When storms lash inland oceans like Superior and Michigan, we cringe when thinking of the thousands killed on the Great Lakes in shipwrecks, swamped boats and capsized kayaks.
We should remind ourselves, however, that many folks also drown on our inland waters and along the Great Lakes’ shorelines during routine play. Few victims, of course, wear a lifejacket while doing fun stuff like swimming, wading, paddling, and jumping from piers or boats.
Still, the big lakes fascinate us. In the past six years alone, 558 people have drowned on lakes Erie, Huron, Ontario, Superior and Michigan, according to data compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (https://glsrp.org/statistics/). The most deadly Great Lake is Michigan, with 255 drownings from 2017 to June 2022, or 46% of the total. Next is Lake Erie with 133 (24%); and then Ontario, 94 (17%); Huron, 49 (9%); and Superior, 27 (5%).
Yep, in terms of drownings, mighty Superior — the world’s largest freshwater lake — is the least deadly. Then again, it makes sense. No Great Lake is less inhabited, and more remote and forbidding to casual swimming, diving and wading than Superior.
If you need reminders of Superior’s grim nature, isolated shorelines and cold indifference, just drive the Keweenaw Peninsula’s fingertip. If you can’t get up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula just now, study a map for the fastest roads between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point atop the isthmus separating lakes Michigan and Superior.
You won’t find a region with more beautiful waters and vast forests in the Lower 48, but this is no country for straight roads and cruise control. When you drive the UP’s backroads mile after mile on cold, rainy days without seeing other vehicles, you respect why smart Yoopers keep a survival kit handy.
Even so, the 11-mile drive from Paradise, Michigan, to the Whitefish Point Lighthouse Station and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is more pleasant than foreboding. But once you reach the dead-end parking lot and walk toward nearby dunes and the sound of waves from big water, you feel Whitefish Point’s isolation and Superior’s vast power.
Then you pause to study a modest memorial before reaching the dunes’ crest and seeing the silver-blue lake. The memorial, a sculpture titled “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” was done by Timothy Schmalz of Kitchener, Ontario. Schmalz sculpted the monument’s large bronze maple leaf as the backdrop for depicting the great ore boat battling waves and icy winds. Just below the ship and waves are 29 bells symbolizing the 29 men who died 15 miles northwest of there about 7:10 p.m. on Nov. 10, 1975. That’s when the Fitzgerald took its last tumble, breaking in two while vanishing without a distress signal.
As Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot sings, the Fitzgerald would have made Whitefish Bay if it had put 15 more miles behind her. The bay’s waters start a short walk east from where you park.
You think about all that as you leave Schmalz’s sculpture and follow a wooden walkway onto the dunes and look northwest across Superior. Any specific point 15 miles across the waves is beyond the horizon, but you try to imagine the site anyway, and the big, broken “ice-water mansion” 535 feet below.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum holds artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald, including the bell that once clanged from atop the ship’s pilothouse on rough days. Divers salvaged the bell from the wreck on July 4, 1995. In the bell’s place, they mounted a replica bearing the names of the Fitzgerald’s crewmembers.
The storm that sank the Big Fitz — the largest ship ever lost on the Great Lakes — has since been named “The Fitzgerald Storm.” That’s how things work on these lakes. Unlike hurricanes on oceans, gales and storms on the Great Lakes aren’t named in advance by weather forecasters.
For a Great Lakes storm to get named, ships must sink and people must perish. The Morrell Storm of November 1966 claimed 28 men who died on Lake Huron when the Daniel J. Morrell broke in two, and the Bradley Storm of November 1958 killed 33 men when the Carl D. Bradley sank south of Manistique in northern Lake Michigan. Unlike the Fitzgerald, which had no survivors, the Morrell had one and the Bradley two.
Midwestern duck hunters, of course, helped immortalize the Armistice Day Storm when dying by the score on Nov. 11, 1940. That storm killed 160 to 210 people across the Midwest, including about 85 duck hunters in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It also killed 66 mariners by sinking five ships on Lake Michigan and another 10 on Lake Superior.
It’s no coincidence those four storms struck in November. Of the Great Lakes’ 11 deadliest storms the past two centuries, seven hit in November, and two others struck during the second half of October. Those 11 storms killed an estimated 1,300 people across the big lakes — mostly on Huron, Superior, and Michigan; but also on Erie and Ontario. Of that toll, November claimed an estimated 725 (56%) of the deaths. If you include the two deadliest late-October blows, the toll hits 875 (67%).
None of those storms, however, unleashed more death and destruction than the Great Storm of 1913, which blew four days, Nov. 9-12, killing about 275 people. This killer storm was also called the “Big Blow” and “Freshwater Fury.”
Historic storms and doomed ships are haunting stuff, of course, which makes it easy spend a couple of hours at a shipwreck museum and famous lighthouse. But when you return home, don’t let your guard down on smaller waters and pleasure crafts.
Deaths in kinder waters might accumulate more slowly and less dramatically, but the toll is just as grievous to loved ones left behind.
Patrick Durkin photos:
— The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald memorial at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula honors the 29 men who died when the ship sank Nov. 10, 1975, on Lake Superior.
— The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is next door to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and roughly 15 miles from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s wreck site.
— The bell from atop the Edmund Fitzgerald’s pilothouse was salvaged, restored and put on permanent display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.
— Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at @patrickdurkinoutdoors.com on Facebook and Instagram.