Friday, January 10, 2014


I come from a family of folks that hail from somewhere just south of the Arctic Circle and for many years, we stomped and tromped our way around the frozen parts of Michigan – at least within my memory; my folks remembered something a bit harsher – and we spent weekends in unheated cottages up near Lake Superior. Early mornings, crisp, bright and absolutely still, my father would rustle me out of bed and we would clamber into several layers of wool things; socks, underwear, undershirts, and more layers of wool would follow. Coats, scarves, mittens and then boots. My mother preferred to stay behind and cook breakfast; she didn't care for the cold weather much, but would play in the snow with me occasionally.

Both of my parents flew airplanes. For fun. I have no other words for this particular mania on their behalf.

He and I would tramp off into the great outdoors and head over to the eastern edge of Lake Superior. This lake is one of the deepest fresh-water lakes in the world, surpassed only by Lake Baikal in Siberia. The Superior is a force of nature unsurpassed for her beauty and for her deadly intent. For here is where, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down, on November 10, 1975. We could not know it at the time, for this was in 1959, just a year after her launch, but even at the age of 4, I was blessed with a father, with patience for my questions and who was fascinated with meteorology, and the great outdoors. To him, Lake Superior, was a living, breathing entity, and one not to be taken lightly.

This is a gorgeous picture, but it is also a reminder of how brutal the elements can be. The ice is thick, and this is a lighthouse on one of the Michigan Lakes. My guess would be Superior, but it could be any of them. The current cold snap is something I have experienced. In 1981, we saw temperatures as low as -51° F in the lower peninsula. Then, as now, it was warmer in Alaska.

We would visit her off and on several times before we moved to California, when I was seven, where I would grow up, only to return to Michigan at the age of 21 for school. But as a child, and a very curious one, I had a million questions, and a (mostly) patient father who would answer everything to the best of his ability. If he didn't know, he simply said he did not, and then he would make up some outrageous lie to make me giggle.

My father took on a patina of either heroic proportions or monumental stupidity, but he actually flew B-29s up MIG alley with fighter escorts during the Korean Police Action and allowed himself to be shot at. I would have been back at the pilots' shack nursing a hangover for 2 years. Just kidding. I'm physically brave, but only on the ground.

Daddys are the biggest, strongest, most powerful guys in the universe. We all know that and they are there to protect us from the Boogey Man. My Daddy was particularly good at it, but he also was not above giving me a good scare, when the opportunity presented itself. When we came upon the Lake one early, frozen January morning, she was keening. Like a woman mourning. The ice was being pushed from the west and it was piling up on the eastern shoreline. There was a slight wind, and the gentle motion of the water caused the ice shards to rub against one another. It was eery.

Lake Superior in February

As I stood a bit behind him, he said, “It's okay, Mare, you can come closer. They won't hurt you.” Feeling a bit concerned about who “they” were, I said, “Um, okay, but who are “they”?” He grinned, “Just the lost souls and their families who are mourning the ones lost on the Lake over the years.”

My little four-year old brain went into overdrive with this bit of new information. “Are you SURE they can't come out and bite us, or something?” I was becoming more concerned, and all of this high-pitched keening wasn't helping. He looked out over the lake; it's vastness made it seem more ocean than lake; the ice in front moved, in time with the gentle rise and dip of the water.

He looked back at me. “I'm pretty sure, but they might eat little girls for breakfast.” I went from zero to 60, as fast as my legs could carry me, but he caught me, mid-stride and swooped me up, laughing. “You don't think I'm going to let them eat you, do you?” And he tickled me. I laughed, fear forgotten. He carried me to the edge and explained to me what made the keening sound.

Look, the piled up ice rubs against itself and it squeaks, because it's so dry. It's just the ice. Nothing to be afraid of.” I was fascinated. We watched it for a while, and he put me down. We walked around parts of the ice and the lake, and he talked about how deep and ass-numbingly cold the lake is all year long, even in the summer. He had grown up not far from the lake as a boy and was so taken with it, that long after he and his sisters had moved away, he continued to come and visit it. But, he respected it, for as he put it “she's a killer”.

When the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down on November 10, 1975, she had been plying taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio, where the iron works were located. She had done so for 17 years, and was considered a workhorse, as she set seasonal haul records 6 times, often beating her own records. She also managed to entertain folks while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers, and while passing through Lakes Huron and Superior and the Soo Locks, with music and a running commentary about the ship, provided by the intercom system and her “DJ captain”. She endeared herself to many boat watchers. My father and I used to go to the Soo Locks and watch the boats make passage. It's an acquired taste, as the water runs in and out of the locks, and the giant boats go up or down slowly, then move from lock to lock. But they're huge, and mechanical. Did I mention I was a crappy girl-child?

courtesy: Hour Stories, Mariner's Church of Detroit

The Launching of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1958

When she made her final run, she had a full cargo of iron pellets, and had left from Superior Wisconsin, on November 9,1975. She was en route to a steel mill in Detroit and joined up with a second freighter the SS Arthur M. Anderson, but by around noon the next day, both ships were caught up in a ferocious winter storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet high. Shortly after 7:10 pm, Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian waters 530 feet deep and about 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay, near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Fitzgerald never reported any difficulty and no distress signals were sent before she sank. All 29 souls aboard perished and none recovered.

Lightfoot captures the bleak, gray and cold and openness of the upper Great Lakes and the environs. It's probably the best depiction of a song that describes time and place that I've ever heard and it's haunting as well; you can almost hear the keening of the ice.

I just cannot imagine being on a ship in seas like that. I've been on boats in deep water, sailing, in swells of 10 feet or more, and that is fun, but this must have been terrifying. Did the men have any time to know that they were about to founder? Many were young; they must have had time to think of their young families and children, or were they taken that swiftly, with little time for thoughts of anyone, because of the brutally cold and fierce storm. Was it just one huge wave that took them all to their deaths? Were they locked in such a fierce battle for survival, that they were unable to call for help? It is still heartbreaking, almost 40 years later and for their families, not knowing, I wonder how they've managed all these years.

Theories abound, studies, and expeditions have examined the cause of the sinking. She may have fallen victim to high waves, suffered a mortal injury, or been swamped with water. Perhaps she shoaled in a shallow part of the Lake. Her sinking is one of the best-known disasters in the history of Great Lakes shipping, due to Gordon Lightfoot's song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

Every November 10, throughout the day, on East Jefferson, at Mariner's Church, in Detroit, Michigan, the sinking is commemorated with the ringing of the church's bell 29 times for each soul lost on that voyage. Although I didn't live in Michigan during the sinking, I returned to my home state shortly afterward. And, although Michigan is a land-locked state, it is surrounded by the Great Lakes and in that sense, Michigan is a sea-faring state; depending on which website you look at, Michigan ranks as high as number 1, or as low as number 9 for registered boats. Almost everyone is aware and respectful of the huge power of those lakes. When I was able, I would go and sit in my car, before a concert, or after a concert, or rehearsal, and listen to the tolling of that bell, 29 times for the 29 lives lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

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