Alaska Bucket List Trip

Day 3 – September 3 (Seward)

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View from Resurrection Roadhouse at Windsong Lodge

Awoke to the wonderful sounds of nature. I have to take a moment here to express that absolutely nothing can prepare one properly for the grandeur and scope that is Alaska. Even when one is traveling through it or looking out the window experiencing it, it’s impossible to comprehend the vastness. The trees are taller and denser than any I’ve ever encountered before, even those in areas where civilization has intruded enough to build.

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View from the parking lot at Resurrection Roadhouse at Windsong Lodge

We had breakfast at the Roadhouse and boarded the shuttle for the trip to the harbor for our Kenai Fjords cruise. Let me preface by saying that the weather was so bad the day before that all of the cruises had been either cancelled or limited to Resurrection Bay. We were scheduled to go out into the Gulf of Alaska as part of our 6-hour tour (cue Gilligan’s Island theme) of Kenai Fjords National Park.

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“Our” Major Marine Tours Catamaran

The Major Marine Tours boat was a catamaran, so I felt certain that the cruise would be as smooth as possible. Our all-female crew was wonderful. Our guide was a U.S. Park Ranger – Ranger Dan. Ranger Dan was originally from Sandy Springs, Georgia (not far from where we used to live). The ride out in the bay was breathtaking. We went past Bear Glacier, where it looked as if an immense vehicle had driven down it. Those areas of dark are called moraines. We passed some water caves and lone standing rocks that reminded me greatly of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the Pictured Rocks area.

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Bear Glacier and Moraines (for size reference, notice full-size boat in front of glacier)

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Standing Rocks Reminiscent of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

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Giant Cave

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Could not BELIEVE someone was out on a Jet Ski (It was very chilly!)

Not far past the rocks, we entered the Gulf of Alaska and happened upon a pod of Orca. There were several adults and a few juveniles. While not nearly as rough as the previous day, there was plenty of rocking and rolling while the ship cut its engines to drift and watch the orca. We stayed as stationary as possible considering the seas for quite a while. Sadly, this took quite a toll on many of our shipmates.

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Adult and Playing Juvenile Orcas

When Captain Kayleigh started the boat back up and headed toward Aialik Bay and Glacier, it was not a moment too soon. Even though I’d taken Bonine (a motion sickness medication), that rocking with the diesel fumes had gotten to me. As we pulled close to the Aialik Glacier, there was a tremendous explosion sound and then intense thunder as the great glacier calved. I’m so glad I was able to see this intense, natural phenomenon. As I was trying to see the Harbor Seals up along the edge of the by, the glacier calved yet again.

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Aialik Glacier in Aialik Bay

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Aialik Glacier Calving (note spray from splash)

 

All through the bay, there were small icebergs from the glacier “calves.” The crew managed to fish one of these out of the bay, clean it off, and shatter it into drink-sized pieces. Jim got a glacier margarita. I was still feeling a bit green, so I abstained from that and the “buffet” lunch.

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Harbor Seals at Aialik Glacier (note icebergs from recent calving behind them)

The trip back was quite a bit smoother as the boat was going with the current and waves instead of against it. I also think that the sea had extracted its toll on us so was kinder to us on the return. As we went through the passages in the Channel Islands, we were able to see flocks of puffins (both Horned and Tufted) in the wild. We also saw Sooty Shearwaters and Black-legged Kittiwakes. On the rocks was a huge colony of huge Stellar Sea lions. Most of the trip the sky had cleared greatly and these immense mammals were sunbathing and taking in the warmth. When we passed the area where we had seen the orca on the way out, we found they were still there and even more visible. Luckily though, we had very little time left on the tour, so the Captain and crew made for the harbor after only a short stop.

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Black-legged Kittiwake in foreground – Horned & Tufted Puffins behind

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Large Colony of Stellar Sea Lions (basking in the sun which finally came out)

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Four of the Pod of Orcas

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Ranger Dan Holding Map of Our Route (and all the wildlife seen)

Once back on dry land, I felt a whole lot better and we scouted for someplace to grab a bite and a cocktail. Right next to the boat harbor is Ray’s Waterfront. Our shuttle driver had recommended the place – and it was close, so we gave it a try. I’m very glad we did. The service was a bit awkward, but the bourbon was good and the macadamia-crusted halibut, with coconut curry rice and sauce was very good – actually, one of the better meals on the trip.

