight reel to a rolling commentary of the entire stage. It became an endurance event for live announcers. Try describing anything non-stop for six hours. If your voice holds, you quickly find out you run out of things to say. Not Sherwen.

During the Tour de France, Sherwen and Liggett were served snippets about the areas the riders were passing through from race organizers. They were dry historical facts about castles, bridges, rivers and factories. It was the stuff you slept through in school. But Sherwen would grab this stuff off the feed and, as though you were sitting next to him in a touring sedan on a leisurely drive across rural France, weave a lilting tale from the popcorn-dry feed. When Sherwen talked about the milk production of the cows of Provence region, it sounded quaint and charming and… damn near interesting.

When the action started, Sherwen’s voice moved to his gut. He became more baritone. More Serious. More urgent. His pace picked up just a tick. Tension boiled under his narration. It felt as if the other shoe would drop at any moment, and we all slid to the edge of seats. His colloquialisms were Shakespearean. Who had ever heard what it was like to, “Throw a cat among the pigeons” or, “Reach deep into the suitcase of courage” before Paul Sherwen? Sherwin brought rare dramatic eloquence to a sport of blue collar schoolboys.

Paul Sherwen dignified cycling, amplified the drama, downplayed the scandal.

It is difficult to imagine a post-Sherwen cycling era. At 75 years old, Phil Liggett may decide to pack up his microphone and move on to a well-earned retirement. Something Paul Sherwen never got. Sherwen played the key role to Liggett’s performance, shoring him up when he made the errors in remembering a cyclist’s name that any 75-year old would make. They did so seamlessly, and it only added to the show. But without Sherwen as his muse and protector, Liggett may not want to continue. If that is the case, it is not too much of a stretch to say that when we lost Paul Sherwen, we lost all of cycling. Or at least any semblance of dignity, drama and decency it had left.


 

Tom Demerly has been a cycling commentator and journalist for over 30 years. He has written for Outside, Velo-News, Inside Triathlon, Triathlon Today, Triathlete, Bicycling, Bicycle Guide, USA Cycling, USA Triathlon and many others.

 

 

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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

 

 

  1. Civilians Don’t Know How to Answer a Question.

It’s one of the most conspicuous differences between civilians and military; civilians cannot answer a simple question. Try it. Ask a question that requires a simple, expedient, one-word “yes” or “no” answer. Usually civilians answer a question with a question. One of the first things you learn in the military is how to effectively answer a question to communicate necessary information concisely and quickly. For every veteran and military person who has to wade through the mire of civilian semantics trying to get an answer to a simple question, this phenomenon is boggling.

 

  1. Veterans Will Never Let You Forget They’re Veterans.

Guilty as charged. The military experience changes you. It instills deep-seated fears, some reasonable, some not. It teaches skills and competencies that can’t be learned anywhere else. It also provides a sense of belonging and self-esteem that membership in any revered group does. It may be subtle, many people may not notice it, but whether it is how he stands, how tight her hair bun is, the way he looks around a room when he enters it, the hat, the belt or the boots, it is usually easy to spot a veteran. That’s not an accident.

 

  1. Civilians Cannot Make Decisions. 

The military teaches how to make decisions, the importance of having a method of decision making and how to make decisions quickly and efficiently. It also teaches what to do when you make bad decisions, which you inevitably will. Civilians cannot make decisions efficiently. Too many variables, too much second guessing, too much time wasted. One of the most maddening things about being military or veteran in a civilian world is the bizarre theatre that is watching a civilian trying to make a decision as they are influenced by factors they themselves don’t even realize. For veterans, this is agonizing to see.

 

  1. Veterans Treasure Quiet Space, Hot Water and Good Food.

Hurry-up and wait, long days that start before sun-up and end way after dark. Cold, wet clothing and numb feet. Dirty hair and cramped spaces with smelly bodies. Welcome to the military. Once you are out of the military you usually just want to sit down for a moment and quietly stare at the horizon. Quiet, open spaces, warm meals and a hot shower are opulent luxuries to a veteran. These things are wealth. Never take them for granted.

