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From the Editor's Desk

The week the Great Lakes devoured 19 ships

by Dennis Ernst • December 05, 2019

Editor's Desk

Dennis against blue sky

One hundred and six years ago last month, a storm moved into the Great Lakes so fierce that over 250 mariners perished and 12 freighters sunk. The "White Hurricane" as it became known, punished Lakes Huron, Michigan, Superior and Erie with 60 m.p.h. winds gusting up to 90 m.p.h., producing 35-foot waves for 16 hours straight. Ships over 500-feet long were tossed about like bathtub toys, then hurled to their watery graves with their doomed crews trapped within. There has never been a storm so great nor a day so deadly on these massive inland lakes.

Now that I live on shore of one of them, Lake Huron, where most of the ships were lost in the Great Storm of 1913, I often stare over the expanse wondering what it must have been like to stand here 106 years ago. The lake, the 4th largest in the world, is ocean-like, massive and usually calm. It's estimated that water entering the lake stays for 22 years before flowing out the other side. Tourism agencies tout Lake Huron and the Great Lakes in general as being "Shark Free and Unsalted." Yet to be caught on any of them at the wrong time is to be caught without mercy or hope of survival. Huron is among the most unforgiving, second only to Lake Superior to the north, which gobbled up the famed Edmund Fitzgerald in 1976 and her crew of 29.

Out my back window, the view of Huron is mesmerizing. The usually calm water of what early French explorers referred to as "the freshwater sea" floats a steady stream of freighters carrying cargo to and from Chicago and Duluth to New York City and ports between. My Boat Watch app tells me the names of each one passing by, their home port, their destinations, their size and other specs. Industrial commerce up and down the Great Lakes provides a fairly busy commute through my back yard, most freighters passing two miles from shore at about 15 miles per hour. That's about a 5-minute trip across my field of view.

Our view is to the north with thick woods to our left and right, which means sunrises and sunsets are to be had only by descending to the narrow beach and looking far to the east and west respectively. It's a descent worth taking. Even from indoors, the rising and setting suns cast their colors across the northern sky giving us a hue-filled hint of what is transpiring at the east or west horizon. A 25-foot bluff keeps my land well above the lapping waves as they rinse the sand in continuous sweeps. Mild or violent, there are always waves. Even though the walls of our home are 6-inches thick and well insulated, the waves' rhythmic cadence is often loud enough to be the lullaby by which we fall asleep at day's end and to which we awake each morning.

Just how angry "the Big H" must have been that grim day in 1913 is inconceivable. I'd have been killed just standing at my bluff, and my home some 30 yards back would have been destroyed. At the time, though, there was no home here, nor the road upon which we live but that doesn't keep me from imagining a time when the power of nature could raise the water 35 feet from its surface and 10 feet over my head for 16 hours straight. At that time, the land upon which I stand and the trees surrounding me endured a punishment no less than epic, biblical in magnitude, dwarfed only by the grief and mourning of the widows made that day. At that time, what I would have seen from my bluff were walls of water pushed by hurricane-force winds filled with snow rendering visibility to near-zero and the icy pelting of my face to nearly intolerable. The crashing of the mountainous, driven waves day and night would have been deafening before me, impossible to see coming, and horrifying to be amidst. It is the very definition of terror, and exactly what over 235 seamen experienced on ships in the waters before me the day they died.

That day and this day are like night and day. Instead of being caught in an epic storm that will send me and my ship to the bottom of Lake Huron, I'm tapping on my app to see what freighter passes by next. It feels odd and not at all comfortable. One hundred and six years was a long time ago, but when you're standing in the same place, time is all that separates you from something catastrophic. I suppose one would feel the same way standing on the battlefields of Gettysburg, but then Gettysburg is not my home and will never be repeated. One can never be so sure about The Great Storm.

Such is the human dilemma.

Rather than dwell upon the slippery slope that our mortal existence truly is---for me, the nature of nature on this lake of lakes---I can dwell upon something as equally epic but opposite. Namely, what nature puts on display for me every day and every season. It's the far superior choice, and one that brings what was in short supply here on November 9-10, 1913: peace and hope.

So as this year winds down, that's precisely what I want for you. As you weather your storms, either at work or in your personal lives, know that there's a safe harbor for you just ahead. As devastating as they may be, storms are always temporary. What lies ahead is your new normal. One that is quite likely to be vastly superior to the one that this storm is rearranging. That's your harbor, and its just beyond the next gust. Focus on the harbor. There are majestic sunrises and stunning sunsets waiting for you.

You may not be enduring a storm right now, and for that I am very grateful. As your editor for the last 21 years, my readers have become like family to me. Of course, I want you to know and practice phlebotomy procedures according to the standards every time. Articulating those standards has been my goal ever since I left the bench on December 13, 1998. My work is far from done, though, and education is far from all I want to deliver to you. Respect for what you do, hope that you can tackle your biggest problems where you work, and peace in knowing you are working in one of the most noble vocations on the planet: caring for the sick and injured.

Trust me, I've had my share of storms. Just exactly how and why I got washed upon your shore remains a mystery to me, but I'm awfully glad for it. Being your source of reliable information is truly an honor, and one I hope to continue earning. It's my safe harbor, and one into which you are always welcome.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my good friend.

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Great lakes shipwrecks the big blow

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