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The Sunken Mummies of the American Mid-West

(DiverWire) Last time, Lisa chronicled her first forays into dry suit diving in the Crosby Mines in preparation for a trip to dive Lake Superior. Here’s her report on her experiences there.

With my first frigid dip a success, my tropical blood tested, I set out for Lake Superior with my dive buddy Terry Trinka and his boat, the Sudden Impulse, in tow. We’d be staying aboard the boat for a week, diving and scoping out Lake Superior’s largest Island, Isle Royale National Park. Most dive trips to the area, either private or chartered, are done this way; a day-trip is a rarity. Even those who are accustomed to the live-a-board experience will find diving in the Great Lakes an incredible new way to Dive Different.

On the drive up, Terry told me more about the unique world of diving in Lake Superior. Vastly different than the briny waters of the Atlantic, the cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes creates their most appealing aspect to divers: incredible preservation. There are thousands of known wrecks from the 1800-1900’s that are in the same untouched condition as the day they went down, making them the relics of our own yesteryear. Everything metal, from large beams resting on the lakebed like skeletons, to the minute grommets and wing nuts of an engine, has not deteriorated. Wood barges lay still, resting on stone with the impression they could be raised and floated for reuse.

While their pristine appearance makes them beautiful, each wreck around Isle Royal hides a past tragedy. The island bears only natural wrecks, mostly from unexpected turns in weather. It might have been a collision in fog, or they became the prey of icy storms, losing power and running aground. The shores perilous rock outcroppings sport wreaths of sunken ships that came too close, as evidenced by sections peeled away like the skin of an orange.

Compared to many artificial wrecks, which are cleanly cut and made more suitable for diving, these boats still bear their battle scars. You really get an impression of the chaos that happened when they sank. It’s awe-inspiring, but don’t loose your head while on these dives, you’ll want to be extra alert of your surroundings, and beware of entanglement with crushed or fallen objects.

During the summer months when you slip into the water of Lake Superior, the surface temperature is around 55 degrees. As your dry suit warms, your head swims with stories of more shipwrecks than you could ever hope to dive. Fresh tales you heard by fellow divers at a barbecue one night at the docks, or recounted by a park ranger as you explored Isle Royal. When you begin your descent and enter the shock of the cold water, there’s a moment when you get the sensation that you are slipping right into the dense history of the place.

One of our dives that really highlighted the preservation seen in the Great Lakes was the engine and prop of the Henry Chisholm, a wooden freighter that sunk off the shore of Isle Royal in 1898 (the same year of the Spanish-American War, and the sale of the first automobile). A 256-foot steam-powered ship, the Chisholm bears the title of the largest “steam barge” ever built in Cleveland, and the steam engine still looks nearly perfect in 137’ of water over a century after it came to rest there. Like other wrecks in the area, crewmembers had slathered the engine with grease as the ship sunk, hoping to come reclaim vital parts later, there is just a slight layer of silt or sediment kicked up from the violent storms above. That engine stands 20’ tall and is a wonder to behold, especially un-tethered from gravity on a dive. Also, in close proximity lay the Cox and Cumberlund wrecks.

The wreck of the SS America, which served as Isle Royal’s main transportation and communication vehicle at the turn of the century, offered some of the best views of impact points. The America was a steel hulled ship. Its wreckage is ornamented with dramatic evidence where it struck a submerged shoal and shows the splintering of wood decks as it has been battered over the years against the rocks. While the Chisholm’s depth can keep less advanced divers at bay, the SS America lies in shallower waters. With some of the boat’s original white paint still gracing its walls, it’s a remarkable dive, especially as you shift from the battered outside to the serene inner decks. As you cruise from room to room, you can just imagine people singing and dancing right up until they had to abandon the ship as she sank (everyone on board made it off safely).

To a wreck junkie that’s used to modern sunken battleships, transformed and encrusted by life in the ocean until they bear little resemblance to their former lives, it’s a stunning and haunting experience. Of the major shipwrecks of Isle Royale, each ship serves as a sunken monument to the men and women that traveled and worked on them as well as to the many who died on them.

When you hear the word “lake,” one often conjures a closed body of water. Something that can be walked around, conquered. But standing on the shores of the Great Lakes, one gets the sense of an ocean. Lake Superior itself is the largest surface area of fresh water in the world and within her boarders is Isle Royale, an archepeligo of some 200 islands encompassing 200 square miles of land. Thus Isle Royale is the largest island in the largest lake in the world. The Great Lakes feel limitless and secretive, hiding mummies beneath their chilly waters. Most Midwesterners aren’t even aware of the plethora of fantastic dives to be had in their own back yard, much less divers afar.

But local outfitters, like Superior Trips, pepper the area, waiting to invite you into their frozen world. Try it for a different way to dive!