 

  1. Veterans Know How to Work as a Team.

In the first two weeks of being in the military you begin to coalesce into a collective organism known as a team. The mental barrier between self and team disappears, and you discover the strength and synergy of teamwork. It’s a humbling and empowering experience at the same time, and once you’ve experienced it you never forget it. Civilians have a rough time with working as a team because they are forever trying to preserve some semblance of “self”. Self must evaporate in a team environment for the greater good, and that is frightening to many people until they learn how to be an effective part of a team and the remarkable benefits.

 

  1. Civilians Are Delightfully Naive. 

Few things are more entertaining to a veteran than talking to civilians, especially most young civilians, about world politics, U.S. military involvement around the world and human nature. Civilians live in a beautiful bubble of tranquility and peace that makes their everyday foibles feel massive and their choices seem difficult. Frankly, it is at once cute and annoying. Americans, especially, live a frail bubble of security that facilitates a bizarrely privileged life usually free from difficult decisions involving life and death. Unfortunately, this has begun to change as increasing polarity between economic privilege inflict difficult choices on more and more poor people ill-equipped and untrained to make good decisions. That is tragic to watch in our country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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

In nature, Winter is death. It arrives with enormity and silently blankets all that is living and vibrant. Entombed under inches of bleak snow, blown by frozen air in stinging particles of diamond ice, it becomes dense silence. All that lives clings to desperate and painful survival.

In winter the contrast of living and dead is greater in a human suburb than anywhere on earth. Mere inches of insulated wall separate comfort from the torturous unrelenting cold and endless strife for survival outside. For the animals that live outside in suburbia, only the distant spring offers respite.

The contrast between feral cats and domestic cats is never greater than in winter. Our domestic cats have heated beds and warm blankets and electronic games and battery powered toys. They live in an artificial climate that rarely varies more than five degrees in temperature and never rains or snows. A feral cat dodges lethal street traffic, avoids dangerous dogs and raccoons and scavenges for varmints and garbage. It sneaks into garages for shelter and never enjoys a warm night living outside in winter. It walks on wet ground and has dense, black fur adapted for outdoor winters that is covered in snow flecks.

Mr. Blackie had disappeared without a trace. No information from neighbors after flyers were passed out. No one at the animal shelter told me he showed up there, unlikely anyway since a feral cat would never wind up in an animal shelter unless trapped. I posted on community message boards, followed up on leads and tips. Nothing. He just vanished. One tip reported an animal body by the side of the road at Ford Road and Telegraph Road. We grimly hurried there, only to find a dead raccoon. No Mr. Blackie.

November, December, January, mid-way through February. Not a trace.

I missed him. That was my mistake. I had gotten emotionally involved and that is always a mistake in dealing with wild things. Mr. Blackie would never be a domestic cat, but I entertained the notion that he and I could sit together on the back porch during the summer, me drinking coffee in the morning before starting work and him lazing on the warm concrete in the sun. Then we would part company and go about our business to repeat our ritual again tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Blackie apparently did not share my quant vision. Animals’ priority is survival, and Mr. Blackie’s motives were clear. He was all business.

Mr. Blackie, you may recall, is a member of a feral cat clan that can be traced back forty years in this neighborhood. It is the reason we have no problem with rats here, and the population of squirrels and chipmunks and birds is healthy and held in check. There is a natural food chain, and the North Levagood Feral Clan sits firmly atop that food chain.

Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward.

Mr. Blackie’s older brother is Darth Vader. He is easy to spot. Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward at the tip, the result of some kind of altercation with another cat, a raccoon or something else.

While the two are brothers, they are vastly different in personality. While Mr. Blackie is aloof and guarded and entirely wild, Darth Vader is talkative and has a soft side. I have talked to him, he has meowed back in extended conversations. He has sniffed me, I have petted him. The exchanges in physical contact are brief, but the message is clear. Darth Vader knows me, I know him, we are friends and neighbors and we chat over the back fence whenever possible or necessary.

On Friday, February 16, 2018 I was returning from a run. Darth Vader was waiting for me, seated on the next-door neighbor’s front window sill outside. I went inside to get my camera to shoot some portraits of him, having not seen him weeks.

A massive series of snow storms had torn through Dearborn, dumping nearly a foot of total snowfall. Feral cats know to shelter in place during these weather events. It is too difficult and dangerous to travel and there is little food available anyway.

