Friday, February 28, 2014

Scuba diving at Isle Royale

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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

33rd Annual Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival set for Feb 22 at Washtenaw Community College

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival will be this Saturday, Feb. 22, at WCC.
Here is the link to my story that appeared in the Macomb Daily.  Click here

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Warren diver helps find Civil War-era shipwreck

Marty Lutz
A diver moves past the sidewheel of the Keystone State.
Marty Lutz describes his hobby as a shipwreck hunter as being akin to that of a skydiver: hours and hours of preparation and training for a few moments of complete exhilaration.
Lutz, 57, of Warren, Michigan, was part of the team that discovered the Keystone State shipwreck in Lake Huron last summer. Undersea Research Associates, headed and funded by David Trotter of Canton, found the wreck the weekend of July 6, 2013, ending the mystery of one of the Great Lakes most opulent ships. Trotter made the find public last December.
The Keystone State was a Civil War-era steamer built for the passenger and package cargo trade. She sank in a furious gale in November 1861. In her day, she was called a “Palace Steamer.” She was rumored to be carrying gold and war materials meant for the Civil War.
For more than 150 years, she remained hidden under a blanket of cold, dark water, eluding generations of search efforts. That’s until Lutz and company found her last summer. She was immediately recognizable by her large sidewheel. She was the last sidewheel-style ship of its size that hadn’t been discovered in the Great Lakes.
“We weren’t even looking for the Keystone State to be honest with you,” Lutz said. “The last eyewitness reports had her going down by the Thumb, and we found her 40-50 miles from there.”
The 288-foot ship is believed to have succumbed to the storm either Nov. 9 or Nov. 10, 1861, and all 33 members of her crew perished. Adding to the mystery is that it took more than a week for the first pieces of debris from the Keystone to appear. The cabin broke off and washed away near Pointe aux Barques at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb.
Since the ship was found further north between Alpena and Harrisville, Lutz said his group figures the crew must have struggled for several horrifying hours on the surface in a desperate attempt to survive.
“When I see a new wreck for first time, I immediately think of circumstances that brought it to that position. I think about the people, what they went through, the struggle they went through. You become very emotional and very respectful,” Lutz said.
While discovering a new shipwreck is exciting, the buildup and preparation leading to the discovery can be anything but. The team began their search in April by plotting a search grid. Searching would go on every weekend, with overnights spent on the water. What follows is a long, tedious, detailed search pattern over the grid.
Little time is spent diving, and lots of time is spent killing time.
“It’s a great time to catch up on your reading, look at your computer, watch movies,” Lutz said. “Sure, there’s lots of boredom, but when you come across a wreck, it gets everyone’s excitement up. It also gets exciting when a freighter goes by in the middle of the night. You don’t want to alter your line, but somebody has to move. But you try to monitor their movement before it becomes an issue.”
With today’s modern improvements to side scan sonar technology, in which images of the floor of the lake are created by bouncing sound waves off the lake bottom and back up to the search vessel, team members top side were quickly able to determine they had discovered a large wreck.
With the trademark sidewheel clearly visible in the sonar, they knew they had found the Keystone State, with the ship and its debris field lying in 150-200 feet of water.
The next step is to establish a setting line, in which a group of divers takes a line down from the research vessel and attaches it to the wreck. Both Lutz and Trotter have said being in that first group is a mixed blessing.
The first group has the honor of being the first group to lay eyes on something that hasn’t been seen for a long time (in this case 150 years), but their first responsibility is attaching the set line. But they only have 15-20 minutes of bottom time before taking more than an hour to ascend back to the surface to off gas and make required decompression stops.
The second group doesn’t get the honor of, metaphorically speaking, getting to the mountaintop first, but they do get to explore the wreck in its entirety and provide the first video record of the lost ship.
“We switch roles back and forth,” Lutz said of the dive team. “And if you set the line fairly quickly, you have some time to explore, so both roles are enjoyable.”
Preparing for such a deep dive in a cold water environment takes time. Between training and prepping equipment, which endures a lot of stress on such a dive, and travelling to the dive site, via car and then boat, Lutz estimates for every minute of bottom time exploring a newly discovered wreck, an hour is spent in preparation. But clearly for Lutz and company, the time and effort are worth it.
