Ruined ships litter the floor of Lake Superior.
For as long as boats have plied the largest of the North American Great Lakes, they have been sinking in her. Rudyard Kipling wrote in disbelief that such vast bodies of water (as the Lakes) could exist at the heart of an otherwise dry continent; that they could moreover swallow oceangoing vessels with ease terrified him.
As a kid, I poured over every book I could get my hands on relating to ship wrecks in the Great Lakes, with special attention for Superior herself. By the time I was seven I could throw names and dates and stories at anyone who asked. My primary goal in life was to become a lighthouse keeper; a profession that was, by then, largely defunct.
Goals have changed these days, but the obsession lingers.
Several years ago, as a birthday present, my parents set me up go wreck diving in Lake Superior. Read: scuba diving in or around shipwrecks in Lake Superior. I nearly passed out in excitement.
Most people with an ounce of sense or experience will dive in the Great Lakes and other waters in northern climes while wearing a dry suit, which isolates a layer of body-warmed air between the skin and waterproof neoprene. Such a suit quite literally keeps a diver dry – and their core body temperature intact – in waters approaching freezing temperatures. The average temperature of Lake Superior in summer is only ten or twenty degrees above freezing – at the surface.
But since the wetsuit does not involve an extra layer of air, and is subsequently less buoyant (read: floaty) than its dry counterpart, maneuvering in one is different from maneuvering in the other. In consequence, transitioning from one to the other takes time and training.
But I didn’t have training in dry suit diving. I’d only gone diving in a three-millimeter wetsuit in tropical waters. I also didn’t have the time, practically speaking, to sound out those differences.
Tough cookies, I told myself. I opted for a seven-millimeter wetsuit (the thickest) with a hood that exposed only my face, thick gloves and thick boots – all neoprene and smelling faintly of someone else’s body odor. Ostensibly this was enough to keep me warm in Lake Superior for thirty minutes or so.
Munising (MI) stands at the western edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a protected section of Superior’s southern shoreline. Pictured Rocks is famous for its sandstone, its white sand dunes – its generally rugged yet breathtaking loveliness.
Of course, the picturesque is quite often dangerous. Plenty of boats have foundered in those waters.
Our own boat left Munising mid-morning. The north wind was warm and the water its usual white-capped chop. Blue sky, a glittering August sun, and me, head to toe in seven millimeters of neoprene, sweating a bucket’s worth.
I couldn’t bend my knees or my arms, and I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes, and I couldn’t hear what the divemaster was saying in his briefing, and I might have in fact been becoming one with all that neoprene – but I was, by God, also having the time of my life.
Up until the crew strapped sixteen pounds of weight around my waist, a tank onto my back, and a mask and regulator over what remained of my face.
And hustled me off into one hundred feet of dark, frigid water without even saying "good luck."