In Michigan, a park made of water

A buoy floats in an otherwise empty Lake Huron bay, a small button in the water, only a 10 minute paddle to the beach. Below, lying on ...


A buoy floats in an otherwise empty Lake Huron bay, a small button in the water, only a 10 minute paddle to the beach.

Below, lying on the bottom in 18 feet of water, are the remains of the LM Mason, a 125-foot wooden schooner taken by a severe storm on October 22, 1861. Carrying a load of grain, the schooner s’ is nestled in this off the Presque Isle Peninsula in northeast Michigan with 13 other ships to escape the winds, waves and snow. The other ships survived, but the LM Mason was too damaged and sank.

Due to its shallow resting place and exposure to the wild storms that rock this section of Lake Huron – called Shipwreck Alley – only the hull and a few support beams remain. But the fact that it is 160 years old and still relatively well preserved is testament to the unique conditions of the waters in which it rests, part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

In the ocean, wreck wood is often eaten by ship worms and the metal is prone to rusting, but in the cool, fresh waters of Lake Huron these wrecks are extraordinarily well preserved. Especially in deep water. About a dozen miles from LM Mason is the schooner Cornelia B. Windiate in 180 feet of water. Sitting upright on the bottom of the lake, the schooner is almost intact. Her three masts, her rigging, her lifeboat and even her cargo of wheat are still there, although she sank on November 27, 1875.

The LM Mason and the Cornelia B. Windiate are two of some 100 known wrecks that make up the Thunder Bay Sanctuary, a 4,300 square mile underwater park located in Lake Huron off the northeast coast of Michigan. . It was established in 2000 as the first National Great Lakes Marine Sanctuary.

Think about the National Marine Sanctuary System as the underwater equivalent of national parks. It was established in 1972 as there was growing recognition that marine areas of outstanding historical and ecological importance also needed protection. A key event that stimulates system creation was a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California that was the worst in U.S. history at the time.

Managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the system will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022. It includes 15 salt and freshwater sanctuaries in places like the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts, and Flower garden banks off the coast of Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico. There are also two national marine monuments, one of which is Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument off the coast of Hawaii, which is larger than the combined area of ​​all national parks. It is in the process of being designated a sanctuary, which adds additional layers of protection and permanence to the safeguards.

Encompassing over 620,000 square miles of water, the sanctuary system’s total footprint is almost the size of Alaska, but since the sights are underwater, it is more difficult to access them. It is also more difficult to count visitors to sanctuaries because NOAA does not control full access to them, but it is probably a fraction of the hundreds of millions of annual visitors to the national park system.

Yet shrines are important factors in their local economies. Stephanie Gandulla, NOAA Marine Archaeologist and Thunder Bay Research Coordinator, told me that in most years the sanctuary is visited by divers from Australia, New Zealand and Germany, all eager to explore. ‘explore wrecks like the Cornelia B. Windiate which lie at technical diving depths. These are dives that go beyond the limits of recreational scuba diving, typically to a depth greater than 130 feet. They require advanced training and the use of equipment such as astronaut-type drysuits and specialized air tanks.

During our visit, we did not put on dry suits or suck the air out of the tanks. Wetsuits, fins, snorkels and kayaks were quite difficult to manage, but well worth it. We began our exploration of the sanctuary the day before our visit to LM Mason with a ride on the Lady Michigan, a glass bottom boat that docks in Alpena near the sanctuary headquarters. The tour boat sails the waters off Thunder Bay Island, an area of ​​several known wrecks. Near the island, we took a look at the shallow wreckage of the wooden steam barge Monohansett, which sank on November 23, 1907. The crew were rescued by United States Life-Saving. Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard. Even without the glass-bottomed windows, the boiler and cargo hull were easy to spot from the surface.

The boat tour was an entertaining and comprehensive introduction to Thunder Bay Sanctuary, but it’s hard to beat the experience of floating above the LM Mason and diving to swim alongside her wreck. We were his only visitors at the time and the wild waters of the northern bay of Presque Ile were devoid of human noise.

