“WHERE’S the crazy Irishman?” shouted a determined and forthright woman, in the distinctive drawl of Upper Peninsula, Michigan, as she stood beside a tall broad-shouldered, swarthy-faced man on the Munising marina jetty. The man was her partner, a Cherokee Indian, and she was hailing the deck of the tugboat Seneca moored alongside. The ancient, battered but proud, WW2 tugboat moved restlessly, tethered by its hawsers on the stormy waters of Lake Superior, just opposite Grand Island on the huge lake’s southern shore.
The Seneca had run for cover from the pent-up July storm now throwing up white water around Grand Island and the great lake beyond. The Ojibwa or Chippewa Native American people, who for hundreds of years have lived all the way round its 2,700 miles of shoreline, call it Gichigami, meaning Big Water.
I was the “Crazy Irishman”, a name adopted by the newspapers of various mid-western States including a radio and TV station who were covering my charity rowing challenge. My plan had been to row from the western end of Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, to the eastern end, some 400 miles as it turned out. The intention was to row in a low-slung single scull rowing boat, resting and eating on board the backup boat, Seneca, aiming to complete the journey within a two week period by keeping parallel with the southern shore. Everyone thought I was mad including the crew of the Seneca, my back-up team of friends from Northern Ireland, and a BBC NI film crew.
It had never before been attempted by rowers and within that period it seemed impossible given the unpredictable nature of the lake, even in July when the water temperature had risen from below freezing to just a handful of degrees centigrade in deeper water [still hypothermia level]! I had just turned 58 which only added to the sense of lunacy surrounding the entire endurance escapade.
“He’s here, resting on deck, come aboard!” shouted my comrades as they laughed at the familiarity of the name I had been justifiably dubbed.
At that point I had covered well over three quarters of the total mileage with one of the worst stretches still to tackle and time running out. Apart from a few days spent sheltering from the worst storms I had been averaging 36 miles a day, rowing at night when the weather was calm enough (a bit like rowing with one’s eyes closed).
“I want to give you this book Ian, about Grand Island, about my family and my fourth great grandfather, Ogichida, Chief Gashkiewishiwin-gijigong, a legendary Chippewa warrior and clan chief of his people,” said Kris (Kristine) LeVeque, stepping on deck with a smile and a warm embrace. “Please read what I have written inside the flyleaf – it’s about you and what you have inspired me to say about your voyage for the benefit of children’s charities.
“I have lived through you on your journey as our ancestors did when on one famous occasion in the early 1800s the island warriors canoed all the way to the western end of the lake as part of a huge Chippewa war party. Caught up in a disastrous battle they fought courageously against the Sioux, our traditional enemy at that time, in defence of their honour, families and land,” she added.
The island chief’s teenage son was the only Grand Island survivor of that one-sided battle, escaping and taking months to canoe home to tell of the courage of every one of the islanders who died with honour. Gashkiewishiwin-gijigong was made chief in his father’s place and given the honoured Chippewa title of “Ogichida”, meaning warrior. His heroic feat became local legend and in 1855, his extraordinary story was woven into literary history as additional inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s world-famous poem, “The Songs of Hiawatha”.
I completed the epic voyage a few days later having almost come to grief in huge waves at Au Sable Point, ridden out another storm in Grand Marais and rowed through the night as I watched shoreward celebratory fireworks set off in honour of the final leg of my challenge! I had reached the last possible day and after a gruelling 400 miles, a massive storm chased me across the finishing line. It had been achieved in eight days and two and a half nights of exhausting but exhilarating effort, which turned out to be a world-first for the sport of rowing.
It was the fact that I had done it to raise funds for BBC Children in Need and my East African charity Fields of Life, that the descendants of the island Chief, in 2006, a year after my row, invited me to join a native pow-wow in their small coastal city and in time become an adopted member of their family as blood brother to Kris! They added that they wished to honour me with the title Ogichida because I had braved all that the “Lady Lake” had thrown at me, for the sake of families and children who couldn’t help themselves.
In September 2011, I travelled to Indiantown, Munising where the time-honoured ceremony took place in a Wabeno [communal Wigwam], during which I uttered the Ojibwa words, “Ogichida ndizhnikaaz, Northern Ireland ndoonjibaa, makwa doodem Gichiminnis” [“I am called Warrior, I come from Northern Ireland and I am a member of the Bear Clan of Grand Island”]. Welcoming me into the family the clan leader and elder Ogima Kwae presented me with a blanket to wrap myself in. Granted the right to wear four colours on my native regalia, teal blue, aqua blue, royal blue and white [the colours of the Lake], I had become blood brother to a direct descendant of a legendary Chippewa Chief and adopted member of the Bear Clan, Grand Island Band, Tribe of Sault Ste. Marie, Chippewa Indians – the stuff of Wild West childhood dreams.