“The Lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the skies of November turn gloomy”.
If there is a more haunting lyric about Lake Superior than this, I have never heard it. This is the second line in the first verse of the song he wrote about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a historic storm on November 10, 1975 that begins with “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.” It came out on his Summertime Dream album and reached #1 in Canada on November 20, 1976, #1 in the United States in Cashbox and held the #2 spot for two weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. I was only in my third month of my new teaching career in Ontonagon when the Fitz went down so the remembrances that pop up every November 10th bring back a lot of memories for me as well.
Back then, Detroit native John Nakas was our Elementary and Junior High School librarian and resident Gordon Lightfoot fanatic. I had been fortunate to see Lightfoot perform with his acoustic trio at NMU in 1972 so even though I wasn’t as deep into his music as he was, John made sure that I heard everything in Lightfoot’s collected works. He was impressed that I could do a rudimentary pick and sing of Lightfoot’s earlier hit (If You Could Read My Mind), a little parlor trick I learned from Tom Bailey when we worked at the Huron Mountain Club together in the summer of 1971. Being more of a strummer dabbling in guitar gave me just enough skill to plunk along on with a borrowed bass guitar during Bailey’s informal performances in the employee’s recreation room. In return for following him around a few songs (and proving to myself I would never become a bass player), Tom showed me the basic chord forms for If You Could Read My Mind and a few picking cheats to make it sound more or less like the song. Unfortunately, not playing this song on guitar enough over the past thirty years means I would need to learn it again from scratch as it was never formally written down in my book of songs.
When Lightfoot and his expanded band appeared in Marquette the next spring, we made it a point to get tickets. Perhaps it was performing the song so close to the shores of the big lake that added to the atmosphere, but one could literally hear a pin drop as he wove this tragic tale in concert. Some years later, I was able to see Lightfoot for a third time (again with his bigger band) and the effect was the same. An avid sailor who spent much time sailing the Great Lakes (Christian Island from his 1972 LP Don Quixote is another good maritime song), Gordon was able to impart his knowledge of plying the lakes and make you feel the waves and cold water.
The day that the Fitz went down, I happened to be in Marquette for the weekend. As we had done countless times in the past, we took a drive to Presque Isle to watch the surf breaking over the upper harbor breakwall. Having an older brother who loved to fish meant going out on both the Marquette harbor breakwalls (yes, all the way to the lighthouse at the end) on nice days. On days when the surf was large, but not Fitzgerald huge, we wouldn’t take the chance of being that far from the shore. The lake’s demeanor, as we all knew, could change in a a very short period of time. Northern Michigan University actually built a warning into their new student orientation that those new to the area should never venture out on the breakwalls during high waves, yet every few years, someone doesn’t get the message and perishes in the icy depths.
The hazard isn’t confined to those new to the area. The recent incident involving a couple of Upper Peninsula residents swept off the Black Rocks on Little Presque Isle is a sad reminder that no one should underestimate the lake. I have walked the Black Rocks numerous times. I have jumped off of them and snorkeled beneath the cliffs but I have never seen waves breaking over them up to the tree line as they were when the unfortunate couple were washed away.
The only time I was actually scared to be out on Lake Superior happened in the mid-1960s. My dad had purchased an 18 foot Dunphy runabout with a front deck, windshield, steering wheel, mid-deck, and an 18 horse Johnson outboard motor. He decided that it would be fun to take the lakeshore route and boat our way to our camp at the foot of Huron Bay. My brother was going to drive the trailer to camp and the rest of us were going to meet him there. It was a beautiful day with a slight breeze blowing as we rounded the breakwall at Presque Isle. There were moderate waves but the Dunphy handled them just fine as we were still on the lee side of Presque Isle. There must have been terrible weather on the northshore because as we came around Presque Isle, the waves got bigger and bigger to the point where we couldn’t see land in the troughs and felt like we were on top of a mountain going over the crests. My mother suggested in no uncertain terms that it was time to turn around. My father informed her in no uncertain terms he was going to but not until there was a trough wide enough in to turn around in without getting swamped. Brother Ron had taken a stroll part way out on the breakwall before heading for camp and when he saw the peaks of the waves on the horizon to the north, he stayed put figuring that we would be coming back into the harbor. The subject of boating to camp was never raised again. I am not scared of Lake Superior, but on that day the lake was terrifying. I will suffice to say I am just fine looking at it from the shore these days.