With the wetsuit keeping me as warm as a seal, the sunlight penetrating to the bottom of the clear bay, and thick, unbroken forest clogging the shore, it was easy to see the allure of this sanctuary. . It’s the kind of experience that makes dreams of a career change come true, especially when I learned that NOAA was employing divers throughout their sanctuary system to do research, exploration, and outreach. .

Jeff Gray, the Thunder Bay Superintendent, told me that the attraction of visiting the wrecks is a gateway to furthering the main missions of the sanctuary: conservation, research, education, support to coastal communities and contribution to local economies. . Initially, however, the designation of the Thunder Bay Sanctuary was controversial. The people of Alpena voted against in 1997, fearing the federal government would supplant local oversight and restrict their waters.

Today, however, those fears have largely faded. Thunder Bay is seen as a powerhouse of the local economy, which suffered from the closure of a major paper mill around the same time the sanctuary was designated. In 2012, the Alpena Region Tourism and Convention Office changed its slogan from “A warm and friendly port” to “Great Lakes Sanctuary”. Three years later, in 2015, the shrine received widespread support for its expansion from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles.

After a day and a half of boating, kayaking, floating, snorkeling and swimming in the waters of the sanctuary, the rest of our short weekend was spent not in the sanctuary but along its shore. We visited Rockport Recreation Area, a Michigan state park on the coast of Lake Huron between Alpena and Presque Isle. This state park, Michigan’s 100th, had a charming and refined quality. The signs for the park are hard to find and we drove on a dirt road for so long I was sure we had taken a wrong turn. (Apparently, porcupines keep eating the beacons.) Finally the entrance appeared, the waters of the sanctuary unfolded like a halo beyond the parking lot. There we learned that the park contains a ghost town, a wreck, natural sinkholes, and a bat hibernaculum.

These features will need to be saved for a second visit, as I couldn’t stop my children from climbing the abandoned limestone quarry along the park’s shoreline to search for 400 million year old fossils from the Devonian period. They were especially motivated because Rockport allows each visitor to bring back up to 25 pounds of fossils per year. But the fossil my 7-year-old daughter cared about weighed at least 50 pounds in knee-deep water, so we left it alone.

As a last stop, Mr. Gray and Mrs. Gandulla gave us a tour of the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, which is temporarily closed to the public due to Covid restrictions. Mr Gray said he hopes the free-entry museum will reopen soon, as it is the public’s gateway to the sanctuary and the nexus between NOAA’s educational, scientific and community activities. The centerpiece is a life-size replica of a classic Great Lakes schooner, with audio recreation of a shipwreck. There are also artifacts from shipwrecks and a history of navigation on the Great Lakes, starting with the birch bark canoes of Indigenous peoples and extending to the opening of the St. Laurent.

On our way out, we visited the NOAA dive facility next door, where I met Russ Green, a former deputy superintendent in Thunder Bay and the NOAA staff member tasked with opening the newest national marine sanctuary. , the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast, an area of ​​962 square miles north of Milwaukee. It is the first sanctuary on Lake Michigan and the second on the Great Lakes after Thunder Bay.

Officially designated as a sanctuary on June 23, the Shipwreck Coast contains 36 known sunken ships. But like in Thunder Bay, there is reason to believe that there are many more ships waiting to be found.

As I moved away from Lake Huron, surrounded by solid land – vegetable farms and orchards – I wondered about this concept of a park made of water. There was something unmistakably moving about being in the sanctuary, floating in a bay known to be calm one moment and furious the next. It was different from visiting national or state parks. Maybe because we were in unpredictable waters, unable to hit bottom, at the mercy of something far more powerful. Shakespeare’s “Storm”, which opens with a shipwreck, ends Act I, Scene 1 with this passage: “Now I would give a thousand stadia of sea for an acre of arid land: long moors, brown gorse, whatever.” The above wishes be done, but I would very much like to die a dry death. I can imagine sailors on storm-rocked ships thinking exactly that.

The Earth’s surface is made up of about 71 percent water, but less than 15 percent of the Great Lakes and less than 10 percent of the world’s oceans have been mapped using modern sonar technology. Compared to the popular and well-traveled trails through the mountains and through the forests, the National Marine Sanctuaries are an entry into a world that remains a mystery. Perhaps the wildest part of this country is underwater.


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