As the Chicago winter transforms our city once again into an unforgiving winter landscape to test the mettle of even the hardiest explorers, pedestrians near the Columbus Avenue bridge witnessed an exciting development Wednesday morning: the Chicago Water Department’s icebreaker tug James J. Versluis bravely charting a course up the frozen Chicago River, like some sort of modern equivalent of the thrilling Antarctic expeditions of Captain Robert Scott.
The Versluis, bravely captained by steely-eyed Water Department scientist Amelia Goshawk, 44, sailed forth beneath awestruck joggers on the downtown bridges just before sunrise Wednesday morning. Appearing less a humble civic utility vessel than a rime-encrusted juggernaut to the planet’s coldest reaches, this pure symbol of the resilience of the human spirit repeatedly leaped atop the thin sheet of ice covering the river and churned it beneath its tiny but powerful turbine engine. Understandably, the sight immediately brought quickly-frozen tears to the eyes of onlooker Leslie Cordova, 30, who was walking to work at the nearby NBC building. “I thought I was only going to catch a glimpse of the Versluis this year, but it was actually going remarkably slow, so I had to keep walking,” Cordova told The Chicago Genius Herald. “However, I’ll remember the utter grit and tenacity of that little boat forever.”
In the brief fifteen minutes of the Versluis’ scheduled weekly journey from the lakefront to Merchandise Mart, no Chicagoan worth their road salt was able to turn away from the arresting sight. The grim souls aboard the vessel narrowly cheated icy death as they cautiously navigated the treacherously minimal ice that had accumulated over the week. Indeed, when the Versluis ran aground on a flotilla of frozen takeout containers near the Wabash Ave. bridge, a cry arose in unison from the gathered crowd at AMA Plaza.
As the boldest of the sailors worked near the waterline to free the craft, Captain Goshawk strode out upon the deck with an iron countenance, pointed accusingly at the crowd and growled, “Let ye who witness our progress behold the folly of Martin Merchandise, for it is his fat schooners, laying low in the water with plunder from abroad, that demand a clear channel and hunger for our sacrifice today!” Goshawk croaked “Abandon all hope, men,” and tension hung in the frigid air for in the brief minutes it took to free the craft. “Thank Neptune that’s over,” Goshawk was heard to say, before the telltale sounds of the captain resuming her Animal Crossing game emanated from the cabin.
“It almost looked like some of those sailors were about to eat each other,” remarked Jack Franklin, 24, an intern at a nearby ad agency who had been stopped in his tracks by Goshawk’s speech. “There’s, like, an Apple Store and an Amazon Go right there, but you have to admit how stirring this all is.”
As the Versluis turned down the south branch of the river to free that waterway from winter’s grip, the rising sun’s rays turned the Versluis’ aging, frost-covered deck a brilliant gold. Well-wishers waved handkerchiefs at the small boat from the roof of the Lyric Opera, another patch of ice was devoured by the Versluis’ ravenous bow, and the tug vanished around the bend, never to be seen again — until next week’s scheduled icebreaking. Thank you, intrepid heroes of the Versluis! Chicago will never forget you!