Hidden Secrets at the Bottom of Lake Superior
Happy Halloween boys and ghouls, it’s time to visit Lake Superior – the greatest of the Great Lakes.
I will warn you, if you have any level of thalassophobia or submechanophobia, you may want to skip this one.
Down in the icy depths, lost souls remain tethered to the fallen vessels they once boarded – none the wiser for how their voyage would end. Hundreds of shipwrecks rest irretrievable at the bottom of the lake – but they cannot be forgotten. Not when storms stir the pot and bring old memories back to shore, including lake glass, lumber, and old factory debris. With how the water has seethed, some of these items’ origin is difficult to discern.
But, as Gordon Lightfoot once crooned, Superior doesn’t give up her dead…nor do they disappear into the ether as those ill-fated bodies of most ocean wrecks.
Lake Superior contains 10% of the globe’s fresh water, it’s so big it has its own tide, and with the average temperature resting at 36°F/2°C, underwater bacteria that would normally feed on human remains, causing them to bloat and return to the surface…doesn’t easily grow here.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald (Sunk 1975)
Today, many family members of the lost crew members of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (or “The Fitz”) still live by the lake’s edge. And the coastal towns they live in? They’re not quiet about their place beside what amounts to a mass graveyard.
Led by Captain Ernest McSorley, the Fitz departed for its final trip with a hardened crew of 29 experienced and capable men, who were no strangers to Superior’s tumultuous waves.
On November 10, amidst an ever worsening storm, the freighter Arthur M. Anderson, with whom they’d been in close contact throughout their parallel voyages, lost sight of the Fitz that had been less than 30 km ahead of them. They maintained radio contact for the next several hours, the Fitz reported structural damage and the loss of radar; the Anderson received its last message from Captain McSorley at approximately 7:10 pm.
“We are holding our own.”
Captain Cooper of the Anderson attempted to raise an alarm for the Fitz’s plight not twenty minutes later, but not only could she not be hailed, she did not appear on radar. By 9 pm the vessel was recorded as missing – but not lost.
While search efforts were deployed by the Anderson and others, after three days the ship was deemed lost with only empty lifeboats and minor debris found. It took a US Navy aircraft, equipped to detect magnetic anomalies, to find the resting place of the Fitz and her crew on November 14, 1975. With a session of dives taking place in May of 1976 finally locating the ship, broken into two pieces, on the lake floor.
No precise cause of the sinking has ever been determined and remains a point of discussion to this day.
The SS Kamloops (Sunk 1927)
Almost fifty years earlier, the SS Kamloops, a Canadian lake freighter carrying twenty-two men and women, was last seen coated in ice and heading towards the southeastern shore of Isle Royale on December 5, 1927. Much like the Fitz, its ill-fate was caused by a massive storm that churned the waves of Superior, as if stirred by the prongs of an angry god’s trident.
While search efforts began only days later, nothing came of it until May of 1928, when the remains of nine crew members were found. Only five were able to be identified, the remaining four laid to rest together in a grave at Thunder Bay, with a unified memorial stone.
But unlike the Fitz, this ghost ship remained in its cold limbo for fifty years, its location unknown along with the fates of the 13 other men and women aboard.
Except, for a note in a bottle.
While its origins cannot be confirmed as fact, it is credited to Alice Bettridge, a stewardess of the Kamloops. Her words inscribed are brief, but share a shattering glimpse into the young woman’s final moments:
“I am the last one left alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. I just want my mom and dad to know my fate.”
Not until August of 1977 was the Kamloops discovered. A group of sport divers carrying out a systematic search for the wreck finally located it in its sorry state. Its crew included.
Do you fear corpses floating in closed, claustrophobic environments hundreds of feet under water where natural light barely breaches? The Kamloops, the Edmund Fitzgerald, and their sister shipwrecks remain on the lake floor of Superior, from hundreds to only a few feet below the surface. On calm days, kayakers can float above the remains of ships and see them emerging from the depths, twisted, rusting metal and decaying wood straining out like hands from a grave.
And that may be closer to the truth than comfortable. As befitting many sailors’ wish for a burial at sea, a grand majority of those lost souls stay as they are – within the bowels of their vessels.
Near the engine room of the Kamloops a lone sailor sits, nicknamed “Old Whitey” for the adipose that coats his body. Almost perfectly preserved among supplies that have been locked in time, only a single photo exists of this man, taken from an angle to hide his features out of respect. Dives to this ship and others have not been overly criticized (as long as you don’t do something irreparably stupid that could cause any restful spirits to return to drag you down), but the same cannot be said for all.
As mentioned, family of the lost Fitz crew still live on the lake today, and are vehemently defensive of it. However, in the past some “explorers” took advantage of the wreckage’s fame to grab some of their own. But, in the mid 2000s an amendment was made to the Ontario Heritage Act to protect the Fitz and two other ships in the depths from, essentially, graverobbing and desecration. Alarm buoys now surround the Fitz that, if crossed, will alert the proper authorities and slap the perpetrator with a nice $1,000 CAD fine.
That is, if the ghosts don’t get you first.
But those ghosts remain as a humbling reminder of the dangers of Lake Superior, whose icy grasp will take no quandary. Now, every November, there are memorials held on the bank of Superior, in honor of those lost.