You got a spare icebreaker you won’t need this winter?

Well it’s been a while (i.e., here and here) since I checked in on Inland Seas, the Quarterly Journal of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, an interesting cross between an academic journal and a popular magazine dating to 1945.  The journal and museum are the centerpieces of the Great Lakes Historical Society. The museum is a restored lake freighter (shown below) built in 1911 and now docked in the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio.

The latest (Vol. 75, No. 2) issue’s first article is titled Early Maps of the Great Lakes and the First Boat Trip Across Lake Erie in 1669–a topic sure to get my attention. It turns out that no, Robert LaSalle and his 34 crewmen were not in fact the first to traverse the length of Lakes Erie, St. Clair and Huron in their famous sailing ship, the Griffon.  Rather, it was two French Jesuits in canoes ten years earlier who did so, and who even made a pretty accurate map of it, given the circumstances.  A major part of the Lake Erie traverse was done in March/April, 1670, in which they dealt  with lots of ice, high winds, swampings, hostile natives and other perils inherent in such an escapade. Great stuff there.

But my favorite part of this journal may well be the “Great Lakes News” section, wherein various events from the previous three months are briefly mentioned.  Many of these are entirely mundane.  For example, we read that on January 6, “The Walter J. McCarthy Jr. departed Duluth after spending nearly two days loading frozen [taconite] pellets” and that on January 1 the last downbound commercial vessel of the shipping season cleared the Welland Canal.

But there’s usually also some much more interesting stuff, and so it is this time.

We learn for example that on January 6, the crew of the US Coast Guard’s Mackinaw happened to witness a stray dog go through the ice in the St. Mary’s River (connecting Lakes Superior and Huron) and to see it then struggle onto an island therein. Fully 20 crewmen then went in search, but finding no dog “set a campfire on shore and left a bowl of macaroni”, apparently considerate of the fact that this dog might be a vegetarian.  A couple of days later they found the bowl empty, and the dog nearby, and then motored on over to Cheboygan where they delivered the dog to its (no-doubt surprised and thankful) owners.

But it gets better.On March 12, the US Coast Guard and several other agencies rescued 46 ice fishermen from an ice floe that broke free near Catawba Island, in SW Lake Erie.  Another 100 or so escaped either by swimming or running across existing ice bridges before the full break occurred.  The article doesn’t say it, but undoubtedly there are also a bunch more snowmobiles, ATVs and pickup trucks now resting on the bottom of western Lake Erie–the Coast Guard saves persons first, property second, if at all.  Try swimming for land in the open (ice) waters of Lake Erie in early March after you’ve had maybe a six pack (or more) and tell me how it goes. This type of event happens more frequently than you might imagine–there are a lot of rusting snowmobiles at the bottom of Lake Erie.

The Canadian CG has different issues: “…the Canadian Coast Guard’s Hero class of midshore patrol boats are suffering from extreme rolling in even moderate seas. The rolling is so severe that crew members stuff jackets under the edge of their bunks to raise them so they will not be flung to the deck while asleep. Seasickness affects many crew members…”.

Not everything of interest involves the two Coast Guards however.

For example, on February 7, in Superior WI, we read that “the horn on the docked American Spirit stuck in the ‘on’ position, disturbing the neighbors at the nearby McDonald’s and local residences.  Some hours later the horn was shut off.  The sound could be heard for miles, as it should”.  Is anything much worse than going to the local McDonald’s for morning coffee and cholesterol and getting summarily blasted out of there by a ship’s horn? I mean, other than having to listen to the music that one would otherwise be subjected to…

If you’ve been thinking (naively!) that ship fires would probably be among the easier class of possible fires to deal with, at least from a total water availability standpoint…well not so fast.  It seems that “the St. Clair caught fire at its lay-up dock in Toledo…Fire crews from Toledo had a hard time getting hydrants on the dock to work… and had to just play water on the ship and let the fire burn out…”.  Success in this case was measured in terms of  preventing other nearby ships at the port from also catching fire.

There are non-boat-related news items as well.  If you have some spare change, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is seeking some “real money” to help combat Microcystis algal growth in Lake Erie. Dig deep now, because there’s nothing micro about the amount desired–about $1 billion (DeWine was heard to say “fight green with green” after the announcement).  Farmers in the Maumee River basin (responsible for the phosphorous loading that contributes to the algal blooms) were in turn heard to respond “I’ll be glad to show you what some green corn and soybeans look like Mike”. And so on.

Also noted is that the Canadian government is actively seeking a temporary, light duty icebreaker as a replacement for those that will be laid up for repairs this winter.  If you would happen to have a spare icebreaker that you don’t think you’ll need this winter, contact them.

Canada also takes this opportunity for a friendly seasonal reminder to always keep your stick on the ice, icebreaker or no.

