After spending months exploring the red rocks, white sand dunes, deep canyons, glacial mountains, plains prairies, and badlands, we were now in the Great Lakes region of the country – the great north woods – the badger and wolverine states. And central to our short time in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the greatest of great lakes – Superior.
On Sep 18 while researching ‘Lake Superior’ in preparation for this blog entry, the Google-search headline “One kayaker dead, and another reported missing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” appeared at the top of the results list. Six weeks prior, Vivian and I paddled a kayak along Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Along the peninsula shoreline, we paddled gently over sandy bottom shallow water that revealed a shipwreck and allowed us entry to small caves pock marking the vertical rock shoreline. The warm and calm waters were as far removed from Superior’s reputation as anything could be.
Our morning on Superior’s water brought back memories of our 2004-trip to its most famous island, Isle Royale, a National Park. A visit to the park requires one to fly in or ferry across Lake Superior. After three days hiking Isle Royale, our stay on the island was unexpectedly prolonged as our boat ride back to the mainland was cancelled due to inclement weather – waves reaching 10 feet or higher. At midnight, 12 hours past the normal schedule, we boarded the boat and ferried across “the lake that never gives up her dead” over glass flat water.
Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario – The Great Lakes of North America are the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world, by total area and the second largest by volume. Lake Superior, the most northern of the five is the largest freshwater lake in the world.
The Ojibwe Tribe that once dominated the northern great lakes region for centuries named the lake “gichi-gami”, meaning “great sea”. Later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spelled it “Gitche Gumee” in his poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. In 1976, Gordon Lightfoot adopted Longfellow’s spelling for his song ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fiztgerald’. The name “Superior” originally came from the French explorers in the 17th century that referred to their discovery as ‘la lac supérieur’. The name was later anglicized by the British into its current name, ‘Superior’.
Following the Apostle Islands, we made a beeline across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to a town called Brimley. Our campground was 30 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge which we needed to cross sooner than later. But, before that, we had a couple more days left with Lake Superior. Not far from us was St Marys Falls, a non-navigable 21-ft drop that separates Lake Superior from Lake Huron. To bypass these falls, the Soo Locks were constructed.
In 1855, the first locks were constructed, allowing passage between the two great lakes. Over time, commerce through the locks and canal had increased significantly and gained national importance. In 1881, the locks were turned over to the US Army Corp of Engineers that built two parallel locks that provide a gravity-powered 21-ft lift system. Freighters 1000 ft in length and holding 70,000 tons of cargo pass through the locks frequently.
It is a wonderful thing to stand in the Soo Locks observation platform located in Sault (pronounced SOO) St Marie and watch a 1000-ft freighter enter a lock. From Superior coming in on an easterly direction, ships enter a lock filled with enough water to match the Superior’s level. Several minutes pass as water is released and levels decrease 21 feet. Once the water is level with Lake Huron, the eastside gates open, and the ship continues its course. The opposite occurs when ships go upstream from Huron to Superior. Approximately 7000 vessels pass through the Locks each year, despite it being closed between January and March.
From our campground, we drove about 30 miles or so along the scenic Lakeshore Dr north through the tiny town of Paradise and ending at Whitefish Point where the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located. There’s a darn good reason why the museum is located at this cape outpost. Every vessel entering or leaving Lake Superior must pass Whitefish Point, the most dangerous shipping area in the Great Lakes.
More vessels have been lost in the Whitefish Point area than any other part of Lake Superior. It is estimated by most sources that the Great Lakes holds 6,000 shipwrecks and a loss of life exceeding 30,000. One of those wrecks that came onto North America’s collective consciousness lies 530 feet below Lake Superior’s surface about 17 miles away from Whitefish Point.
With a crew of 29 men, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on November 10, 1975. At 727 feet in length (considerably short than the more modern freighters), the Fitzgerald is the largest to have sunk in Lake Superior. A U.S. Navy aircraft equipped to detect magnetic anomalies associated with submarines, detected the wreck on November 14, 1975. An additional survey using a side scan sonar determined two large objects were lying close together on the lake floor, indicating that the Fitzgerald had been snapped in two.
The ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995. A replica with each of the 29 sailors’ names engraved on it was put in its place. The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot
Check out my previous Blog about our visit to Michigan 3 years ago.
2 thoughts on “Aug 4, 2021 – The Lake They Call Gitche Gumee”
Beautiful post. I had no idea that 90% of our iron ore passed through Sault Ste. Marie! We actually took a ferry through the locks. It was fascinating to experience the water levels rise and then watch the massive steel doors open and close. An engineering marvel.
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The “typical shipping route” on your map is actually the international boundary line between the U.S. and Canada. Routes are somewhat similar but they do not follow that exact route.