Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A LOST SHIP REMEMBERED…


The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchigumi
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
                                                         —Gorden Lightfoot, "The Wreck Of The Edmond Fitzgerald"

Today looks to be shaping into another of those magnificent November gifts—sparkling skies clear and azure blue, filled with brilliant sunshine. It's quite likely temperatures will again make it into the low-70s by mid-afternoon. You simply couldn't ask for nicer late-autumn weather.

An hour ago I abandoned my desk work, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and went outside to sit in the rocker and enjoy a break on the deck. The rich scent of new-fallen leaves filled the warm air. Downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches, and titmice were busily working the nearby feeder. Gray squirrels chased about among the upper branches of the big box elder. A few yards away, the river slipped steadily along. 

In such a tranquil spot, on such a balmy morning, it's almost impossible to reconcile this day with the same date thirty-five years ago when I stood on the rocky beach of Whitefish Point, on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior. I always make an obligatory stop here after spending time camping and rambling the beautiful wild country of the Upper Peninsula. It's my way of saying good-bye to a land I dearly love. The weather that afternoon was bad and deteriorating in a hurry. Freezing temperatures. Powerful winds. Lashing rain that pelted my face, stinging my cheeks and making it difficult to keep the waterproof parka's hood in place. 

The big lake was roaring and tossing like caldron as the fierce storm continued to build. Waves were a frightening height—approaching twenty feet. On a clear day, from this location where the lake narrows as it reaches Sault Ste. Marie, you can easily see the Canadian shoreline. But the dark sky, thick overcast, and moisture-filled air rendered the other side invisible. I stayed only a few minutes before stumbling back to the pickup and readying myself for the twelve-hour drive home. 

What I didn't know then, standing on that beach, was that I stood on the brink of history—only a few hours and seventeen miles away from a maritime tragedy that would become legend. At 7:10 p.m. that evening, November 10, 1975—about the time I stopped in Grayling, Michigan for a snack and to gas up the truck—the 729 foot long Great Lakes ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 530 feet of water as it struggled in vain to gain shelter on the lee side of Whitefish Point. All twenty-nine men aboard perished.

To this day, no one knows for sure what actually happened to the Big Fitz on that fateful night. Structural failure? Faulty deck hatches? A rogue wave? Bottoming out on Caribou Shoals? The mystery endures—and perhaps always will. But tonight, at the Great Lakes Shipwreck & Historical Society's museum on Whitefish Point, friends and family, various maritime officials, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, will gather to remember. And at precisely 7:00 p.m. the big brass bell recovered from the Fitzgerald's wreck the year after she went down will be struck twenty-nine times…a lonesome, poignant pealing that echoes across time and miles and down into the darkness of several hundred feet of icy water.


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38 comments:

Carolyn H said...

Griz: My first trip to the UP was in 1978. I hiked up from Mackinaw, past Tahquamenon Falls and then along Pictured Rocks Trail. I often looked out across that big lake and wondered about that ship. They were so close to making Whitefish Bay, to even now no one knows what happened.

Carolyn H.

George said...

Thanks for this wonderful remembrance, Grizz. I have heard about the Edmond Fitzgerald, but knew nothing of the details. I suppose it was just another one of those mysteries, albeit a tragedy, that we often talk about.

Bonnie said...

I love Gordon Lightfoot - he's a great songwriter/singer and The Wreck of The Edmond Fitzgerald is raw and haunting. Wish you had a link to a YouTube rendition to listen to as we read your reminiscences.

It's sobering, sometimes to realize how close we were to tragic happenings of yesteryear.

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn…

I've loved the U.P. since I first laid eyes on it back in the late 1960s. There's just something about that big lake and the wild country—all the history—that speaks to me on the deepest level. Some years back I bought a small piece of beach property on Lake Superior near the little town of Grand Marais, hoping to one day be able to build a getaway place there. That hasn't happened…yet. But I keep hoping.

I know that shoreline county well—Whitefish, Tahquamenon, the Two-Hearted, Deer Park, Grand Sable, Pictured Rocks, out the Keweenaw to Copper Harbor, all the way west to the Porcupines. I've spent hundreds of days lurching along two-tracks, checking out brook trout wallows, picking blueberries, looking for agates, and sitting in the pine-scented darkness before a crackling campfire looking at a million stars overhead while coyotes sang in the tamarack swamp.

The loss of the Fitzgerald has always haunted me—because I was there on Whitefish Point on the very day she sank, because I stood facing into that fierce, cold wind, and watched the house-high waves crashing ashore—and understand, in some small way, how very terrible it must have been to be fighting for your life out there in that bitter night…and to have been so heartbreakingly close to safety.

Grizz………… said...

George…

The sinking of the Fitz was big news at the time—and as subsequent story/legend, thanks in part to Gordon Lightfoot's song, has now become sort of a modern Titanic…although after 35 years we're already several generations past those who remember the incident first-hand. Personally, I'll never look at Superior or have a November roll around that I don't think of the way that lake and beach and the waves beyond looked on the day it happened.

Grizz………… said...

