You don’t have to look at Lake Superior for very long before you realize what it really is: a siren. It’s beautiful. It’s endless. It’s enchanting. It will lure you in and swallow you whole. I guess that’s why they call its southern shore “The Shipwreck Coast.”
On the very end of Whitefish Point and far away from everything and everyone is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum grounds include the entire Whitefish Point Light Station, which is still under the control of the Coast Guard. Most of the buildings are no longer needed for official use, and they have been renovated to tell the history of the station and the many shipwrecks that happened nearby. One building is filled with rescue equipment. Another has mannequins and old furniture and is set up to look like the old light house manager’s home.
The actual museum building has artifacts of past wrecks. Some are recreations, some are reminders, and some came straight from the bottom of Lake Superior. The museum’s pride and joy is the recovered bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent and largest ship to wreck off this tragic coast.
It was one o’clock in the morning on November 10th, 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, commanded by Captain Ernest McSorley, first encountered a heavy storm on its way from Superior, Wisconsin. The ship had been sailing within range of another large ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, since 5PM the day before. The two ships battled the storm all night and through the next day, until the Fitzgerald lost her radar. The Anderson tried to get closer to provide guidance to the Fitzgerald, which was now sailing blind. The winds had reached 67 miles per hour, and the waves were as high as 25 feet. The light house at Whitefish Point was down, and the mighty Fitzgerald began to list. At 7:10PM, some 18 hours after the storm had started, the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald asking how she was doing. “We are holding our own,” McSorley reported. Less than ten minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. The ship’s bell was recovered many years later, and brought to the museum as a tribute. The rest of the ship remains on the lake floor along with its entire 29 man crew.
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is still in operation, and visitors to the museum can get a private tour up to the top for a small extra fee. I was the only person who had purchased at ticket for the 1PM tour. The guide was a man in his late 40s, and I met him at the base of the lighthouse. An older woman stopped us and asked about joining the tour. He told her the number of stairs involved and asked if it sounded like something she could do. She hesitated.
“If you have to think about it you probably shouldn’t do it,” he told her.
He wasn’t joking. The stairs were steep and small and bound up tight in a spiral. They’d be hard to climb no matter how fit you were. As we got close to the top, he warned me not to hit my head on the ledge, explaining that there was a mesh bag of rubber ducks there to catch my eye. I was thinking about the silliness of the ducks when I hit my head sharply on the ledge.
We made it up to the observation deck and my guide explained that visitors aren’t allowed up alone by order of the Coast Guard. He recited the handful of facts he knew about the place and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to know about the lighthouse, so I started to ask him questions about his own life. He lives only a few miles away from the station, which makes him 70 miles away from civilization.
“If I wanna buy blue jeans,” he explained, “it’s a two hour drive.”
He told me about a time he got all the way down to St. Ignace to go shopping, only to realize he’d forgotten his wallet. “You learn to make lists,” he said. “You can’t afford to forget anything.”
He only lives near the museum during the summer months, though he’s considering moving there full time. He told me the biggest hurdle was that no one comes to plow the roads near him, so he’d have to invest in his own snow removal equipment. It was, as he put it, “a big commitment.”
In the museum I had seen a huge, beautiful, reflective lamp that was once used in the lighthouse. My guide explained that it had been replaced with a modern one, prompting me to ask if I could see the new light. From the observation level there was a small but steep set of stairs leading up to where the lamp was. My guide told me that we weren’t allowed up there. I nodded with disappointed acceptance. He looked around, first at me, then at the absence of everyone else.
“I bet it’d be okay just to poke your head up,” he told me.
My guess is he’d never had a tour of one before, so it was never possible to let just one person take a look. In my travels I’ve found that being alone grants me a certain amount of trust with everyone I meet, and a strange amount of freedom and opportunity.
I stepped up onto the second staircase, going just far enough to see the light. Compared to the beautiful beast in the museum, it was very small – maybe the size of a watermelon. It was dwarfed by the room it was in, which was built to house a much bigger lamp. It was black and dull and mounted on top of an overly industrial-looking black canister. I remarked on its surprising appearance on my way back down the steps. My guide told me that he’d never actually looked at it himself, and started up the steps to take a peek. We were both amused by the underwhelming nature of the lamp.
Considering the presence of modern navigation on even the smallest vessels, we don’t often think about advances in lighthouse technology. We assume every ship knows where it is by the blinking lights on its dash. What use is there for lighthouses in a world like that?
I suppose on a great sea like Lake Superior, there is still a reason for this very old and undeniable sign of the shore. When the water stretches farther than the eye can see, there’s comfort in finding both your literal and figurative bearings.