Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Mystery Tour, August 1, 2011

I wrote this article and posted it in the Spring of 2007. I’m reposting here today and have added a short 30 second YouTube video of a ship at the harbor in Duluth, MN at the end. If you click on the title, you will have an audio of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

Recently, I spent some time at the South Shore of Lake Superior. When I wrote this article, I was living in a two-room cabin on the shores of the Great Lake. I miss living there immensely. I visit the lake frequently and I am always drawn in to the water and its uses in so many ways.
Originally Posted in April, 2007

The ship Philip R. Clark, part of the Great Lakes Fleet arrived in port at Ashland, Wisconsin on Friday, April 27, 2007 with a load of lumpcoal destined for for Xcel Energy power generating plant. The coal was out of Toledo. The ship will head for Two Harbors, Minnesota after unloading in Ashland, to pick up a load of taconite ore bound for Detroit, Michigan.

We don’t get many ships in port here any more. I don’t remember a one last season. The year before that, I think I saw one deliver coal. The water level is very low, the lowest in 80 years. A full twelve inches lower than last year. The Corps of Engineers claim that this will continue until September and even then, a rise of only 1-3 inches is expected.
The cause of the low water is drought. Dry conditions in the area. Many inland lakes are also at lower than normal water levels. Boating this season will be a nightmare for many. Those that make their living relying on water use may suffer economically. Boats may not be able to dock, swimmers won’t have safe beaches and in some cases, no beaches, on the Great Lake Superior and many other inland lakes here in Northern Wisconsin.

When I returned from doctors appointments in Duluth early Friday afternoon, the ship was just coming into the port. They are quite large, the Philip Clark is over 760 feet long. But when it was made in the 1950’s, it was only 647 feet in length. They cut it open and added a 220 foot section at Frazer Ship Yards in Superior. Now, at 767 feet, it is a very large vessel to be getting into Ashland. And although loaded with coal on this latest delivery here, it was not a full load as the draft of the ship, fully loaded, would have made it impossible to maneuver with the Water level of the lake at this historic low.

This ship was built as an order of three such ships made by the American Ship Building Company for the Pittsburg Steamship Company. One of the others was the Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson was the ship that followed the Edmund Fitzgerald the night when the famous Gales of November brought her down and the lives of 29 crew members were lost, November 10, 1975.
One night in 1994, when I lived in Duluth, MN, we saw that the Arthur M. Anderson would be coming into port around midnight. It was a late season arrival and the weather was cold by the lake shore. We bundled up and stood there and watched the lights come from the distance towards the harbor entrance. As we stood there and the giant ore boat slipped quietly past us into the harbor, we felt an eery surreal feeling as we knew the story of the Anderson and it’s history of the last people to hear Captain McSorely  of the Fitz say, “We are holding our own”. The Anderson followed the Edmund Fitzgerald and had her in sight up until its fateful end, 15 miles short of Whitefish Bay, Michigan.
While I haven’t lived right on the shore of the Great Lakes, as I do now, for quite some time, I was born in their shadows and have lived near them all my life. Born in Chicago and the Great Lake Michigan. Living in Two Harbors, Grand Marais and Duluth, Minnesota over the years, and close enough to be influenced by Lake Superior from a standpoint of weather and energy.
I remember once wanting a glimpse of a NorEaster storm. We went to the shore near Duluth and donned every bit of cold weather gear we had. We tried to look at the waves, but they were not to be seen from the literally blinding sideways falling snow and sleet. the wind taking our breath away and the impossible task of getting any closer to the lake for fear of a rogue wave taking us to the depths and certain death.
Although I don’t read as much as I could or sometimes think I should, I have made my way through many a ships log, fact finding investigation, non-fiction story and/or fictionalized version about the Edmund Fitzgerald and other great lakes ships and ship wrecks. Web sites abound about the Great Lakes and the toll of ships taken as the ocean vessel Captains will tell you that they’d much rather ply their trade on the ocean than on Superior.
In 2004, we attended the launch of the United States Coast Guard Buoy Tender Alder at the Manitowoc Shipyards on the Menominee River in extreme Northeastern Wisconsin. This was quite the experience. Up close and personal with the ship as it lay in it’s crib, then watching it slide sideways into the river to start it’s service, replacing the Sundew, an older cutter harbored in Duluth. If you ever get a chance to watch a large ship be christened, do it.
Launching of the Coast Guard Buoy Tender Alder

I guess watching that ship come into harbor in Ashland moved me as I thought of a former life or of a bygone era on the Great Lakes. Less than 50 ships remain from a fleet of over 350 in the 1950’s. A theme of my fictional writing is set on the waterfronts of the great lakes and includes a longshoreman, Joe Nighthawk, as the main character. He’s still in print in someones old comment section.
The lake changes everyday. Its color changes with the color of the sky. Its surface with the strength and direction or lack of the wind. The wrinkles change from the gulls and ducks flying across the waters and the pods of waterfowl dotted around in sight. The energy flows as the big lake cleanses itself of unwanted debris, the waves pushing old logs to the shore and scouring rocks into round edged nuggets.

Go to the water. Stand by its shore. Enjoy this short video of the Gordon C. Leitch pulling into the Duluth Harbor one fine sunny day a couple of years ago.

Epilogue: In 2010, Lake Superior's water level has returned to its pre-2006 level. From 1998 to 2007, however, lake levels dropped steadily until they reached near-record lows in 2007. The time of this story, April 2007, was the lowest water level recorded since records were started to be kept in the late 1800’s.
This data taken from the Minnesota Sea Grant Report from 2010. Minnesota Sea Grant is a program run by the University of Minnesota and studies properties of the Great Lakes throughout the region.


Jeannie said...

I had no idea that Lightfoot wrote his song so soon after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. I never heard the news (course I was living in a backwater then with only 2 tv channels - neither of which was exactly stellar)

Mel said...

Live and learn....I'm glad that Mother Nature has a way of tending to herself and making things go full circle--or at least she makes a great healer even if full circle isn't something I'm graced to fully see happen. But you're right--go to the water and watch the magic happen. No two days are the same--ever...and that in itself is reassuring and a renewal of faith for me.
Must be a part of why I'm pulled to the waters, huh.

You have great boats....and trains.
I'm envious.
But!! Glad for you.
And glad for me to reap the rewards when I show up here! :-)

mig said...

So glad the water has returned. It always scares me a little to hear that water levels are low.
And what a magnificent old ship.