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.