In the pre-dawn hours of a July morning, somewhere west of Kamloops Point, I awoke to the chirp of a text message and I fumbled for my phone, which had found a solitary bar of Canadian cellular service. A message, sent hours earlier, squeaked through:
“Malaysian Air flight shot down over Ukraine. 295 dead.”
It was from my wife back in Minneapolis, sending me a news update in case I was checking. Then back to radio silence, like I’d received a lone missive from a distant galaxy picked up by a satellite. I rolled back in my cot and listened to the thrumming of the big diesels beneath the cabin. We were motoring east across the top of Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior, heading for a morning dive on the SS Emperor, a Canadian ore freighter that sank in 1947, taking 12 men to the bottom with her.
Old disasters, new disasters.
In the middle of a frigid Midwestern winter, my high school friend, Chris, and I hatched the idea to charter a boat and dive Isle Royale. It had been a 20-year dream for Chris, a long-time wreck diver and photographer. We had dived numerous other wrecks in the Great Lakes together over the years as a prelude to this grand adventure. We found a captain that would take us out to the wrecks, plunking down a healthy deposit for two spots on the Lake Superior Diver, a lovingly restored 1960s ChrisCraft Commander 38 that was one of only two boats that makes the journey during the short season each year. We dubbed our forthcoming trip “Expedition Royale”.
When one thinks of shipwrecks, freshwater lakes don’t usually come to mind. But the Great Lakes, which form part of the border between the United States and Canada, are more like inland seas, stretching a connected waterway from Duluth, Minnesota at the west end all the way to the Atlantic Ocean to the east. For centuries, the lakes have served as a vital shipping corridor for freighters hauling iron ore, lumber, grain and other cargo between major U.S. ports and even to Europe and Asia.
The Great Lakes are notorious for their storms, which stir up ferocious seas and sink even the biggest ships; the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates that in total 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives have been lost in wrecks. (Mariner and historian Mark L. Thompson, in his book Graveyard of the Lakes, estimates the number of shipwrecks at 25,000.)
In the middle of Lake Superior sits lonely Isle Royale, home to a National Park, numerous wolves and moose, and surrounded by rocky shoals on which many ships have met their untimely ends. The fresh, cold water preserves these wrecks exceptionally well, many with their wood trim and metal as clean as the day it was sunk and even the remains of the unfortunate souls who perished. Isle Royale is a wreck diver’s dream, as long as that diver is hearty (or foolhardy) enough to brave the cold water, which rarely exceeds 40 degrees Fahrenheit at depth, even in a warm summer.
There are about a dozen known shipwrecks around the 33-mile long Isle Royale, some run up on shoals, some broken up and scattered on the bottom, some too deep to dive. There are surely countless others that have yet to be discovered, but the island’s remote location, short diving season and challenging conditions mean that its waters only see a handful of divers every year. Our plan was to dive five of the best wrecks over three days. In between, we’d be sleeping onboard the boat, docked in the shelter of the island, with our boat’s captain, Ryan, and mate, Rick, cooking for us in the galley or grilling onshore. There would be no wi-fi, no mobile phone coverage, no Facebook. It would be like camping and diving rolled into one trip — a proper adventure.
We motored out from Grand Portage, last stop before the Canadian border, during the second week in July, expecting frigid diving conditions. In 2014, Lake Superior saw its second greatest ice cover in recorded history, with over 90 percent of its 32,000 square miles frozen over from an Arctic winter. In mid-June, icebergs were still seen drifting in Duluth harbor. Captain Ryan told us the lake temperature was hovering around 36 degrees and likely wouldn’t crack 40 by the end of the summer diving season. Calm seas and balmy sunshine on the four-hour boat ride to the island belied the subsurface conditions, and we nervously waxed the zippers of our drysuits and triple-checked the O-rings of our camera housings. They say hell is a hot place, but I think it’s more like deep, cold water. Regulator freeze-ups, nitrogen narcosis and hypothermia are constant specters on the shoulder of a diver here.
The first wreck we planned to dive, the SS America, would be a good warmup, so to speak. The shipwreck had laid propped up on a rocky shoal for close to a century with its bow a mere four feet below the surface and its stern 75 feet deeper, as if it were ready to resurface at any time. But the day it sank in June of 1928 was the last time it would see the light of day. And now, after 86 winters being scraped by the thick ice of Lake Superior and tossed by storm swells, the America had lost its upper structure and much of its port-side decking. Still, its relatively shallow depth makes for an interesting dive.
After exploring the ship’s intact grand staircase, I swam forward toward the crew quarters. We’d been down for 30 minutes and I still had plenty of air in my tank and ample no-deco time, but here the cold is the limiting factor. The frigid water was taking a toll on my fingers, and I was having a hard time working the camera controls.
