Lake Superior

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    Isle Royale Trip Report – July 22-26, 2009

    Original Post by K0rx on ScubaBoard

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    Isle Royale Trip Report – July 22-26, 2009
    I just got home from a wreck diving trip to Isle Royale in Lake Superior. I got to dive a couple of new wrecks, including the George M. Cox, the Chisholm Engine, and the Monarch, as well as some old favorites including the Emperor, the Congdon Bow, and the America. Isle Royale is a beautiful setting, and the cold water (temps were about 39°F on the bottom) visibility of the wrecks was outstanding.

    The trip was organized by Yan Saillard of Innerspace Scuba in Duluth, MN. Our boat was the Lake Superior Diver, a 38 ft Chris Craft boat well set up for diving and owned and operated by Captain Ryan Staley of Isle Royale Charters. We departed from the Grand Portage Marina in the morning of July 22, 2009 for a five day charter. Both Yan and Ryan did an excellent job with this trip! The food was great, the wrecks were great, and the weather was as good as I’ve seen it. There were four of us on board – Ryan, Yan, Josh, and myself. Yan is a great underwater photographer as well! I’d highly recommend both of these operations if you are interested in Isle Royale wreck diving.

    Day 1
    George M. Cox
    The George M. Cox was a 233 ft steel passenger ferry. Her maiden voyage following a refit and renaming was to prove problematic. Enroute to Thunder Bay in a thick fog during May, 1933, she struck the Rock of Ages reef at 17 knots, which lifted her half out of the water. The 125 passengers and crew were rescued by the lighthouse keeper and spent a cold night huddling on the stairs of the lighthouse trying to keep warm. She currently lies in 15 – 100 ft. of water.

    This was our first wreck of the trip, and was a new one for me. As Yan, Josh, and I dropped off the swim bridge into the cold water near the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, I was really looking forward to seeing this wreck. Descending down the mooring line, the first thing you see are the four boilers used to create the steam for this ship. A large crack in the stern section of the hull let us see the propeller drive shaft. The ship had collapsed on itself so it wasn’t possible to penetrate the hull to this wreck. Various other artifacts were strewn about the wreck site. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the photographs from our dive on the wreck were lost.

    SS America
    The SS America was a 183 ft passenger ferry, providing passenger service between mainland Michigan and the Rock Harbor resort on Isle Royale. She struck a submerged shoal near Washington Harbor at the south end of Isle Royale in June, 1928. Currently she lies at an angle, with the bow only a couple of feet below the surface and visible from the surface, sloping down to the stern at 85 ft.
    I first saw this wreck when I came to Isle Royale for a backpacking trip in 2005 with the Solon, IA Venture Crew 120. As the ferry exited Windigo Harbor, we passed the mooring buoy on the bow and you could see the bow of the ship just below the surface descending into the water below. What fun to come back and dive her in both 2008 and 2009. The ship has a storied history, including several salvage attempts and even some sabotage of those salvage efforts. Diving her, you see a variety of rooms, the engine, and if you are willing to penetrate below, the American flag, painted on the wall of the engine room. You can also see evidence of the repairs made by divers in order to reduce the degradation of the wreck due to environmental conditions.

    Day 2
    Chester A. Congdon Bow
    The Chester A. Congdon was a 532 ft steel-hulled bulk freighter named after Chester A. Congdon from Duluth, MN, owner of the Glensheen Mansion in that city.
    The Congdon departed Fort William, ONT in a thick fog and struck the southern part of Canoe Rocks (now called Congdon Shoal) near the north west end of Isle Royale in November of 1918. The bow section broke off from the rest of the boat and slid down the reef to a depth of 110 ft. where it lies pointing upward today. The stern lies on the opposite side of the reef in up to 170 ft. of water.
    Dropping down the mooring line on this wreck, you first encounter the bowsprit at about 65 ft. The intact pilot house is an imposing feature on this wreck. The bow points up at an awkward angle, giving you an unusual feeling as you swim around her. On the bottom of the wreck at about 110 ft, you can see the Safety First sign that obviously wasn’t heeded during her final voyage. Several artifacts lie inside the wreck and much debris is littered about the lake bottom surrounding her.

    Emperor Bow
    The Emperor was a 525 ft steel-hulled bulk freighter downbound in a thick fog from Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) during June of 1947. A navigation error by the first mate caused her to run hard onto the reef at Canoe Rocks. The Coast Guard Cutter Kimball happened to be in the area at the time, and was able to rescue some of the sailors following the mayday call, preventing an even larger tragedy than actually happened. She lies with the bow at 50 ft. and the stern down to 150 ft at the sand.