But the sun was out and the snow was well on its way to melting. Darth Vader took this first opportunity to visit the cat village behind our house, check in with our indoor cats through the windows and see if there was a trace of his younger brother, Mr. Blackie.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

I asked Darth Vader about Mr. Blackie and his response was as clear and articulate as if he were a human sharing the same language. Darth Vader had not seen Mr. Blackie since fall. He came looking for him, and he was worried about him. While the two cats are not social, they are, in fact, competitive, Darth Vader does maintain his older brother role of at least checking in on Mr. Blackie.

Darth Vader and I chatted for some time. He had not seen Mr. Blackie, was surprised he was gone, knew nothing about his whereabouts, and was concerned. He was pleased to see me, sniffed me and let me pet him. Then, our reunion and business affairs complete, he hopped down from the window sill and sauntered across the street to another one of the houses he frequents on his patrols. While Mr. Blackie is entirely feral in behavior, Darth Vader appears to have mellowed in his age, now acting about… 50% feral. He lets me pet his coarse black fur with flecks of gray. He purrs, he meows. Mr. Blackie never uttered a word to me. Even on that last day. He only communicated with behavior and facial expressions. Never verbally. Darth Vader is significantly more articulate and conversant.

I maintain the feral cat village. Clearing snow, shoveling walkways. Now that the snow is thawing I keep the house dry and check the pressure activated heater. The straw is fresh, the houses are clean. But the village is empty. It is, I will admit, at least disappointing, somedays heartbreaking.

I worry about Mr. Blackie. Every single day I worry about him. I hold out hope that since there is no tangible evidence of demise that he may return. Maybe one early spring day I will look out the window and he will be sitting there, waiting for warm food and a fresh blanket. That our indoor cats will begin meowing and call me over to the window to see him patrolling the perimeter of the house for compliance with his territorial boundaries.

I still have hope.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Late October, 2017.

His coat is thick and sturdy now. Opaque, firm strands of night-black fur add the impression of size to his increasing bulk as he grows. Mr. Blackie was taking advantage of his heat-retaining color by rolling around on the broken pavement of our run-down back porch in the late summer sun. There may be a stigma to being a black cat, but there are advantages too, and Mr. Blackie was enjoying his genetically predisposed ability to absorb heat from the sun like a freshly tarred Georgia backroad.

This was a good day to be a wild cat. A day that makes me envy cats like Mr. Blackie. Free, wild, unaccountable. Mr. Blackie sits powerfully atop a complex suburban food chain that includes the servant-humans who think of him as an unfortunate stray. They fail to realize his reign over the neighborhood. No human exerts control of the North Levagood neighborhood the way Mr. Blackie does. People alternately ignore him, take pity on him or worship him. I reside with the last group.

Inside the house just a few feet away our three indoor cats gawk at Mr. Blackie through the window. Threat? Friend? Overlord? Realistically, Mr. Blackie is all three. Vice-Admiral Malcom Fredrick Davis III, our huge, portly white cat, regards Mr. Blackie through dirty windows with downplayed interest. He tries not to look too interested, but his fixed, green-eyed gawk says he is in amazement, and fear, of Mr. Blackie.

MiMi despises Mr. Blackie. When he appears on the back porch she stares at him with her one eye and unleashes a tirade of cat profanity in meows and growls and rapid tail gestures like an angry Greek swindled in a market. She hates Blackie. She regards him as a threat, an intruder, a predator even. And as senior cat and survivor of eye removal surgery and (most recently) complete knee replacement along with growing up hard in the open desert next to an air force base, MiMi has street smarts. Part of what she thinks about Blackie is right. He is a hard man, a nomad, a thief. A murderer even. And Mr. Blackie makes no apologies.

And then there is young Chester. Young Chester is everything good about youth. Fit and lean, his paws sometimes too big for his growing cat-body. Chester does not just love Mr. Blackie, he idolizes him. Chester is awe-struck by Mr. Blackie. Blackie is Chester’s hero. He watches his every movement outside, eyes widened in amazement and anticipation of Blackie’s next move. All paws and tail, Chester bashes into furniture tearing through the house following Mr. Blackie’s movements outside the house at every window. In the mornings, it is young Chester who wakes us with loud, long meows at the window announcing Mr. Blackie’s arrival for his morning meal.