“Although you’re down there with other divers, it’s not a team sport really, it’s more of a personal thing,” he said. “You feel, when you are down there, like it’s almost ghostly at times, especially when you see bones or shoes on the wreck. You know people are there and people lost their lives on these wrecks.”
Due to improvements in sonar technology, most shipwreck hunters agree any remaining Great Lakes shipwrecks will probably be discovered in the next 15-20 years. That means the era of Great Lakes shipwreck hunting is quickly coming to an end. After helping discover more than his share of wrecks, Lutz admits he is lucky to be here during such a high time in exploration.
Plans for the 2014 exploration season include examining the debris field of the Keystone State, including searching for the mysterious gold, and continuing the search for two ships that went down during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913: the Argus and the James Carruthers, which both went down in Lake Huron.
To see video of Undersea Research Associates exploration of the Keystone State, click here:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Civil War-era shipwreck discovered in Lake Huron
Photos courtesy of David Trotter Divers examine the wreck of the Keystone State a 288-foot side-wheel steamer that sank in Lake Huron in 1961. One of its large, intact paddlewheels can be seen in the background. The wreck was discovered in July 2013.
One of the most luxurious ships to ply the Great Lakes during the Civil War era has been found in Lake Huron.
The Keystone State, a side-wheel steamer, was found in this summer by veteran shipwreck hunter David Trotter of Canton and his team, Undersea Research Associates.
The search group is an operation funded by Trotter and includes a small group of volunteer divers and support personnel. Trotter and crew found the vessel between Alpena and Harrisville in the northeast portion of the Lower Peninsula, about 40 miles offshore. He said the team found the vessel during the waning days of the search season.
The 288-foot Keystone State was one of the most opulent vessels of her day. She was built for the passenger and package cargo trade, running regular routes from Buffalo to Chicago and Milwaukee. During her heyday, she was called a “Palace Steamer.”
But when she sank in a furious gale in November 1861, she was rumored to be carrying gold and war materials meant for the Civil War.
Prior to pushing off from Detroit on Nov. 8, she was loaded with cargo described as “iron implements (farm implements).” Her destination was reported to be Milwaukee, Wis. Some experts believe the cargo was actually gold and military supplies destined for Civil War battlefields, and these items were deliberately mislabeled to hide the true nature of the cargo manifests from Confederate spies. Trotter said it would have been odd to ship farm implements during the winter.
The Keystone State was last seen off Port Austin near the tip of Michigan’s thumb area in a disabled condition and rolling heavily in rough water.
According to Trotter, records indicate she went down either Nov. 9 or 10, and all 33 crew members perished.
It took more than a week for the first pieces of debris from the Keystone to appear, only adding more questions for those trying to find out where the ship had succumbed. For the last 150 years, her final resting place has been a mystery.
Thanks to recent technological improvements in side-scan sonar technology, more of the deep wrecks that have remained hidden to previous generations of shipwreck hunters are being discovered.
Trotter knew he had found a significant wreck last July not only due to the size of the ship that sonar detected, but also because it had a large sidewheel, which made the ship easy to identify.
“This was the only sidewheel steamer of this size that remained to be discovered in Lake Huron,” Trotter said.
The steamer and its debris field was discovered in 150-200 feet of water, requiring divers with technical skills to descend to such depths. Divers only had 15 to 20 minutes to explore the wreck before spending more than an hour in decompression stops while heading back to the surface.
Trotter, 73, said the team has yet to determine how much of the damage on the ship occurred topside and how much occurred when she hit the bottom.
“Her fight to survive, over many hours on the surface, caused her to have significant damage before sinking,” he said. “Then 150 years on the floor of Lake Huron contributed to gradual deterioration. Yet her large paddlewheels remain intact, and her beautiful ‘walking beam’ steam engine sits upright, and her boilers are still in place.
Trotter said the dive team didn’t find any of the rumored gold or farm implements in the Keystone’s empty cargo hold. It would be common for the ship’s crew to dump cargo in an attempt to keep the ship afloat. But that doesn’t mean he and his crew will stop looking.
“Because of the depth of the wreck site and the remoteness of the area where the ship foundered, exploring and documenting the wreck site takes some time and effort,” he said. “Of course, one always wonders if the story of the gold bullion/coins is true, and perhaps we eventually will make that ‘one of a kind’ discovery. … We still have some exploring to do in the large debris field.”