I picked my way under the grand staircase to a hole in a forward bulkhead. Ryan had told me that I could shimmy through and I’d find myself in the lower bunk of one of the crew beds. Sure enough, in the silty darkness I was able to make out a ladder to the upper bunk and the frame of an adjoining bed. I carefully crawled in and swam through the cramped cabin towards a shaft of sunlight coming down a hatchway above. At this point I was only about 15 feet below the lake surface — but the cold amplified my claustrophobia. I was ready to get out of there. I slowly rose up the ladder through the open hatchway but, as my head popped out to the open upper deck, my tank valve hung up on the hatch frame. I was stuck.
The Wrecks of Isle Royale
While there are undoubtedly more wrecks yet to be discovered in the waters around Isle Royale, here are the nine that are accessible for diving, assuming you can get to them and brave the cold, deep water.
SS Henry Chisholm, wooden freighter
length: 265 feet
max. depth: 150 feet
SS Algoma, wooden freighter
length: 268 feet
max. depth: 100 feet
SS Monarch, wooden passenger/package freighter
length: 259 feet
max. depth: 80 feet
SS Glenlyon, steel freighter
length: 328 feet
max. depth: 60 feet
SS America, steel passenger freighter
length: 183 feet
max depth: 85 feet
SS George M. Cox, steel passenger freighter
length: 259 feet
max. depth: 100 feet
SS Chester A. Congdon, steel freighter
length: 532 feet
max. depth: 110 feet (bow) 220 feet (stern)
SS Emperor, steel freighter
length: 525 feet
max. depth: 170 feet
SS Kamloops, steel freighter
length: 250 feet
max. depth: 260 feet
Sketch By Michign Shipwreck Research Associates
No matter how calm you think you’ll be in these situations, in cold water, with low air, the heart starts pounding and the breathing rate jacks up. I reminded myself that the surface was within reach, even if I had to abandon my tank and swim up. Then I slowly backed down the ladder, reoriented myself and tried again. This time I cleared, leaving a cloud of silt in my wake and kicked for the dive boat, which I could see moored just above me in the clear water. A close call in shallow water was a good reminder that there are no easy dives in Superior.
After a second dive on the America, we motored to a protected dock near the ranger station at Washington Harbor to camp for the night. It was mid-July and night fell late at this high latitude. Ryan and Rick went to work grilling a huge lake trout Rick had caught off the boat while we were diving that afternoon. Chris and I sorted gear and downloaded photos, settling into a routine we knew well from dive trips past. Our base camp was a 10 x 10-foot cabin in the Lake Superior Diver. Inside, two sling bunks were our beds and camp chairs were our work stations. Cameras, dive computers and memory cards lay strewn on sleeping bags and our damp base layers hung drying from hooks on the wall.
I have always enjoyed these spartan surroundings, the limited space and singular purpose of our trip crystallizing focus and distilling gear down to the bare essentials. Chris and I knew each other’s quirks and tastes and didn’t need to talk much now, a comfort born of these adventures. We ate the steaming trout on the dock as the sun set, tipping back microbrews as the first stars came out. Ryan and Rick turned in early and Chris and I fell asleep in our bunks listening to Gordon Lightfoot on the tinny speakers in the cabin.
After the wee-hour text message the next morning, I couldn’t get back to sleep, wondering about the tragedy in Ukraine and what else was going on back in the real world. I thought about our connected lives, and how the greatest luxury can be to get off the grid — how the greatest adventures take place outside the range of Instagram. Our days out here were dictated by the weather, the daylight and the limits of our skills and gear. I rolled out of the bunk and pulled back the curtain. A ribbon of light on the horizon foretold the sunrise; the lake was glassy. I pulled on pants and a jacket and slipped out of the cabin and climbed the ladder to the fly bridge where Ryan had been since 3 a.m. for the four-hour trip across the top of the island. He was huddled in his chair, swaddled in a heavy jacket, cigarette in one hand and the wheel in the other. He nodded a greeting and we sat in chilled silence looking out at the grandeur of the scene before us. “Should be at the wreck site in another hour”, he finally said.
When I went back below, Rick was in the galley preparing coffee and pancakes and Chris was fitting his camera in its housing. I found dry socks and started sorting gear for the day’s dives. Unlike on the America, we’d be going deep today. That meant shorter bottom times and a greater risk of free flow, which occurs when the moisture in the tank air freezes in the regulator, causing a sudden gush of air that is often impossible to stop, emptying a tank in less than a minute. At 50 feet deep, that’s plenty of time to get to the surface; at 150 feet, it necessitated the use of a “pony” bottle, a secondary tank and regulator system that added bulk to a dive rig, but also peace of mind. I checked my valves and gave each mouthpiece a test puff and then settled in for breakfast. The motor throttled back and I knew we had reached the Emperor’s mooring ball on Canoe Rocks, about a mile offshore of Isle Royale’s desolate north shore.