But even while late summer sunlight heated the tar-black fur of Mr. Blackie’s side as he lay on the pavement of our back porch, that very same pavement began to hold onto the persistent, creeping morning chill of autumn longer and later into each day. The sun came up later, went down sooner. Less time on the pavement rolling around warming his black fur. Winter was coming, and coming fast.

I did some research and called a polite lady in Blythe, South Carolina who runs Blythe Wood Works. The company has been building custom cat and dog houses by hand in their shop since 1990. She was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Once I described our situation she helped design a two-level cat shelter that could house both Mr. Blackie and his older brother who visits occasionally, Darth Vader.

A few weeks later three giant crates arrived at our house and construction began on our own feral cat sanctuary and shelter. It took a couple solid days of work, but the assembly, staining, weatherproofing and placement of the cat feeding shelter and cat houses was complete. We later added a third house when we discovered that Mr. Blackie was reluctant to use the flexible in/out doors on the two-story cat shelters. The third house had an opening with no door whatsoever. Mr. Blackie preferred that one.

The new feral cat sanctuary worked, sort of. Mr. Blackie would eat inside the fancy, handmade South Carolina cat house but did not trust the flexible plastic door. He had been trapped here, by us, once before when he underwent the ordeal of being captured, immunized, neutered, microchipped and released. It’s unlikely he would ever forget the trauma of captivity. Mr. Blackie would put his body three-quarters of the way inside the cat house, the flexible door bent upward over him, eat his warm breakfast or dinner, then slowly back out of the house. He always kept one rear paw on the outside deck. But on the newest house with no door, Mr. Blackie was comfortable going all the way inside, sitting down, enjoying a meal and a nap.

Mr. Blackie was on a schedule, and it became quite routine. I would wake up around 5:00 AM, feed the indoor cats. Then I would heat up a towel, run some warm water and heat up cat food in the microwave for Mr. Blackie. One glance outside and there he sat, inside the cat house without a door, looking for me in waiting for his breakfast tray, warm blanket and drink.  He would stop by twice a day for a meal and a nap in his house.

Each time I went outside, out our far back door, juggling a couple bowls and a warm towel awkwardly through our back porch,  I would make a quiet clicking sound with my tongue to let him know I was coming. Blackie would momentarily retreat to a couple yards away until I laid out his table inside the cat house. As soon as I stepped away he would return, darting inside the house to get his hot meal. Afterward, he would crouch like a loaf of black bread just inside the door while watching us watch him through the window. Here is the routine caught on video by my girlfriend, Jan Mack:

Over time Blackie’s behavior changed slightly but noticeably. He would not let me get closer to him, and I rarely tried. But he would get closer to me. The pattern of our arranged feedings was well set for weeks. When I approached through the low west gate in the back-porch wall, he would retreat through the east gate momentarily, then return once I had set his table inside his house.

But the last week something changed. Mr. Blackie got much closer to me. One day he crept to within two feet of me. Blackie knew I always left through the west gate. One day he blocked the gate with his body, looking up at me, silent and staring. What did this mean? Was Mr. Blackie torn between instinctual fear and distrust of human-apes and a moderating… longing for my benevolence?

Cats learn language, given enough time. And while you may dispose of a cat-person’s conversations with their cat as ridiculous, cats do learn our vocabulary and, if we listen long enough, we can learn theirs. It is similar to me moving in with a Vietnamese mountain tribe. Sooner or later, we would figure out a way to communicate basic wants, needs and emotions. With my indoor cats, our mutual language is quite articulate. Their vocabulary consists of tail movements, blinks, meows, purrs, chirps and postures. Mine is clicking noises, key words and inflection. Our mutual vocabulary includes hundreds of “words” now. We can have fairly sophisticated conversations that communicate not just, “I want food” but emotions like, “I am frustrated”, “I am scared”, “I am happy to see you”, “I love you” and “I am cranky and angry at you”.

Mr. Blackie on the left, Darth Vader on the right. The two brothers are easy to tell apart. Blackie, the younger brother, has perfect ears, is slightly smaller, never speaks and has bright green eyes. Darth Vader (right) has a distinct permanent bend or kink in his right ear, is larger, will speak to people, has darker eyes and a fuller tail.

