A Park Made of Water in Michigan


A buoy floats in the otherwise empty Lake Huron bay, a small knob in the water, just a 10-minute paddle from the beach.

Below, 18 feet of water, lies the remains of LM Mason, a 125-foot wooden sailboat that was caught in a severe storm on October 22, 1861. To escape the winds, waves and snow, sail along northeast Michigan’s Presque Isle peninsula with 13 other ships. Other ships survived, but LM Mason was badly damaged and sank.

Due to the shallow resting place and the brutal storms that have plagued this section of Lake Huron called the Shipwreck Road, only the hull and some supporting beams remain. But the fact that it’s 160 years old and still relatively well preserved is testament to the unique conditions of the waters it inhabits. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

In the ocean, wood from shipwrecks is often eaten by shipwrecks and exposed to metal rust, but in the cold fresh water of Lake Huron these wrecks are extraordinarily well preserved. Especially in deep waters. About a dozen miles from LM Mason lies the sailing Cornelia B. Windiate in 180 feet of water. The sailboat, sitting upright on the lake floor, is almost untouched. Although it sank on November 27, 1875, its three masts, rigs, lifeboat, and even a load of wheat are still there.

LM Mason and Cornelia B. Windiate are two of the nearly 100 known shipwrecks that make up the Thunder Bay temple, a 4,300-square-mile underwater park on Lake Huron off the coast of northeastern Michigan. It was established in 2000 as the first National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes.

think National Marine Protected Area System as the underwater equivalent of national parks. It was established in 1972 with a growing understanding that marine areas of exceptional historical and ecological importance also need protection. an important event that promotes creation of the system It was the worst oil spill in US history in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the system will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022. Channel Islands outside of Santa Barbara, Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts and Flower Garden Banks Off the coast of Galveston, Texas, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There are also two national maritime monuments, one of which is a naval national monument. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument On the coast of Hawaii, which is greater than the combined area of ​​all national parks. It is in the process of being designated as a sanctuary that adds additional layers of protection and permanence to the guards.

Covering more than 620,000 square miles of water, the total footprint of the sanctuary system is nearly the size of Alaska, but access is more difficult because the landmarks are underwater. It is more difficult to count visitors to the sanctuaries, as NOAA does not control full access to them, but it is likely a fraction of the hundreds of millions of annual visitors to the National Park system.

Still, sanctuaries are important factors in their local economy. Stephanie Gandulla, NOAA marine archaeologist and research coordinator at Thunder Bay, told me that the sanctuary is visited most years by divers from places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany, all eager to discover lying wrecks like the Cornelia B. Windiate. in technical diving depths. These are dives that exceed the limits of recreational scuba diving, often deeper than 130 feet. They require advanced training and the use of equipment such as astronaut-like dry suits and special air tanks.

We did not wear dry clothes or suck air from the tanks on our visit. Wet suits, fins, snorkels and canoes were tough enough to tackle, but it was well worth the effort. The day before our LM Mason visit, we started exploring the temple by boarding the Lady Michigan, a glass-bottomed boat moored in Alpena near the temple centre. The tour boat sails into the waters off Thunder Bay Island, where several known shipwrecks are found. Near the island, we looked at the shallow wreck of the Monohansett wooden steam barge that sank on November 23, 1907. The crew was rescued by the United States Lifesaving Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard. Even without the glass bottom windows, the cargo ship’s boiler and hull were easily visible from the surface.

The boat tour was a fun and comprehensive introduction to the Thunder Bay temple, but swimming on LM Mason and swimming through the wreck is hard to top off the diving experience. We were the only visitors at the time, and there were no human voices in the wild waters of Presque Ile’s North Bay.

The diving suit frys me like a seal, the sunlight seeps into the bottom of the clear bay, and with the dense, uninterrupted forest filling the shoreline, the charm of this sanctuary was easy to see. It was the kind of experience that sparked dreams of career change, especially when I learned that NOAA was recruiting divers through its shelter system for research, exploration, and outreach.

Thunder Bay’s superintendent Jeff Gray said the lure of visiting the shipwrecks is a gateway to support the sanctuary’s primary missions: conservation, research, education, supporting coastal communities and contributing to local economies. Initially, however, the definition of Thunder Bay Sanctuary was controversial. Alpena residents voted against it in 1997, fearing that the federal government would replace local oversight and restrict their water.

Today, however, these fears have largely subsided. Thunder Bay is seen as a driver for the local economy, which was hurt when a major paper mill closed while designating the sanctuary. In 2012, the Alpena District Convention and Visitors Bureau changed its slogan from “A Warm and Friendly Harbor” to “Sacred of the Great Lakes”. Three years later, in 2015, the sanctuary received broad support for its expansion from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles.

After a day and a half of boating, canoeing, swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing in the sanctuary’s waters, the rest of our short weekend was spent on the shoreline, not the sanctuary. we visited Rockport Recreation Area, a Michigan state park on the Lake Huron shoreline between Alpena and Presque Isle. This state park, Michigan’s 100th, had a charming, purebred quality. The signs for the park are hard to find and we drove so long on the dirt road that I was sure we had taken a wrong turn. (Apparently, hedgehogs keep eating track marks.) At last the entrance appeared, the waters of the sanctuary lined up in a halo beyond the parking lot. There, we learned that the park contains a ghost town, a shipwreck, natural sinkholes, and a bat hibernating.

These features will need to be saved for a second visit, because I couldn’t stop my kids from climbing the abandoned limestone quarry on the edge of the park in search of 400 million-year-old fossils from the Devonian Period. They were particularly motivated, as Rockport allows each visitor to take home up to 25 pounds of fossils per year. But the fossil in which my 7-year-old son implanted his heart weighed at least 50 pounds in knee-deep water, so we left it alone.

As our last stop Mr. Gray and Mrs. Gandulla showed us around. great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, It 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 NOAA’s nexus of education, science and community access. The center piece is a full-size replica of a classic Great Lakes sailboat, complete with an audio re-enactment of a shipwreck. There are also artifacts from shipwrecks and Indigenous peoples’ birch bark canoes, starting with St. There is a history of Great Lakes shipping that goes back to the opening of the Lawrence Seaway.

On the way out, we visited the NOAA diver facility next door, where I met Russ Green, a former assistant superintendent in Thunder Bay, and the NOAA employee responsible for opening the newest National Marine Sanctuary. Wisconsin Sunken Coast, an area of ​​962 square miles north of Milwaukee. It is the first refuge in Lake Michigan and the second in the Great Lakes after Thunder Bay.

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

As I drove away from Lake Huron, which is surrounded by rugged grounds – vegetable farms and orchards – I was intrigued by the concept of this park made of water. There was something undeniably exhilarating about being in the bunker, floating one moment straight, the next angrily swimming in a notorious cove. It was different from visiting national or state parks. Maybe it’s because we’re in unpredictable water, unable to touch the bottom, and at the mercy of something much more powerful. Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, which begins with a shipwreck, comes to an end Act I, Scene 1 with this passage: “Now would I give an acre of barren land a thousand barren seas: tall heath, brown fur, anything. The above wills will be fulfilled, but I would like to die a dry death.” I can imagine sailors on storm-swept ships thinking exactly that.

About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is 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. National Marine Protected Areas are an introduction to a world that remains mysterious when compared to popular and well-known trails through mountains and forests. Perhaps the wildest place in this country is under water.

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