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Ray’s Waterfront (picture from Pintrest)

We stopped across the street and bought a pint bottle of Maker’s Mark. (Have I mentioned that everything in Alaska is quite a bit more expensive than in the lower 48? Just getting products into Alaska is way more expensive, so they pass that along in pricing.) The clerk had to see BOTH of our licenses – out of the wallets. Now, y’all know how old we are. I guess a rule is a rule and he could get fired if he didn’t require us to pull out our id, but really?

We caught the last scheduled shuttle of the evening and headed back to the lodge. After a quick nightcap, we headed for bed. It was a very long day, but one not easily forgotten.

When the Gales of November Came Early – 44 Years Ago (Repost)

Every November 10, I reblog my post on the Edmund Fitzgerald. 44 years seems like a long time to most of us, but to the families of the crew lost, it must seem like yesterday.
Ever since I moved to Michigan, and especially since I have now been to Whitefish Point and seen the bell and the other ephemera at the Shipwreck Museum, it is even more poignant.
I hope you will read, enjoy, and comment on the story. It would be especially interesting to hear your memories.

 

November 10, 1975. Do you remember?

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.”

 Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” 1976

 

I remember it well. I can still “see” Harry Reasoner sitting at his desk on the evening news talking about the apparent loss of the ship “Edmund Fitzgerald” and crew of 29. For some reason, it struck me – viscerally. Perhaps it was because we were so used to seeing great ships going under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (although they were not nearly as large as the Great Lakes freighters). I remember following the story at the time. I never forgot the sadness I felt. Then, too, there’s that song…it’s one of those that sticks in your head and takes forever to get rid of.

The last voyage of the Great Lakes Freighter “Edmund Fitzgerald,” captained by Ernest M. McSorley, started in Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975. The “Fitz” was loaded with over 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. The ship was scheduled to transport the cargo to Zug Island on the Detroit River. She left port with the Arthur M Anderson whose captain was Bernie Cooper. It was determined that the Edmund Fitzgerald would take the lead as she was the faster vessel.

Both captains were acutely aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes. Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by the Canadian shore. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.

Weather conditions continued to deteriorate. Gale warnings had been upgraded to storm warnings early in the morning of November 10. While conditions were bad, with winds gusting to 50 knots and seas 12 to 16 feet, both Captains had often piloted their vessels in similar conditions.

 

Last Voyage

As the Fitzgerald approached Caribou Island, it appeared to Captain Cooper on the Anderson that the Fitz had passed far too close to Six Fathom Shoal. He could clearly see the ship and the beacon on Caribou on his radar and could measure the distance between them. He and his officers watched the Fitzgerald pass right over the dangerous area of shallow water. By this time, snow and rising spray had obscured the Fitzgerald from sight

According to transcripts and quoting from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum website, “At 3:30 pm that afternoon, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper and said: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” McSorley was “checking down” his speed to allow the Anderson to close the distance for safety. Captain Cooper asked McSorley if he had his pumps going, and McSorley said, ‘Yes, both of them.’”

There were no more extraordinarily alarming reports from Captain McSorley that afternoon. However, at around 5 p.m., a wave smashed into the Anderson smashing its starboard lifeboat. Winds were reported to be almost 60 knots steady, with gusts to 70 knots. Seas were running 18 to 25 feet.

Again, from the GLSM website, “According to Captain Cooper, about 6:55 pm, he and the men in the Anderson’s pilothouse felt a “bump”, felt the ship lurch, and then turned to see a monstrous wave engulfing their entire vessel from astern. The wave worked its way along the deck, crashing on the back of the pilothouse, driving the bow of the Anderson down into the sea.

“Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water – barrooff – just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.’”

The first mate of the Anderson spoke to the Fitzgerald one last time, about 7:10 pm.

Fitzgerald: “We are holding our own.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” The mate signed off.

The radar signal, or “pip” of the Fitzgerald kept getting obscured by “sea return,” meaning that seas were so high they interfered with the radar reflection. Around 7:15 pm, the pip was lost again, but this time, did not reappear. The Anderson’s First Mate called the Fitzgerald again at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.

Quoting Captain Cooper, “At this time I became very concerned about the Fitzgerald – couldn’t see his lights when we should have. I then called the William Clay Ford to ask him if my phone was putting out a good signal and also if perhaps the Fitzgerald had rounded the point and was in shelter, after a negative report I called the Soo Coast Guard because I was sure something had happened to the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard were at this time trying to locate a 16-foot boat that was overdue.”