Mr. Blackie had not developed these communicational skills. He does not have this vocabulary. He is a rough cat, a wild animal, who lives in a binary world of survival and death with almost no grey area for emotion or frivolity. He never owned a cat toy, didn’t know his own name, rejected the notion of having his own blanket and likely regarded the food I gave him as a weirdly repetitive windfall rather than a dependable act of care or kindness.

But that last day, Mr. Blackie acted different.

If you spend enough time looking at a cat’s face you easily learn their expressions. Fear, anger, apprehension, contentment, elation.

The last day I saw Mr. Blackie his normally confident face exuded doubt and concern. He darted behind me when I brought his food, then waited for me to set his table inside his cat house as usual. But, when I turned to leave, Mr. Blackie blocked my exit. He crouched firmly across the gate leaving the patio and stared at me, unmoving. It was as if to say, “You- stay!”

I spoke to him, asked him a couple questions, but he just heard babble. And continued to stare. I could not leave the back porch. He continued to block my exit. Finally, I went out the long way around where he enters. It was odd, very odd. That pattern persisted for two days.

Then, he disappeared.

On the first morning he did not arrive for breakfast I realized I had made some kind of emotional mistake. That I had bought into this too deeply, too enthusiastically. That I had admired him too much and hoped he would be something I longed to be; brave, wild, free, utterly tough and unafraid. I think in my mind I eventually hoped he and I would visit together on the back porch and I would learn of his life, his adventures, his cunning comings and goings. He and I would be like some Disney movie about a boy who adopts a wolf or some such crap.

But instead, he just disappeared.

I did not give up though, even though I realized what I did here was likely at least somewhat poor judgement. My girlfriend did not share my enthusiasm for Mr. Blackie, even mentioning that, “This was starting to become a problem”.

But I went on patrol for him, set out remote triggered night vision video camera traps, printed flyers, sent out messages on community bulletin boards and e-mailed volunteers at the animal shelter where Mr. Blackie had been microchipped and immunized.

Nothing.

Soon there was a weird change. Darth Vader, the bent-eared black cat and older brother to Mr. Blackie, returned for a visit.

Darth Vader is larger, older, wiser and much more civil than Mr. Blackie. Once, about eight months ago, I briefly petted Darth Vader at about 3:30 in the morning when he and his younger brother, Mr. Blackie, were discussing a border dispute between the two sibling cats on the sidewalk near our house. The border between their territory runs right through our house, Darth Vader owns the entire front yard, and Mr. Blackie owned the backyard and the outdoor cat sanctuary.

But on this day Darth Vader moved through Mr. Blackie’s village with caution, searching each building, sniffing, exploring. Then he looked at up at the window to see me. His expression was unmistakable. Darth Vader was looking for Mr. Blackie too, and he was clearly worried about his disappearance.

Since that day about a week ago Darth Vader has returned several times looking for his younger brother, Mr. Blackie. One night I spoke to him, asked him where Mr. Blackie was. Darth Vader responded with excited meows, extremely unusual for a feral cat who did not grow up with humans. Ferals usually never meow at a person unless they somehow regard them as a parent. But in his cat articulation, Darth Vader’s concern was clear. He was worried about Mr. Blackie too, and he was out looking for him almost every morning and night.

Darth Vader, the feral cat who lives on the northern side of the neighborhood. He is recognizable by his eye color, large size, kinked right ear and calm demeanor.

Mr. Blackie has not been seen for over 21 days. I contacted the animal shelter. He is not there. I search for him, usually, once a day. Sometimes more, and am always looking outside for him. There have been cat tracks, but most are directly attributable to Darth Vader’s larger paws and easy to identify. I have not seen Mr. Blackie’s signature smaller paw prints. Mr. Blackie’ body has not shown up anywhere. It is likely he is still alive. Somewhere.

I distributed flyers door to door again with all my contact information. Made a post on the local neighborhood bulletin board, Nextdoor.com.

I got one lead. A house two blocks from here installed a cat door on their garage. Mr. Blackie may have moved in there. For now, we don’t know. But I hope against increasing odds that as spring approaches something inside Mr. Blackie’s animal memory will draw him back for a warm meal and a soft blanket. Hopefully.

 

 

 

 

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