The Great Lake Superior - A Sailor's Perspective
The Superior of the Lakes.
Years ago, I held a position as a Conning Officer on a small ship on the Great Lakes. During those years, I had the privilege of sailing on all five of them; Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Each one of them have something special that the others don't.
There are places like Niagara Falls where Lake Erie literally drops off of a ledge a few hundred feet; there is the Thousand Islands area at the end of Lake Ontario; Lake Huron with its Georgian Bay; Lake Michigan with its beautiful bays; and Lake Superior with its pristine shoreline.
All of them have their personal stories, legends, and beauty. The largest of the five lakes is Lake Superior. It is sometimes referred to as ,"The superior of the Lakes", by mariners.
Show Your Respect
Living in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan at the time, I had a neighbor who was a retired deck hand on an ore carrying ship. I was fascinated with the experiences that this older gentleman had during his sailing career. His descriptions of Lake Superior often gave life to this inland sea, often speaking as though the lake had intellect.
He always said that when you leave the Saint Mary's River and enter Whitefish Bay, the magic begins. He would say that if the seas are calm and the sun is shining, never forget to respect the lake and it's power to change. I found this to be good advice.
Pristine beauty everywhere.
As you journey out onto the lake, the natural beauty is overwhelming. The water was so clear that you could easily make out boulders thirty feet down on the lake floor. If it happened to be in the late Summer, you could see Salmon swimming in the water.
The deepest part of the lake is a recorded 1,333 feet deep or 404 meters. The surface area of this truly great lake is 31,700 miles or 82,100 kilometers according to greatlakes.net. Although it is called a lake, it is actually considered an inland sea because of its size.
As you look along the lakeshore you will see miles of uninhabited beaches. Some are sandy while others are covered with smooth stones. This is what the glaciers left behind at the end of the last ice age. Many of the beaches are lined with patches of Blueberry bushes. They grow wild there. If you are lured to go pick some berries, just remember that bears like them too. You are in wild country and will want to keep your eyes open.
Near Grand Marais, Michigan you will see sand dunes that seem to rise out of the lake. These sand dunes were deposited by glacial activity at the end of the last ice age. When out on the lake, the sand dunes are usually visible for about ten miles on a clear day. They were once used by lumberjacks to slide harvested logs to the water so that they could be towed to saw mills. The logging stopped many years ago and the forest has grown back. This area is now a national lakeshore and is protected.
If you continue to the west you will start to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This area also happens to be near the deepest part of the lake. Pictured Rocks is a spectacular outcropping of rock cliffs will run about thirty miles and ends near the city of Munising, Michigan.
Isle Royale - The Jewel of the Lake
In the northern part of Lake Superior you will find an island that is about forty miles long. This is Isle Royale. This island was once mined for it's copper content. Now the only living creatures on this pristine, hard to get to island are several moose, a pack of wolves, a few park rangers, and a limited amount of visitors at any one time.
Many of the visitors are students that are studying ecosystems. The island serves as a living laboratory. Other visitors are backpackers truly wanting a wilderness experience.
I have had the privilege of setting foot on this island about 12 times, usually to service the lighthouse. If you ever come to the island you will feel like you were the first human to ever set foot here. You will feel extremely far away from civilization. The only way to get access to the island is either by seaplane or by boat.
The island has a very high content of copper and iron. This can create a problem if there is fog and someone is using a magnetic compass to navigate to the island. When you get within about fifteen miles of the island a magnetic compass can deviate by as much as 120 degrees. I have seen boaters totally miss this forty mile wide island and wind up in Ontario, Canada!
A bustling area at one time.
If you take a look around you will see uninhabited shoreline as far as the eye can see. There will be several hundred square miles of forest with some smaller lakes. The area is sparsely populated, but it wasn't always this way.
If you could see the area around 1900, you would see active copper mines, taconite mines, and logging camps in full swing. There would be many ships carrying cargo to various places. There would also be several small but thriving communities to support all of the workers.
A very good portion of the people in the area are of Scandinavian descent. Most of them immigrated to the area to work in the lumber and mining industry. The area is very similar to parts of Finland and Norway so people felt at home here. Along the Canadian shoreline many of the people in the remote areas are of French descent. There are villages where French is the spoken language.
The lake is not perfect all of the time. Because of where the lake is located in conjunction with prevailing weather patterns, things can get very rough very quickly. This lake is known for its ferocity. Countless large ships have been taken to the bottom of the lake over the years. Perhaps the best known was the ore carrier, Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975.
On one of my sailing trips in late October, I was the Conning Officer from 8 pm to 12 am. There was a well seasoned helmsman at the wheel. We encountered gale winds and the seas became very rough. It was after 5 am in the morning before anyone could relieve the helmsman and me. Most of the crew was seasick. Our ship lost several pieces of gear that had been lashed down.
There are still some important shipping ports on the lake like Thunder Bay, Ontario and Duluth, Minnesota, and it is important that ships get to their destinations. When the winter ice comes it makes passage difficult and sometimes impossible. Lake Superior shipping will totally stop for a portion of the winter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes advantage of this down time to do yearly maintenance on the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
When shipping resumes, shipping lanes have to be opened. Sometimes the ice can be as thick as six feet. Seasoned skippers generally know how to navigate through but will sometimes need assistance from the Coast Guard or a harbor tug service to free them.
The assisting vessels will circle the stranded vessel as close as possible. This relieves the pressure from the ice on the stranded vessels hull. The assisting vessels work so closely that there are sometimes collisions with the ship that they are assisting.
Lake Superior has several legends that go with it. From about October to February, displays of the Aurora Borealis are quite frequent. My Native American friend told me that the lake is like a heavenly being itself. It's as if the lake is communing with the heavens.
My friend also says that there is a story about a young brave that saw a giant fish swimming in the lake. As it swished its tail, it caused the waves to form. This fish can sink canoes or anything else. When the water is calm, it is believed that the fish is at the other end of the lake.
I have often heard reference of the Witch of November by several of the mariners. During October and November as the prevailing weather pattern changes, gales are very common and will create very large waves. Storms can change the conditions of the lake within an hour. For this reason, mariners are constantly listening to marine forecasts for the lake.
Mariners will tell you that the wave action on Lake Superior is different from the other Great Lakes because of the it's size. In storms you are often hit by two rouge waves fairly close together and a third wave comes from a slightly different angle; usaually when a vessel is in a vulnerable position. Mariners call this wave action "The Three Sisters." This is what is believed to have taken many ships, including the Edmund Fitzgerald, down.
Appreciation and Admiration
I was taught to appreciate natural beauty at a young age. From my first trip out onto this massive lake to my last, I am overwhelmed by everything it has to offer. It is truly a special place. With it's clear water, calm days, stormy days, wildlife, and unspoiled natural beauty everywhere; this will always be a special place.
I can understand how people can talk about this lake as though it has feelings, a temper, and intellect. It seems to command the respect of those who sail upon it. I make trips to Lake Superior from time to time; to walk along the shore, to reminisce, to admire it.
Lake Superior is truly a masterpiece in God's creation. I appreciate everything about this Great Lake. During my years as a sailor I definitely had my respect for this amazing inland sea. This experience has changed my life.