Water, water everywhere

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
   ~ Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

From oceans, lakes (“great” and “pretty good”) to rivers, ponds, creeks, icecaps, glaciers and, yes, the human body itself, water is a central element in our planet’s structure and function. We don’t always appreciate how much of a role water plays in our existence, and it has taken warming trends in the atmosphere to jolt us awake.

Having tuned into my Gordon Lightfoot CD recently, I was carried back to the water world of my youth, Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. It has been 42 years since the Edmund Fitzgerald met its doom there. As a son of Superior whose father worked in his youth on ore boats, I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of my family’s experiences on the great Gitche Gumee and what a major role water has played in our lives.

Let me begin with a few pieces of scientific evidence, beginning right here in the human body. To say that water is a central part of both our bodies and our culture is an understatement. The Journal of Biological Chemistry says our bodies are over half water, generally around 60 percent. Of individual organs, the brain and heart are 73 percent, the lungs 83 percent, muscles and kidneys, 79 percent, even our bones—supposedly solid items—are made up of 31 percent water. Babies and children have the highest percentage of water, followed by adult men. Adult women carry a slightly lower percentage than either men or babies, and obese folks have less water than lean ones.

According to Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., a writer and scientific consultant who wrote an article titled “How Much of Your Body is Water?” for ThoughtCo.com, between 30 and 40 percent of the weight of our bodies is in our skeleton. However, if the water that is bound up in our bones were to be removed, half of that weight would go with it.

We are pretty liquid items.

Well, so what? What does this water do—just slosh around? No, it actually carries out a number of important functions. It’s a primary building block of our cells. It serves as an insulator to regulate our body’s temperature. It lubricates joints and is necessary if we are to metabolize proteins and carbohydrates. A major component of saliva, it aids in digesting carbohydrates and in swallowing food. (How often do you say you have a dry throat and can’t get anything down?) Water is a shock absorber for vital organs such as the brain and spinal cord as well as for unborn fetuses. It comes in handy in the “biffy” when we need to flush our own wastes and urine. “We aim to please. You aim, too, please.”

Growing up on Gitche Gumee, however, put water in a different context. It was our major means of transportation since there were no roads on the island where our camp stood. It was the source of income for the commercial fisherman who lived in our harbor and set his nets and collected his catch daily. It also contributed to his downfall when the lamprey eels found Superior’s lake trout to be plentiful and tasty.

My dad spent several summers of his youth working on ore boats that carried iron ore from Minnesota and Wisconsin east through the Great Lakes to refineries in Michigan and Ohio. The Canadian long boats went past our island (Isle Royale) regularly, honking as they carried their ore between the north end of the island and a smaller island called Passage Island. We often went up to the end of our harbor to watch them go through the straits. Isle Royale was a summer vacation for us, we missed seeing the Edmund Fitzgerald on its ill-fated voyage in November. Since it sailed out of Superior, Wisconsin, it went south of us on its way to Whitefish Bay at the east end of the lake.

Many summers, a good portion of our vacation was spent seeking out the wrecks that went down near us. Isle Royale, with its cliffs, rocks and reefs, was the site of numerous ship disasters. Each year we would get in our 18-foot outboard we named “Handy” and cruise around the island’s northeastern point to a spot about 100 yards out in the lake, where Canoe Rocks jutted from the water. The rocks were where the Emperor, a 525-foot Canadian ore boat, the largest Canadian vessel at the time, went down. The first summers after its sinking, parts of the ship’s cabin remained above water, and we tied up to its radio antenna sticking out of the water to explore what was left underneath. There were crew members trapped beneath the ship’s cabin at the time of the collision who drowned with it. Because Superior is such a clear, cold lake, one could see the ship’s body as it lay on the reef next to Canoe Rocks. Soon after its sinking, it became a prime fishing spot as the lake trout swam around its hull.

A second Gitche Gumee vessel sank not far away under sheer cliffs called the Palisades. This boat, a wooden ship, was a Canadian passenger and cargo vessel that normally carried people and goods between Sarnia, Ontario, and Duluth, Minnesota. Even though it was wooden, the Monarch was still able to travel the lake in early December. The night of December 6, 1906, it ran far off course in a blinding snowstorm and crashed into The Palisades with its cargo of wheat, oats and salmon. Most of the crew and passengers escaped the wreck via a line they were able to string to the shore. They survived on the ship’s food supply and were rescued four days later.

Large pieces of the boat are still visible under water 10- to 80-feet deep, the cold Lake Superior temperature keeping the wood intact. The Monarch was always a second journey for us year after year to learn how much of it one could still see.

A third Isle Royale wreck, whose sinking may these days prove prophetic, was a boat called the America. (No, our current president was not on board—in fact, he was not yet born when it went under.)

Water and the “great lake” held a legendary piece of my early life. The lives of those who remained underneath its whitecaps were to me the spiritual leaders of an underwater universe, a symbol to us living that there is more than we have created on this space orb called Earth.

In Charlotte, being on a “pretty good lake,” we still have our own legends. My five-year-old grandson came to visit us last week and became fascinated with Champ. His mother called to say that she asked him recently about his beliefs for the holidays. He said he was not sure about Mary and Jesus, but he did, on the other hand, absolutely believe in the reality of Champ and he has seen pictures to prove it. Hmm, science or science fiction?