Bonnie…

It is, indeed, a sometimes sobering thought to brush so close to such awful events. Lightfoot's song works because it is mostly accurate, and absolutely catches the mood of that terrible evening. I think it is the best thing he ever did—but then, I suppose I'd have to be biased.

Re. the song link: if I'd have thought about it, I'd have tried to figure out how to make it work. I can tell you it was playing in my head all the time I wrote.

Jenn Jilks said...

We've been to Lake Superior Park. It gives you a greater respect for nature and the men and women who have lost their lives, and work to ensure safety.
Nicely done.

Grizz………… said...

Jenn…

It does, indeed. I've been out on Superior many times, talked to a lot of the old fishermen and captains, and have for years collected books on various aspects of history, logging, the fur trade, etc. of the Great Lakes region. I probably have thirty or forty volumes on shipwrecks. Even the North Atlantic can't dish out what Superior serves up—and most folks have no idea of the number of lives which have been lost on these sweetwater seas.

They are hauntingly lovely and oh so dangerous.

Hilary said...

What a beautiful tribute to those who lost their lives on the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lightfoot's song has always had that haunting quality to it but I got goosebumps when I read that you'd stood at nearly the same spot just hours earlier. Beautifully told, in this time of remembrance.

Grizz………… said...

Hillary…

Thank you. I suppose we all have a few "almost" brushes with events, people, history. This is one of mine…

ellen abbott said...

I always had a fear of drowning. It seemed to me one of the worst ways to go, sucking that water into your lungs. Then I read somewhere that it really was not a painful death, that our lungs were filled with water while we were in the womb. My rational brain wonders how anyone would know if it was painful or not unless they came back from the dead but it was enough to assuage my mind of the fear.

Grizz………… said...

Ellen…

I guess you could consider accidental death from at least three angles—the overall pain involved in the process, the speed/length of the process itself, and the potential for self-awareness of the event. Something could be painful but quick; no time to think. Slower, but not particularly painful. Or lengthy and painful with plenty of time to know what was going on and process the pain signals.

Is freezing to death on a mountaintop worse than falling off the edge of the Grand Canyon? Is it better to be crushed by a giant boulder, ran over by a train, or bitten in half by a shark? What about burning to death as opposed to drowning? Black mamba or brown recluse?

In the grab-bag of possibilities, I'd think drowning would be maybe a 3 out of a possible 10…give or take a point.

The Weaver of Grass said...

A tragedy - there have been so many similar occurrences - the days go by and we forget. It is good that you remember the day and the time Grizz -lest we forget.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: I love Grand Marais! And the devil's slide, too, of course. I'm envious of your property up there. I sure hope you get a chance to build (or at least camp!) on it.

Carolyn H.

Grizz………… said...

Weaver…

I agree, we do need to remember, least we become immune to the human condition and those events which have shaped our lives.

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn…

I take it you've been down the Devil's Slide? (I've always heard it called the Logslide; it wasn't until the National Lakeshore people came in that the name got changed and popularized.) BTW, you do know the secret is to not try and climb back up directly from the bottom, but rather to follow the beach eastward a hundred or so yards and ascend at one of the little watershed cuts where there's lots of vegetation for ample hand and foot holds—none of that sliding back four steps for every five. Takes about 10 minutes that way instead of an hour.

If you know where Coast Guard Point is, the property is about halfway out on the bay side. I love that area.

grammie g said...

Hi Grizz..just followed you from a blog I follow.
Your post it so wonderfully discriptive I found that I was holding my breath as I read..: }
I believe I probably remember the details more from Lightfoots lyrics and song !!
Beautiful tribute post to the tragedy!!

Grizz………… said...

Grammie…

No matter which trail you followed, I'm delighted you found your way to the riverbank, and glad you enjoyed what you saw.

I expect Lightfoot's haunting lyrics and music are the main reason many folks still remember the Fitzgerald's sinking. There have been nearly 5000 major or significant (because of loss of life) shipwrecks recorded throughout the Great Lakes. Sometimes, victims numbered in the hundreds. I hope that by remembering the wreck of the Fitz, we somehow, by extension, remember one and all who were lost over the years.

At any rate, thank you for visiting and commenting. I hope you vist often. You're always welcome.

sage said...

Nice post (Hilary pointed me to your blog). I have been to Whitefish Point a love the UP--how ironic that you were there that November day (I was finishing up my first semester in college). Thanks for the post.

Grizz………… said...

Sage…

Thank you…and I'm glad that, thanks to Hilary, you found your way to the riverbank. You're always welcome here.

It was sorta spooky that I was on Whitefish Point just hours before the Fitz went down—especially given my penchant, begun a few years before, for reading about and collecting Great Lakes shipwreck books. I didn't hear around the ship's sinking until a couple of days afterwards. But I can tell you one thing, that was horrific blow already in progress when I stood on the beach, and it increased in severity considerably that evening.

Again, glad to have you and appreciate the comment.

kcinnova said...

Gordon Lightfoot's haunting song has such power. I knew it was based on a true incident, but your description of being on the shore that afternoon makes it all the more vivid.
Wonderful writing, Grizz, and congratulations on your POTW.

