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Diving Different: Dry Suit Diving in the Great Lakes

(DiverWire) Contributing Editor Lisa Mongy is writing a series about “DIVING DIFFERENTLY in 2013”. Her first two features, THE YEAR WE DIVE DIFFERENT and VOLUNTEER AND EXPERIENCE, we very well received. Here’s her latest installment The Warm Water Wimp gets her gills wet in the Crosby Mine Pits (Part 1)

Dive Different Volume 2 was a massive undertaking, and a wonderful success, but I didn’t want to skimp on my dive to the Crosby Mines or the following experience, so we’ve broken this one up into two parts!

Down here in sunny south Florida, divers have it made in the shade as they say. Our waters are clear and warm for the majority of the year; our reefs and wrecks are world-renowned. But all this easy-living has earned Florida divers the moniker of “Warm Water Wimps,” that is people who can’t handle anything beyond the idyllic 80-80-80: no more than 80 feet deep, with at least 80 feet of visibility, and 80 degree water temperatures.

When migratory divers come to Florida to take a dip during their winter off season, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase jokingly uttered in a midwestern twang or Massachusetts’s brogue on a particularly empty dive boat.

One such voice belongs to my good friend and dive buddy Terry Trinka, who makes his home in Minnesota. In his thick midwestern accent, Terry has told me countless stories about diving the Great Lakes over the years, always threaded with chiding about this “warm water wimp” not being able to take the frigid waters, and always ended in Terry ushering a friendly challenge to come dive up north. Though I’ve lived in south Florida since I was a teenager, I was born and raised off the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis. My toes have known a cold river or two.

This warm water wimp decided to take the challenge in a major effort to Dive Different.

First I needed to get Dry Suit certified. My local dive store, Underwater Unlimited, has handled dry suits for years and I’ve had the opportunity to participate in DUI Demo Day tours hosted annually around the country. I told UU owner, Charlie Matthews, my plan for the Great Lakes and he agreed to certify me using one of our rental suits.

For those unacquainted with dry suits, they are different than wet suits in that, obviously, the diver stays dry, but what you might not know is what that entails. Each dry suit is fitted with specially made seals at the neck, hands, and feet (some models sport integrated boots) that create a watertight seal. There are options to add dry glove attachments, and different styles of hoods can be worn. Part of a successful dry-suit dive lies in good planning, and choosing the right amount of coverage for the needs of the dive. Under the dry suit there are numerous options in the form of undergarments, athletic-style clothing made of Thinsulate material. They are similar to the long-johns used for skiing, providing insulation while wicking away moisture, and come in a variety of styles and in various degrees of thickness. The shop helped me choose a good set up for my trip and trained me on how to use it, emphasizing that proper weighting and buoyancy control are the most critical. Step one was done.

Terry often travels to south Florida in the spring or fall when there is a lapse in what he calls “good” local diving, time between the warmer summer jumps and winter ice diving. It was during a spring escape that we planned for a summer trial dive, to get this “Wimp” accustomed to the temperatures I’d be facing.

Terry selected the Crosby Mine Pits in the Cuyuna State Recreational area. It’s home to one of the best kept secrets in Midwest diving, located a few hours north of Minneapolis and an easy drive towing his boat, Sudden Impulse. The sight originated as an iron ore dig dating back to the early 1900’s. There are 12 pits, some have connecting navigable channels. Minnesota School of Diving has created over 50 designated sites in the recreational diving limits and each generally has 20 – 80 feet of visibility.

To approach the dive site from the surface, it looks like you’re in an area with several large lakes. However when you enter the water and descend you notice that the forest doesn’t stop at the tree line, it continues right on into the water. As you swim out into the “lake” you realize you’re brushing past treetops. You’re just a bit chilly, slipping into mild 70-degree water, but as you start your descent, down through the sunken trees covered in silt, the water temperatures drop around you, quickly.

When people hear about dry suit diving they might picture being warm and toasty inside the suit, which is true. However, it’s not immediate. As you move towards your target depth, I compare it to the last moments before you exit a ski lift. All of the sudden, the thermocline hits in full force, and your face is meeting 36 degree water. You are cold! You look up and check the surface, which is drifting away like the ski lift down its wire. But you realize, you’re okay.

In the Crosby Mines, instead of hopping moguls to get your blood pumping, your heart races as you take note of the steep cutouts, where ore transport tracks dig a winding path into the rock. Here and there abandoned carts and mining equipment populate the ghostly track. Skeletal building foundations are scattered about while power poles act as monolithic markers. By that time your adrenaline is pumping in full effect. Just like on the slopes, you’re so warm and toasty you’ll wonder why you even packed a sweater. Once you’re over the initial shock, the dive unfolds before you like an elegant ski slope.

Filled with inspiration, having acclimated my southern bones to the colder temperatures of the Midwest, I eagerly looked forward to taking on the Great Lakes in full, a few months later. The experience of the dive overall is of slowly moving through grave moments of haunting beauty. It’s quite different from the flare of life and color of a coral reef, but equally moving all the same.

Look for part two, my dive in the Great Lakes soon on Diverwire.com