Lake Superior never gives up its dead, Gordon Lightfoot sang in "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
The balladeer's line is about the hundreds of bodies from Superior's shipwrecks that have never been recovered, among them the men of the Fitzgerald, an ore carrier that went down with all 29 hands in a 1975 storm.
But the words apply just as well to the vessels on the lake's bottom. The largest of the Great Lakes never surrenders its sunken ships to the decay, corrosion and encrustation that, over time, obliterate man-made objects in saltwater.
After a 1980 cruise of Lake Superior, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of legendary undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, spoke of finding a wooden sailing yacht that had been on the bottom for decades, sitting intact, upright and fully rigged, as if ready to sail.
The Cousteau team was finding out what Superior's cadre of skilled cold-water scuba divers already knew: Because its depths are fresh, perpetually cold and near-sterile, the Great Lakes' most notorious ship-killer is also one of the world's best preservers of artifacts.
The descent from the surface to one of Superior's wrecks is a trip into the past, to the day the ship went down.
"You swim into the stateroom on a 70-year-old wreck and see the shoes under the bunks. It's really easy to relate to the panic [of sinking]," says Daniel Lenihan, an underwater archaeologist for the National Park Service. He likens the lake's depths to a "waterlogged deep freeze."
Buffs agree that Superior's best collection of dive-able shipwrecks is a group of 10 major vessels near Isle Royale National Park, Mich. The island is a 45-mile-long slice of boreal wilderness about 20 miles off Minnesota's north shore and near the U.S.-Canada border.
Isle Royale, a favorite of wilderness backpackers, has long been a magnet for marine catastrophe. Its often-foggy waters, just off shipping lanes, are studded with rocks. With hundreds of miles of open lake to the east, Superior's murderous winds and storm waves hit the island full force.
Four small charter companies operating out of Minnesota ports are licensed to do live-aboard dive adventures and day trips around Isle Royale, and National Parks rangers keep an eye on divers and underwater artifacts. Removal of any part of these wrecks, however small, is against the law and punishable with hefty fines.
Add visibility of 30 to 100 feet, and good wrecks well within the 140-foot-deep limit for recreational scuba diving, and you've got a noteworthy dive site. But Isle Royale is rated near the top by shipwreck connoisseurs.
The island has a collection of historically significant examples of Great Lakes ships that went down between the 1870s and 1947, years that bracket the heyday of lakes shipping.
Painted woodwork sunk more than half a century ago is still bright, covered only with a thin layer of algae. Lettering on signs and even wrapper labels can still be read. Faucets still turn on the America, a 183-foot passenger steamer that went down after hitting a reef in 1928.
With its bow just below the surface and a maximum depth of about 80 feet, the ship is well within the depth limits of intermediate divers. But, as Lenihan, charter captains and park rangers warn, penetrating this or any ship's interior is for experts only.
Underwater Isle Royale, in general, is not for the inexperienced.
Below surface layers, the water temperature never climbs much above 40 degrees. Cold and the hazards of wreck diving in a remote area, where weather can cut off outside help for days, make diving here a serious sort of fun.
"It's nice to have people with at least 20 dives under their belts," says Bill Gardner, skipper of the 36-foot Royale Diver. "We don't require advanced open-water certification, but we recommend it."
For the first time this year, park officials have authorized Gardner to allow properly certified and equipped divers to exceed the 140-foot limit.
Gardner will become the only operator permitted to let his clients make deep descents, breathing mixed gases. Recent "technical" blends of oxygen, nitrogen and other gases allow longer bottom times at much greater depths than the compressed air used by most recreational divers. The 140-foot limit still applies to clients using compressed air.
Hard-core experts aboard Royale Diver may now take the plunge to the island's most eerie treasures.
Among them is Kamloops, a package freighter that sank in 1927, which lies about 240 feet below the surface at its deepest.
Inside Kamloops, underwater adventurers see one of the eeriest sights in all of wreck diving. A body with flesh preserved by a sort of ice-water mummification lies in the ship's engine room.
Here, in dark and perpetually frigid depths, is one of the dead that Lake Superior never gave up.
If you go
General information, regulations and permits for divers and a list of dive charter operators: Isle Royale National Park, 800 E. Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, Mich. 49931; (906) 482-0984.
Lake Superior Excursions, P.O. Box 446, Mile 52, Highway 61, Beaver Bay, Minn., 55601; (218) 226-4100
Royale Diver, 3444 White Bear Ave., White Bear Lake, Minn. 55110; (612) 773-8710
Superior Diver, P.O. Box 388, Grand Portage, Minn. 55605; (313) 426-4276
Superior Trips, 7348 Symphony St. Northeast, Fridley, Minn. 55432; (612) 785-9516
"Shipwrecks of Isle Royale National Park: The Archaeological Survey," Daniel J. Lenihan, principal investigator. $34.95 plus $4.50 shipping. Order from the publisher: Lake Superior Port Cities Inc., P.O. Box 16417, Duluth, Minn. 55816; (800) 635-0544 or (218) 722-5002.
Pub Date: 5/12/96