Lori said...

What a well written story...it felt like I was there with you. Congratulations on POTW mention at Hilarys...very well deserving!

Cricket said...

A great post. Congratulations on your potw.

The song resonates over here on the East Coast, too. My father played it over and over when it came out. I've never been to Michigan, but over the last 300 years, a fair number of my family has been lost at sea.

Amazing that you were "there," in a sense. I don't think I'd forget that either.

Grizz………… said...

kcinnova…

More than anything else, I expect, Gordon Lightfoot's song has kept the memory and details of the Fitzgerald's sinking from fading. For me, being so close to the physical location not many hours beforehand, standing on the rocky beach, hearing the roaring crash of waves and feeling the pummeling of wind and power of the building storm that would put the great ship down and take the lives of all those men…well, the song just intensifies in its power every time I hear it.

I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. Had no idea I'd earned a place on Hilary's neat POTW listing, though. I must thank her.

Grizz………… said...

Lori…

Thank you for visiting and commenting. I'm glad you liked the piece. You're always welcome.

Grizz………… said...

Cricket…

I've been rambling around the U.P. and the shoreline of Lake Superior for decades, but it was just coincidence that I stopped at Whitefish Point on that fateful afternoon, hours before the tragedy.

You obviously come from seafaring stock. I don't think everyone understands the raw power of winds and waves. In many ways, the waters of the Great Lakes are more dangerous than the ocean—in that chop and waves build quicker and steeper, with far less distance between crests. The storm that took the Fitzgerald was one of the worst of modern times, and many experienced sailors who saw the lake during the peak said the waves were the worst ever.

Thank you for your nice words.

Life with Kaishon said...

What a mystery. I am so sorry for all of the families that lost someone that day. What a tragedy. I love how you wrote of the day. Beautiful writing style.

Grizz………… said...

Life with Kaishon…

Over the years, the Great Lakes have claimed literally thousands of lives in similar tragedies. And yet, being on the beach only hours before, experiencing in a small way the power of that building storm, made it less abstract than simply hearing or reading about it as a news item—and even now, I can't help but feel a more personal sadness re. the loss of the Fitzgerald and crew. Does that make sense?

Thank you for your nice words re. the writing. I appreciate them.

CherylK said...

Wonderful...just wonderful. I, too, got goosebumps when I realized you were there on that tragic day. Wow. My heartiest congratulations on the POTW mention from Hilary. Such a good choice.

Linda said...

I love your writing style, Grizz. This was a lovely post of remembrance. Congratulations on POTW.

Grizz………… said...

CherylK…

I remember that when I heard about the ship's sinking, it was the strangest feeling, spooky in a way, as if some sort of fate scenario was involved.

Glad you liked the post, though, and I appreciate your kind words. Moreover, welcome to the riverbank. Please feel free to visit often.

Grizz………… said...

Linda…

I'm glad you liked the writing and post—and really pleased you found your way to the riverbank. Visit as often as you wish—you're always welcome.

TechnoBabe said...

There is respect and honor in your post. The lives that were lost and the story of The Edmond Fitzgerald are remembered well in your words. This is my first visit to your blog. Hilary sent me. Congratulations on POTW on her blog.

Grizz………… said...

TechnoBabe…

Thank you very much—I really appreciate your nice comments. I hope, for sure, that the post was written with—and conveyed—a sense of respect and honor, for that's certainly how I felt.

Too, welcome to the riverbank!

gaelikaa said...

Late autumn weather is my absolute favourite....

Grizz………… said...

gaelikaa…

My very favorite time of the year hereabouts is late-April/early-May…because I love the vernal resurrection of spring—the returning birds and pastel wildflowers, the greening of the landscape and the great fishing. But late-autumn, particularly November, is my second pick. I love the crisp weather and the sere landscape, the skies and wind and geese overhead. (And in case you're wondering, I like winter next and summer last.)

BTW, welcome to the riverbank.

Land of shimp said...

Hello Grizz, congratulations on the post of the week mention over at Hilary's blog.

It must have been a terrifying night for those men. I didn't know until just now that they cause of the wreck is unknown. That must have been so very difficult for the families of the men aboard, just never knowing.

I'm not a fan of the song, personally but those poor men. Thank you for remembering them and reminding us.

Grizz………… said...

Land of shimp…

A year or so after the ship went down, there was a sort of semi-official conclusion that the sinking was probably due to unsecured hatches. Yet later images of the sunken ship do not support such a finding. Other captains and workers aboard ships docked near the Fitz prior to her final departure say they saw the hatches being secured. Plus the Fitzgerald's captain was an expert and highly cautious Great Lakes sailor who knew the dangers of the waters he'd worked for years, and by all accounts would never have failed to secure his hatches with such a storm predicted. The current thinking is that "rogue wave" even bigger than the 25-50 foot seas, was probably the cause—though that's just a theory. Whatever occurred happened fast…but was no less horrific.

Thank you for visiting. You're always welcome here at the riverbank.