    The bow section of this wreck is not nearly as interesting as the stern section, so Josh and I just did one dive at this end of the wreck. The anchors are to me the most interesting part of the bow section. One lies partially buried in the sand, and the other hangs from the anchor line along the bow. Swimming over the pile of hull plates and other debris aft, I did run across a brass porthole that had obviously been removed from some place on the wreck. I left it lying there for the next diver to enjoy. There is a swim-under possible at about 90 ft. I did that last year, but we didn’t make it that far down the wreck this time.

    Monarch
    The Monarch was a 259 ft wooden passenger and packet freighter vessel. She was bound for Sarnia ONT in heavy fog during the coldest day of winter during December, 1906, when she struck the Palisades along the west edge of Isle Royale. After abandoning ship, the passengers and crew had to hike overland to Tobin and Rock Harbors where they were ultimately rescued. The wreck displays many artifacts and is strewn over a wide area from 40 – 100 ft. deep.

    Dropping down onto this wreck, I didn’t quite know what to expect, since I hadn’t dived it previously. As we approached the bottom, a bathtub came into view. Yan, Josh, and I took turns bathing, and then proceeded on to the main part of the wreck. All kinds of artifacts, from china to bottles filled with grain and old pumps and other gear from the boat littered the bottom. The grain bottles were interesting – you can still see the kernels of grain stored in them. Stuff lasts a long time in the cold Lake Superior waters. The wreck is quite broken up, but large sections of the hull lie flat on the bottom in a sort of fan shape. From an artifact perspective, I would recommend this dive as the most interesting of all that we did.

    Day 3
    Emperor Stern (3x)
    We did three dives on the Emperor stern – there’s so much to see. You drop down the mooring line onto the stern deck at about 130 ft.
    Swimming around the outside of the stern you can look into the various crew cabins and see sinks and other porcelain artifacts, as well as china and bottles. The bedsteads for the crew are still there – with the mattresses long gone. At the stern, the name EMPEROR is still visible under a coating of rust and algae. Penetrating inside the engine room, you see a plaque – a memorial to the eleven sailors that lost their lives in the tragic wreck event. The wreck is deep, and so some decompression is required if you spend any time at all on her. It is also possible to penetrate the hold area on this dive, although there’s nothing really to see down there. Oxygen from our dive boat hanging at 15 ft really enhanced the safety of our decompression stop.

    Day 4
    We began this day with our third dive on the Emperor stern. Another great dive on a great wreck.

    Chester A. Congdon Bow
    Our second dive of the day was onto the Congdon Bow again. We rigged the camera for video mode, and got lots of good video – I’ve posted that on the photos section of the page. Operating a video camera presents its own unique challenges to the diver, as we learned.

    Day 5
    Henry Chisholm Engine
    The Henry Chisholm was a 270 ft wooden freighter with an engine sufficiently powerful to allow it to tow up to three barges in addition to its own cargo load. She plowed onto Rock of Ages reef in October, 1898, where she broke up into multiple pieces. The engine broke off from the main wreck, and slid down the reef (without tipping over!) to its final resting spot between 125 and 150 ft deep. The Rock of Ages lighthouse was built on the reef, partially as a result of this wreck, and was completed in 1908.

    Unlike the other wrecks we dove, this one did not have a mooring line attached. So the plan was to have Captain Ryan drive the boat, with Yan, Josh, and I standing ready to go on the swim bridge. As he crossed the GPS coordinates for the wreck, he hollared GO and we dropped down into the water. We took a bag and a reel down with us to shoot for our ascent. As I was the one with the most reel-handling experience, I got the job of running the reel and shooting the bag. The top of the engine is at about 125 ft, and we saw her when we got to about 90 ft or so. I looped the line through the mooring ring welded on top of the engine, attached the bag, and used my deco bottle for inflation. As soon as I opened the valve on the bottle, it began freeflowing like crazy. I inflated the bag, sent it up, and shut down the valve on the bottle to stop the freeflow. I then clipped off the reel and we began the dive. The engine stands upright and is about 25 ft tall, with amazingly ornate castings all around it. Obviously, this engine is a thing of beauty. After we completed the dive, I unhooked the reel and spooled out line as we made our ascent. At the surface, I unclipped the bag, and reeled up all 250 ft of line, leaving nothing on the wreck to show our presence to another diver. We had noted a big pile of line on top of the engine from another group that hadn’t been as successful with the same procedure.

    Life Aboard
    The Lake Superior Diver is an outstanding boat for this kind of diving. An on-board compressor with nitrox system made it possible for Ryan to blend our mixes optimally for each of the wrecks. The food was both plentiful and good – we had steak one night, roast another, pork chops a third, and spaghetti and wine for the fourth. Apres dive, there was steaming hot cream of wild rice soup with cheese and crackers waiting, and the breakfasts were fit for a king. The company was also outstanding. Yan, Ryan, and Josh made great mates for the trip. At night we moored up at one of the many small docks available for such purposes. An evening Montecristo Number 2 completed each day as the sun set.

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