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The Great Lake Superior - A Sailor's Perspective

Updated on January 22, 2016
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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.

A beautiful day on a Lake Superior beach.
A beautiful day on a Lake Superior beach. | Source

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.

Iroquois Point Lighthouse. Nearly all Lake Superior lighthouses have been automated and no longer have keepers.  They require service twice a year.
Iroquois Point Lighthouse. Nearly all Lake Superior lighthouses have been automated and no longer have keepers. They require service twice a year.

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.

Sand dunes on the shore that were once used about 75 years ago by loggers.
Sand dunes on the shore that were once used about 75 years ago by loggers. | Source

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 Lake Superior
Isle Royale, the jewel of Lake Superior | Source

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 Storms

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.

Looking across the deck of a ship 1000 feet long.
Looking across the deck of a ship 1000 feet long. | Source

The Ice

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.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay breaking ice in Whitefish Bay.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay breaking ice in Whitefish Bay.

The Legends

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.

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    • MHiggins profile image
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      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for the compliment, Blackspaniel1. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Lake Superior is a very majestic place as well as a mysterious one. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to sail on its waters!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      This is well done, and quite enjoyable.

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      I'm glad that you enjoyed this, monia saad. Lake Superior is a very special place. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to sail on this great inland sea.

    • monia saad profile image

      monia ben saad 2 years ago from In my Dream

      Photos really amazing .. now I feel there salvation of beautiful pictures and wonderful story. Thanks

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for the vote, Lisa! I'm glad you enjoyed he hub. Sailing on the Great Lakes was a very special privilege. All five have something special to offer. Thanks again for stopping by.

    • LisaRoppolo profile image

      Lisa Roppolo 3 years ago from Joliet, IL

      Very interesting hub and I learned a lot about the lake. Really crazy info about the mineral content on Isle Royale affecting compasses too! I cannot wait to get back to visiting Michigan again. Voted Up!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      I'm glad you enjoyed the hub, ahorseback! Each one of the Great Lakes have their mysteries, their secrets, and their adventures. Each time our ship would moor somewhere, I spent my time getting acquainted with people in various ports. Most everyone had stories to tell. There is lots of history, weather stories, legends, and unexplained things. Thanks again for reading the hub!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you for reading my hub, Phyllis. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think I could have easily turned this hub into a complete book if I had continued! All of the Great Lakes hold a fascination for me but Lake Superior was very different from the others. It is an amazing place. Thanks again for stopping by and the kind words.

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you for stopping by, Carolyn. When I lived away from the Great Lakes, I had to visit them almost every summer. I had the opportunity to sail all of them and it remains a great achievement in my life. Thanks again for the vote!

    • ahorseback profile image

      ahorseback 3 years ago

      Pretty awesome hub ! I love the lakes and all their mysteries , the Edmund Fitz., the weather , the storms , tell us more please !....Ed

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      PS: shared on G+ and FB also. Amazing hub, Michael.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I am very impressed with your article, Michael and awestruck by the power of Lake Superior. I fully understand why such a masterpiece of Nature should be deeply respected. I truly enjoyed reading this hub and the experiences you had on the inland sea. Talk about being humbled - when facing Lake Superior and the forces of Nature, it is a humbling experience.

      Voted way up and H+

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Looks like I missed this when you first wrote it! I could relate to much of this because I grew up near Lake Ontario, now live near Lake Erie, and Niagara Falls has been a staple in my life :-) loved this, all the detail and photos were wonderful. Upvoted and shared!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you SANJAY for the nice comment!

    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 3 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

      You are absolutely right to say that the Lake Superior is truly a masterpiece in God's creation. Thanks for sharing.

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Hi Marcy. Thanks for reading my hub. Lake Superior is a very place and I was fortunate to have spent a few years in this area. If you can make it up there, I would surely recommend it. Thanks again!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks heidithorne for the vote! Each one of the Great Lakes is beautiful in its own way. My travels across and around Lake Superior were very memorable. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

      I've always wanted to see this lake - you'd think, since I grew up in Ohio, I'd have been to Lake Superior by now. But nooooo! It's on my list - I will use your hub for some ideas!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I visited Lake Superior as a kid. I still remember it decades later. Definitely more beautiful than our local Lake Michigan. Voted up and beautiful!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks Jaye, for taking time to read this hub. I still miss my sailing days but leaving that behind was the right choice at the time. I started to raise a family and couldn't be away for long periods. I still go out on the water when I can. Thanks again!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      This is such an interesting hub, Michael, with striking pictures of the pristine shores and wild beauty you described. I'd venture to say that when you no longer sailed the Great Lakes, you probably missed being a sailor for a long time. Right? What a magnificent experience!

      Voted Up++ and shared

      Jaye

    • MHiggins profile image
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      Michael Higgins 3 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks lyndapringle. It's really a beautiful place. Thanks for checking out the hub!

    • lyndapringle profile image

      Lynda Pringle 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Beautiful photos of Lake Superior. Thanks for sharing!

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