Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"How could you like a killer?"

Last weekend found the VOR and I in San Francisco for our annual pre Christmas long weekend and a bit of honeymooning this year as well. Its a great week to travel because the airports are nearly deserted, vacancies at all accommodations are plentiful and sometimes discounted, and unless you screw up and get close to a shopping destination most things are refreshingly uncrowded. We are both suckers for a good book store and found ourselves in the famous City Lights Bookstore on Columbus & Broadway Sunday evening. It's located smack dab between Chinatown and North Beach (SF's Little Italy) and across the street from the historic Condor Club, our nation's first topless establishment. At City Lights I stumbled upon a new Jim Harrison novel, one of my favorite writers from the UP. The novel is The Great Leader, and a good part of it is set in Marquette, MI. The first paragraph got me hooked as I browsed the stacks. "It was below freezing and the surf at the river mouth was high and tormented where Lake Superior collided with the strong outgoing river current. The wind and surf were deafening and Sunderson reminded himself of how much he disliked Lake Superior other than something admirable to look at like an attractive calendar. He had been born and raised in the harbor town of Munising and two of his relatives who were commercial fisherman had died at sea back in the fifties, bringing grief and disarray to the larger family. The most alarming fact of prolonged local history was the death of 280 people at sea between Marquette and Sault St. Marie. How could you like a killer?".

I have encountered this attitude among a lot of people that have been born and raised on the shores of Gitchee Gumee. I have friends from Thunder Bay to Marquette who consider going out on Lake Superior in a kayak the equivalent of sky diving. It's probably OK if you're really lucky but sooner or later it's going to bite you in the ass. My buddy Podman related the amazement at his Ashland HS class reunion when he mentioned to his classmates that we had kayaked to Outer Island. Some claimed they would be leery going out there in a powerboat. I'm sure a large part of it is the constant stories of drownings, sinkings, and destruction of property that have occurred pretty frequently over the years, especially in the '50's and '60's when weather prediction was not nearly as accurate as it is now, an amazing statement given my criticism of the current forecasts on the lake. There is also the lore of the big lake, an attitude reflected by the quote at NPS HQ in Bayfield and at the masthead of this blog by the Rev George Grant in 1872, "wild, masterful, and dreaded". A more recent case in point is the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. We all knew and heard about it when I was in college in Eau Claire, WI but if Gordon Lightfoot hadn't written the song my guess is that it would have faded from memory like the hundreds of other wrecks on the Great Lakes. When the hometowns of the crew members are studied however, places like Ashland, Washburn, Moquah, Iron River, and Superior, WI as well as Duluth and Silver Bay, MN make it much more personal, immediate, and memorable to those that live in that area.

So are we nuts for going out on the big lake in skinny boats? One of my favorite stories came from talking and having a beer with some divers from Tennessee that were diving the wreck of the yacht Gunilda in 250' of water up near Rossport, ON. They had spectacular footage of the wreck and described how a two hour dive gave them about 15 minutes on the wreck. After describing what could happen, gas mixtures, decompression, etc., I looked at one of them and said, "you guys are nuts!". To which one fellow replied, "Was that you guys out by Battle Island in the six foot seas in them two foot wide skinny boats? I think ya'all are the ones that are nuts!"

I guess in the end we all do what we feel comfortable with and try to use our heads and take the precautions necessary to keep ourselves out of trouble. Whether its scuba diving, skydiving, or sea kayaking, a certain amount of risk is factored in along with the techniques and skills to mitigate that risk. The history of the lake does give one pause but if we paddle safe and, maybe even more important, paddle smart we can enjoy and savor those big seas with more confidence and assurance.


Bayfieldwis.com said...

Excellent choice for a book to read! I'm going to Amazon right now. I've known this author but have forgotten about him. Winter is a great time to get the Kindle loaded up. Good writing also!
Like the thoughts in general.

Bryan said...

On my Port Huron to Home trip last summer one of the big human lessons that I learned was the difference in attitude between those who live on the Lake Huron shore and those who live on the Lake Superior shore.

On Lake Huron, the people celebrate the lake, love the lake, play on the lake, and offered nothing but encouragement to me on my trip. They did this despite the fact that Lake Huron has the most shipwrecks of all the Great Lakes.

The first thing I heard from someone after I paddled through the Soo Locks to Lake Superior was "Don't die out there." Almost instantly the attitude changed from love to fear. It's a deeply-nested, irrational, generational fear of the lake.

I experienced consistently rougher waters, stronger and less predictable storms on Lake Huron than I did on Lake Superior, including a white squall. I know it's just a two-month snapshot in time, but still.