I can count my other experiences out on the big lake on one hand. My good buddy Jim took me Sunfish sailing across the bay from Presque Isle at Middle Island Point on a borrowed sailboat. A Sunfish was more of a sailboard with a small open cockpit than a sailboat, but I was game as it was a hot June afternoon. We misjudged the winds and found a mile off shore they were brisk and changeable. As we turned to begin the tacking maneuver needed to get back to shore, a particularly strong gust of wind caused us to roll over and take a dunking in the frigid waters. Jim had instructed me how to right the Sunfish if this had happened so when I didn’t see Jim surface, I grabbed the keel, pulled back and then grabbed the gunwale and leaned into pulling the mast and sail up and out of the water. What I forgot were his instructions to right it into the wind and sure enough, the sail cleared the water, caught the wind and kept right on rolling over me. To my right, I was surprised to see Jim sailing right over the top of the rolling deck and his last words before he was dunked again were, “I am caught in a rope!” This disturbed me a bit so I collected my wits and remembered him distinctly saying “right the sail into the wind, not with it.” I swam around to the other side and when I did it right the second time (pun intended), we were both pleased to see Jim resurface. As I joined him topside, he said that he had been treading water with his head in the small compartment at mid-ship trying to untangle his leg when I rolled him over the top the first time and back to the top the second time. He asked if I had thought about swimming for shore if he hadn’t come back up and I said “Nope, we are too far out and the water is too cold.” We chuckled nervously about our reminder of how cold the lake is in June and spent the better half of the next hour carefully tacking back and forth against the offshore wind to get back to where we had started our little sailing adventure.
Prior to my first and last Sunfish sailing adventure, I had puttered around the lower harbor with Paul Bush’s family. Paul’s father was our pastor at St. Mark’s and this little cabin cruiser was his labor of love and he spent many hours refurbishing it in their backyard. When they took it on it’s maiden voyage, we were near the outer end of the breakwall when Pastor Bush announced that he would love to go all the way to Munising . . . but he didn’t trust that the inboard motor would behave long enough to get us there. Needless to say, one of us was relieved to be back at the dock a short time later. It was an interesting little boat as it was pointed at both the bow and the stern, but not interesting enough for me to sign on for another cruise. I can’t say for sure if they ever made it all the way to Munising.
As a freshman in highschool, we had a former iron miner turned teacher for Social Studies. One day we began talking about fishing for some reason and he mentioned that he used to love to fish on the big lake but stopped when he and a buddy got caught in a storm in a sixteen foot aluminum boat outside Presque Isle harbor. They had been trolling near the White Rocks off Presque Isle when a sudden squall turned the lake from placid to a roaring caldron in a matter of 15 minutes. They couldn’t navigate in the big waves with their small motor so they sat in the bottom and held on for dear life knowing that they were about to be dashed onto the outside of the breakwall. We asked what they did as he obviously had survived and all he said was, “We prayed.” It must have worked because one minute they were riding a roller coaster of waves and troughs outside the breakwall and the next minute they were inside the harbor. They happened to reach the breakwall on the crest of a wave that washed them over the wall and into the harbor instead of bashing them into the outside wall. “I went home and sold my boat,” was his final summation of his future relations with Lake Superior.
As for lake adventures in Ontonagon, they have been mostly conducted at the beach. My only trip out on the big lake was aboard the Port of Ewen with Captain Ted Trudgeon at the helm. We had invited Fred Rydholm from Marquette on an excursion up the mighty Ontonagon River to see the pyramids on the big bend several miles up the river (another story for another day). On the way back to the marina, Bruce Johanson suggested we take a spin out of the river mouth. Captain Ted obliged and we went about a quarter mile out past the end of the piers, turned around and came back. I have proof because in my photo archives there are some nice pictures of Ontonagon taken on that occasion. Since then, I have been content to paddle around the foot of Huron Bay (which is part of the big lake after all) and observe the lake from the beach.
We used to take our Junior High honor students on a trip to Duluth each spring, stopping every other year to tour the retired ore freighter the William Irving docked in the Duluth harbor. One one such trip, the chartered bus driver and I got talking about the Edmund Fitzgerald. He pulled out a tape and put Lightfoot’s song on the bus PA. It was a perfectly beautiful day but there was something about sitting next to a ship the size of the Fitz and hearing the song that sent an actual shiver up my spine. I get the same shiver anytime I hear a report of some unfortunate people disappearing in the lake knowing what Lightfoot sang so long ago is still true today: “The lake it is said never gives up her dead, when the gales of November turn gloomy.”
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