On June 3, 1947, the SS Emperor left Thunder Bay, Ontario, with over 10,000 tons of iron ore in her belly, bound for the Soo Locks and the blast furnaces of the Rust Belt. At midnight, her captain relinquished command to the ship’s first mate and retired to his cabin. Little did he know that the mate was fatigued from supervising the cargo loading the night before and would fall asleep on watch, as the Emperor approached the treacherous shoals around Isle Royale. At 4:00 a.m. the ship plowed into the rocks, tearing a massive gash in her hull. She sank in less than 30 minutes, taking the captain, the mate and 10 other crew members to the bottom of the lake, 175 feet below.
They say Superior never gives up her dead, and that’s more than a song lyric. Bacteria that would normally consume a corpse and give off oxygen is absent in this cold water, preventing dead bodies from floating to the surface. Many of the wrecks in Superior still hold the eerie, well preserved remains of victims, visited occasionally by divers. It was not a sight I ever hoped to see, and I shuddered at the thought as I suited up for our dive on the Emperor.
In front of me, the line of cargo hatches disappeared into the gloom; behind me stood the aft superstructure, crew cabins and massive funnels that sucked air into the engine room below.
I followed Chris with his giant camera rig down the mooring line to the blackness below, where I knew a 525-foot ship lay intact and upright. I could feel the magnetic pull of this manmade leviathan beneath us before I could see it. Then I felt something else. Cold water. As I pressed the chest valve on my drysuit to add insulating air, the leaky valve let in a blast of icy lake water, turning my cozy drysuit into a wetsuit — horribly uncomfortable, and also potentially deadly. Water conducts heat away from the body nine times faster than air; it wouldn’t be long before I’d be hypothermic. I could feel my boots filling up with water. Chris was too far below me to alert, so I continued down and the wreck came into view. Its immensity and perfect shape made me forget my discomfort, and suddenly I wanted to see this thing — the rapture of the deep.
I stopped my descent at 140 feet, hovering above the exposed coal bunker at the aft end of the wreck. In front of me, the line of cargo hatches disappeared into the gloom; behind me stood the aft superstructure, crew cabins and massive funnels that sucked air into the engine room below. Chris had swum to the stern while I explored the crew cabins, still full of debris — bunks, boxes, the occasional chair. Though it was peaceful, this was a foreboding place, not one for the living. I was starting to chill from my leaky suit and signaled to Chris that I had a problem. We had used up most of our allotted 13 minutes of no-decompression time anyway. We swam back to the mooring line and aimed up to the thin pencils of sunlight above. At fifteen feet, I stopped for a precautionary decompression stop. Hovering there for four minutes, I could feel the cold in my bones, my teeth chattering on my mouthpiece. My watch counted down the last minute and I finally swam to the ladder and clambered aboard, sodden and spent.
We spent a second night on the boat docked at Rock Harbor on the east end of Isle Royale. As we ate our dinners we could see the Ranger III, the big ferry, offload passengers and supplies and backpackers embarking on a multi-day traverse of the island. I had assessed my drysuit and found it unfit for further diving. Fortunately, Chris had brought a backup, an old neoprene Unisuit from his early days of wreck diving, and he offered to wear it for our last day, surrendering his primary drysuit to me, with the requisite “you owe me” voiced.
Day Three dawned unusually calm again; none of the lake’s legendary storms would foil our plans this week. The Lake Superior Diver motored back around the island to one last dive site on our way back to the mainland. The SS Henry Chisholm was an early steam-powered wooden freighter that met her demise on the Rock of Ages shoal near the western end of the island. While most of the ship’s remains are unremarkable after over a century on the bottom, her double-expansion steam engine is still on glorious display, having miraculously survived the wreck to slide down the reef and end up sitting upright on the lake bottom. At 30 feet in height, it is a marvel of late 19th century engineering and workmanship; cast into the iron of the engine’s frame, flourishes of decoration are still visible. We were able to dive from the top down to the prop shaft and massive propeller on the rocks at the bottom. The 140-foot depth meant another short dive. We bade our farewell and kicked up to the boat one last time.
Not far from the Chisholm wreck is the lighthouse named for the reef that sank her. The Rock of Ages lighthouse was constructed in 1908 as a direct result of the Chisholm wreck and other ships that had foundered here over the decades during the height of Great Lakes shipping. The lighthouse sits on an outcrop of rock in the middle of the lake, now derelict and unoccupied other than the automated signal that flashes in its tower. As we motored past it on our way home, a soupy fog rolled in, made by warm air meeting the super-chilled lake. Soon the lighthouse disappeared from view, and not long after, as if on cue, my phone came to life with the chatter of civilization.