For more than 100 years, Isle Royale has been a royal pain in the side of shipping operators trying to deliver cargo to and from Minnesota and Ontario, Canada and back through Lake Superior to locations in the Lower Peninsula.
Though Isle Royale is only 46 miles long and a little less than 9 miles wide, the island has an extensive reef system that extends well beyond its on-land dimensions. Those reefs have snagged 25 shipwrecks that have found their final resting place around the island’s perimeter. So while the beautiful island has historically been a nuisance to the shipping industry, it provides a perfect wonderland for scuba divers. With it’s clear cold water, wrecks remain pristinely preserved.
Russ Haeberle, a member of The Ford Seahorses Scuba Diving Club, visited the island for a tech-diving trip last summer and talked about it in a presentation called “Isle Royale – Lake Superior Paradise” at the Great Lake Shipwreck Festival in Ann Arbor.
“The beautiful thing about Lake Superior is the fact that there are no zebra mussels,” Haeberle said. “You can see the shipwrecks as they were years ago. You lose the detail with zebra mussels as they cover the vessel. With these wrecks, you can still see the grain of the wood.”
The video Haeberle and his group brought back from Isle Royale is stunning. After diving wrecks in the other Great Lakes that are completely coated with a layer of zebra mussels, seeing his video was a real treat. Cargo in the holds, such as farm supplies in one of the featured wrecks, is easily identifiable. And normal Great Lakes visibility looks like it is at least doubled.
“The clarity of the water is great, the visibility is phenomenal,” he said. “The island has protected bays and coves so if weather gets rough, you can go to the other side of the island and get in the lee of the wind and dive a wreck in another location. So you very seldom get blown off the water. When you’re out on the Great Lakes normally, and you’re 10 miles out and there’s bad weather, you can’t get out.”
The guys also spent some time inland, hiking and fishing some of Isle Royale’s many inland lakes. So there is plenty to do on the island while friends or spouses are out diving.
Haeberle and company did several deep dives considered tech dives, and used tri-mix -- helium, oxygen and nitrogen – as their breathable gas. All of the featured dives were at least 150 feet deep.
One of the wrecks they visited was the Kamloops, a 250-foot steel canaler, which sank in 1927. Haeberle called it the holy grail of Isle Royale shipwrecks. The ship lies in 180 to 270 feet of water. It sank in a December storm. She was hauling a load of paper mill machinery, pipe, shoes and tar paper, with a deck load of fencing materials. She was bound for Fort William near Thunder Bay, Ontario, as she passed through the Soo Locks on Dec. 4. She sank in the storm around Dec. 6 It as been described as one of the ghost ships of the Great Lakes because it’s not known how or why the ship sunk, and it lost all hands with few or no traces of what happened. The ship was discovered in 1977 in almost perfect condition. Video from the presentation shows fencing materials still sitting in the hold, along the farming equipment. There is even a coil of rope that sits intact and undisturbed almost 90 years later.
The second ship, the Emperor, is a 525-foot steel freighter that sank in 1947. It sits in 110 to 175 feet of water. It has the distinction of being the last ship to sink at Isle Royale. It met its end due to human navigational errors, and struck Canoe Rocks and sank in 20 to 30 minutes, killing 12 of the crew, including the captain and first mate. Most of the casualties occurred when a lifeboat was sucked under by the ship as it sank. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kimball happened to be nearby and saved some of those who survived the sinking.
The third ship was the engine of the Henry Chisholm, a 270-foot wooden bulk freighter, which sunk in 1898. The engine sits in 115 to 155 feet of water. It was carrying 92,000 bushels of barley from Duluth, Minn. It went down in an October gale. The wreck did not result in any loss of life.
Isle Royale is a true wilderness paradise. It is a Michigan national park and one of the few island national parks in the United States. To get there requires about 11 hours of driving from the Detroit area, plus a three-hour ferry ride from Copper Harbor.
The positive side of the out-of-the-way location is the lack of diver traffic. Haeberle’s group visited in the first week of September and had each wreck to themselves during diving.
The downside is the water, while very clear, is always cold. Dry suit diving is not required, but it is recommended.
“I would not recommend diving their in a wetsuit. You’re going to get very cold,” Haeberle said. “Some of the temperatures we encountered were in the mid to high 30s. That’s even in September, after you’ve had the whole summer to warm up the lake.”
Above is part of my interview with Haeberle and some video from his dives with Superior Diver Charter.