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Diving in Lake Superior, Michigan - Part 2

Updated on April 28, 2010

Lake Superior contains the Great Lakes' only national park, 45-mile-long Isle Royale, populated by wolves and moose above the waterline and shipwrecks below. The drop-off around the mid-lake island is steep; the steamer Kamloops, for example, sits just 225 feet off 12 O'Clock Point, yet lies 260 feet deep.
Most of the nine wrecks divers visit at Isle Royale are shallower, although all lie at acute angles on sloping bottoms. For instance, on the 183-foot steel-hulled passenger and package freighter America, divers — and even snorkelers — can view the bow under eight feet of water, while the stern sits on an 80-foot bottom. In between, divers will find the remains of a piano in the ship's social hall, a Model T truck, and other remnants of the 1920s, when the lakes were cruised in grand style.

The oldest wreck at Isle Royale, the paddle-wheel steamer Cumberland, lies near Rock of Ages Reef on the southwest end of the island. Bits and wooden pieces of the Cumberland, sunk in 1898, are jumbled together with parts of the 270-foot freighter Henry Chisholm, which also went down in the late 19th century. Pieces of the Cumberland's paddle wheels are still visible in its watery grave.

While the Kamloops is strictly technical-diving country, the rest of the wrecks all have large sections within recreational-diving limits. Eight of the nine are shallow enough, at least in sections, to be explored by beginning divers. The downslope ends of these wrecks tend to be deep, though, usually from 80 to 200 feet. This makes Isle Royale a destination that can grow as a diver gains skills, experience, and training.

Curtain Call

Even as Lake Superior water begins its long journey to the sea, it still holds fascinating possibilities for divers. Lake Superior empties into Lake Huron through the St. Mary's River, where ships are lowered from one lake to the next via the famous Soo locks. Right at the mouth of the St. Mary's River lies the wreck of the Sagamore, a well-preserved example of a whaleback steamer-barge.

Metal-hulled whalebacks, vessels unique to the Great Lakes, looked like Jules Verne-era submarines. Their rounded hulls rode low in the water when fully loaded, plowing through and quickly shedding the heavy seas common to these lakes. That low-in-the-water posture proved fatal to the Sagamore in July 1901, when the package freighter Northern Queen literally overran the whaleback in heavy fog. Weighted with a cargo of iron ore, the whaleback and three of her crew plunged 70 feet to the bottom.
Today, the Sagamore sits upright where she sank. Although the deck cabins were blown off in the sinking, and lake perch now swim where the crew once worked, many interesting details, such as the huge tow-guides on the whaleback's bow, survive. On the afterdeck, look for the deck prisms — inverted pyramids of green glass pressed through the metal deck — designed to transmit light to the quarters below.
Since the Sagamore is near the shipping lane, divers should notify the Coast Guard when they anchor and again when they leave. In addition, be sure to dive from a vessel large enough to paint a recognizable radar-return. With these precautions, this St. Mary's River site is a fitting curtain call to the world's largest lake and some of the world's best shipwreck diving.
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