Captain Cooper kept asking the few other ships in the area if they had seen or heard anything from the Fitzgerald. As there had been no word, he persisted with the Coast Guard. Captain Cooper and his crew had just managed to pilot the Anderson to safety in Whitefish Bay. They were all breathing a huge sigh of relief when the Coast Guard made a huge request of them.

There were no Coast Guard ships in the immediate area. Could the Anderson go back out into the storm to look for the Fitzgerald? I can’t imagine the anxiety. Here they had just reached safety after being hammered by a huge storm including two huge, rogue waves (called “two sisters” in maritime lingo), but the seaman’s unwritten code is that you go to try to help fellow seamen.

The Anderson became the lead boat in the search. The Anderson was again severely pounded by the storm and was rolling badly, but they were able to locate the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats (empty) and other debris, but no sign of survivors. The William Clay Ford also left the safety of Whitefish Bay to help. These two were later joined by two Coast Guard cutters and a fixed-wing aircraft.

The Coast Guard continued the search. On November 14, a specially-outfitted, U.S. Navy plane got a strong signal 17 miles off Whitefish Point. In the next few days, the Coast Guard cutters used different technologies (including side-scan radar) to check that area. One of them located two large pieces of wreckage on the bottom in the same area. A similar search took place in late November. However, winter was closing in. There would be no chance to continue until spring. As large as the Great Lakes are, Mother Nature and winter are stronger. The Lakes become impassible with ice.

In May of 1976, they returned to try to determine if these sonar responses were, indeed, the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Navy submersibles took thousands of feet of video and hundreds of still photos. On May 20, 1976, all question as to the final resting place of the “Fitz” was removed as photos were examined and the name “Edmund Fitzgerald” was clearly seen on the stern, upside down, 535 feet below the surface of the lake.

Depiction of the Wreck

In November of 1994, family members of the crew brought their concerns to The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS). They were worried that technology was getting to the point where more and more divers were able to dive the wrecksite of the Fitzgerald. They, naturally, considered this sacred ground as it is the final resting place of their loved ones. The families were still trying to find some form of “closure.”

After discussions with the families, a long list of U.S. and Canadian government agencies, and the owners of the wreck, it was determined that a single, significant artifact – the ship’s bell – could be removed from roof of the pilothouse and brought to shore. A replacement bell, inscribed with the names of the 29 sailors who lost their lives on the Fitzgerald, would be returned to the pilothouse.

The bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald broke water at 1:25 pm, July 4, 1995 as family members watched. A wreath was placed on the water following the recovery. Family members there that day finally had the opportunity to express their grief, say goodbye and for some, bring closure after 20 years. The replacement bell would be returned to the wreck.

The Fitzgerald’s bell was stabilized and then delivered to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. From there, the museum continued restoring the bell for use as the centerpiece of a memorial to the men who died in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You can see it, today, as the centerpiece of their museum along with a photo of Captain McSorley and additional information about and pictures of the Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald will forever, legally, remain off-limits to divers as it is the final resting place for the 29 souls lost that fateful night.

 

Christening of the “Fitz”

“Life” moments of the Edmund Fitzgerald

8/7/1957: Keel laid

6/8/1958: Hull #301 is christened “Edmund Fitzgerald” after the CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company

9/24/1958: The Fitzgerald makes her maiden voyage

1972: Captain Ernest McSorley takes command of the Edmund Fitzgerald

11/10/1975: Last day of the great ship

5/20/1976: More than 40,000 feet of video tape from expeditions to the purported wreck by submersibles is examined. The words “Edmund Fitzgerald” were clearly seen on the stern, upside down, 535 feet below the surface of the lake

7/4/1995: The bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald is raised, restored, and replaced on the ship by a new bell with the names of the twenty nine men lost. This is the last time the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald will ever again be legally dived upon

 

To this day, the true reason for the sinking goes unsolved. Did the Fitzgerald essentially scuttle herself on the shoals in the storm? Were the hatches properly fastened? Did the two giant, rogue waves (the “two sisters”) that hit the Anderson continue to build and swamp an already listing Fitzgerald driving her into the bottom? We’ll never know. There were no survivors to tell the tale.

“Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searches all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.