Thursday, June 7, 2012


Superior is a freshwater sea and all the land around it a maritime province. Storm tossed, unpredictable and deadly, the lake has long been noted for the men, ships and material it claims. From Indian then Voyageur canoes, to pleasure craft and mighty commercial vessels, all are at risk of sudden storms with gale force winds and waves up to 35 feet high.

For scuba divers the Upper Peninsula alone contains four underwaterpreserves and for the rest of us there're glass bottom boat tours out of Munising.

The stretch of lake between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point is called by some the “Graveyard of Superior”. It’s here that the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. And while technically just west of Grand Marais, for sake of argument we’ll include Au Sable Reef in that ledger.

Here there are three ships come to final rest within an easy walk along a splendidly wild and at least occasionally most terrible shore. On this lovely stretch of sand and rock between the mouth of the Hurricane River and Au Sable Light, most anyone can get up close and personal with Superior’s deadly heritage.

Given the vagaries of wind, water and sand, sometimes these icons of disaster are near invisible. At other times they’re like nothing more than bones of dead dinosaurs washed up on the beach and that’s quite the thing to see.

So should you ever find yourself in Grand Marais, be sure to stop by and pay your respects…

Mary Jarecki

Built in 1871 and rebuilt in 1880, Mary Jarecki was a 200' steam barge. On July 4th 1883 she was downbound from Marquette and fully loaded when the ship went off course in thick fog. She hit Au Sable Reef with such force that her bow was out of the water by a yard. Salvage attempts were made on at least two different occasions, but eventually Mary Jarecki was abandoned for a wreck and total loss.

This is the first ship you'll see, along the beach east of the Hurricane River.


Built 1887, Sitka was a 272', 1,740 ton steam barge, also working the iron trade. On October 15th 1893, the crew of the Sitka rescued five survivors of the schooner Sherwood, which boat waterlogged and went to the bottom off Grand Island. Nearly eleven years to the day, on October 4th 1904 came Sitka's turn.

Laden with ore taken on in Marquette, Sitka hung up on Au Sable Reef some 100' from shore. Though lifesavers from Grand Marais responded to the distress call, with placid weather Captain Johnson & crew remained aboard, sending a single man ashore to call for a tug in hopes of refloating the boat. The next morning brought a rising gale. The ship was abandoned and pounded to pieces by waves. Later, wreckers were able to strip what little was left.

I'm told that the wreck of Sitka is mingled with the remains of Gale Staples, the third ship along this beach. But some 15 years or so ago I went in and captured a single image, which doesn't look much at all like the Staples.

I've not seen Sitka since, as she's remained buried beneath the sand. I asked a Park worker when last anyone saw Sitka. "Long time", he replied.

So despite repeated visits, this lone vintage 4x5 chrome will have to serve.

Gale Staples

Originally named Caledonia and renamed Gale Staples after transfer to Canadian ownership, the 277', 2,197 ton wooden steamer was hauling coal when on October 1st, 1918 rough weather forced her onto Au Sable Reef. Coast Guard removed eleven crew members and tugs were called. The storm worsened and the remaining six crewmembers left the ship. Hard seas over several days completed her destruction and the Gale Staples became a total loss.

Of these three derelict ships, Gale Staples is the most dependable. Except for the time I shot what I take to be Sitka, Staples has lain revealed on the beach each time I've visited and is regularly the most photogenic of the three.

Look closely to spy an ore boat on the horizon

Gale Staples once gave me an object lesson in the pursuit of perfect light.

I'd worked this wreck beneath resolutely grey skies for hours. Had done everything I could under the circumstances and, disappointed, packed to leave. While walking away I looked skyward and thought perhaps there'd come a break. I threw down the pack and hurriedly set up. Standing in the water, I'd time only for a single exposure before grey once again overwhelmed. 

This shot of Gale Staples remains one of my personal favorites. Now that's perfect light...


  1. Thanks. It's an incredibly photogenic place...

  2. That the bones of these ships lay right there on the beach is amazing. It's a little like coming across the remains of a dinosaur...