“Cincinnati, March 22nd, 1814.”

I am by no means whatsoever an expert on American government policies regarding Native Americans. So just where the following extract fits in to the bigger picture thereof I don’t really know, but based on considerations such as date, location, and people involved, it seems to describe an important set of decisions, possibly precedent setting. It is taken from a letter from General William Henry Harrison, to the Secretary of War, during the War of 1812. Harrison had been Territorial Governor of Indiana before the war, and had served in Anthony Wayne’s army back in the 1794 campaign through western Ohio that led to the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, two very important events in establishing policies between the United States and Native Americans, generally.

Harrison may well have had a better understanding of the recent geographic history of Native American tribes–and certainly regarding their various warfare methods–in the large midwestern area centered on what is now Indiana, and it’s principal river (the Wabash), than any other person of the time. He was also the main actor in dealing with Tecumseh, arguably the greatest Native American strategist ever, in what must have been a fascinating real-life drama. The focus of the letter is on just which tribes had legitimate, long-standing land tenure claims, and thus, the right to negotiate and sell their lands, thereby countering the grand unification strategy of Tecumseh. The full letter is reproduced here: McAfee (1816). History of the Late War in the Western Country, pp 53-58; the [] and bolds being my edits.

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‘Twas the Witch of November, come stealin’

It was forty years ago, November 10, 1975.

Captain McSorley lived right over on Bancroft Street just a few miles from us, near the university, but we had no idea until the newspaper told us. He was apparently intending to retire at the end of the season, just one month away, and was thus on one of his last trips. It turned out to be his very last.

I hadn’t even heard about the incident until I opened the paper the following day: there was the full story on the front page, with photographs of the seven guys from the area, about 25% of the crew of 29, including the Captain, who were now all missing and presumed dead. You can’t last long in 50 degree (F) water, that much less with hurricane strength winds raging around you in the middle of a black night in November, far from the shore.

The whole thing struck me as rather unbelievable. I mean, I can remember going out the few miles to one of the Lake Erie Islands as a Boy Scout when a kid. Somehow the trip had been scheduled at night, on a ferry with big open sides, and sure enough, there was a fierce wind that night. The boat was constantly plunging up and down with the waves that have made the lake a bit notorious and sent many a boat to the bottom, back in the day. Big washes of water and spray would come in through the holes, some kids were getting seasick and throwing up, and it was pitch dark. We were probably in no real danger but as a kid you don’t know that, and it may have been the first time I was actually scared for my life.

But this was a 700 foot ship, and it was 1975, not 1875.

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio.  Image courtesy

The Edmund Fitzgerald unloading iron ore in Toledo Ohio. Image courtesy

Nine years ago, Hultquist et al published an interesting study in which they ran a weather and wave model over the general area, driven by recorded observations during the event, for the 36 hours leading up to it. What they basically found was that the ship could not possibly have chosen a worse path across the lake than they did that day. They made a 90 degree right turn that put the ship partially broadside to maximum sustained winds from the west to northwest, of 65 knots (~ 75 mph, the lower edge of hurricane force, and gusting higher), and to significant waves of 7.5 m (~25 ft), potentially reaching as high as 14 m (46 ft). Another wave height model indicates such heights and directions were likely extremely rare historically.

Significantly, the weather/wave model indicated that the worst 1-hr conditions occurred exactly when the ship when down–between 7:00 and 8:00 PM, EST. At about 7:15 PM, the Fitzgerald simply disappeared from the radar screen of the Arthur M. Anderson, which had been trailing it by 10 miles, and guiding it by radio ever since the Fitzgerald’s radar went down. [The interesting back and forth between the Anderson‘s Captain and the Coast Guard, requesting him to go back out to search the area during the height of the storm, which he did, is here.]
Exactly what caused the Fitzgerald to go down so quickly is still a matter of some contention. It had to be immediate, since the ship had just been in radio contact with the Anderson but no SOS or distress call was ever issued. The leading theory seems to be that a particularly extreme wave lifted the stern, forcing down the bow. The ship was already listing and had lost buoyancy via large volumes of water taken into its cargo holds, full of iron ore, very possibly from ripping a hole in the hull by bottoming out on a shoal a few hours previously. This would have rocketed the ship to the bottom of the lake, which, being shallower than the ship was long, would have snapped it in two (as it was found), with the stern above the water.

Captain Cooper of the Anderson, describes his radio interactions with McSorley before the incident and his views of what happened. He says that as much as 12 feet of water were on their deck at times:

Tribute video based on Gordon Lightfoot’s famous ballad is here
NTSB official report of the incident is here
And another very interesting interview here

And all that remain, are the faces and the names
Of the wives, and the sons, and the daughters

Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald