The November gales of Lake Superior are famed for blizzard conditions, hurricane-force winds, and the sinking of ships. Historically, the week around Veteran’s Day (November 11th) has produced some of the most severe storms in Great Lakes history.
- November 7, 1913 – Nicknamed the ‘White Hurricane’, ‘Big Blow’ and the ‘Freshwater Fury’, this storm was the deadliest natural disaster in Great Lakes history. Normally storms with wind velocities over 70 mph die down within hours. This storm, however, raged for over 16 hours. Blizzards shut down traffic and communication throughout the Great Lakes basin. Major shipwrecks occurred on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie, killing over 250 people.
- November 11, 1940 – The Armistice Day Storm turned heavy rains into blinding snow. Ten Lake Superior deaths were blamed on the storm, which raged for several days. Snowfalls of up to 27 inches, winds from 50-80 mph, and 50-degree Fahrenheit temperature drops occurred throughout the UP.
- November 10, 1975 – This is the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald off of Whitefish Point. Winds were recorded at 48mph with waves ranging 12 to 16 feet.
On Saturday, November 8th, the National Weather Service issued a Hazardous Weather Outlook for the southern shores of Lake Superior east of Marquette. The report called for wind gusts of 40-50 mph, high waves, beach erosion, lakeshore flooding and several inches of snow. These alerts mirrored the 1975 storm.
Usually when I take day-trips to explore Northern Michigan, the weather is beautiful (or at least starts beautiful). Hearing that a massive storm was forecast to batter the Lake Superior coast, I saw a unique opportunity to experience the might of the Great Lakes.
The weather conditions were likely more severe along the Painted Rocks shoreline, but I wanted access to multiple locations along the shore. Whitefish Bay National Forest Scenic Byway runs through the hardwood and pine forests of Hiawatha Nation Forest from M123 just south of Paradise to Brimley. At several places along the 27 mile long route are parks providing access to undisturbed beaches, sand dunes, overlooks and access roads to the shore. It is this strip of land that is rumored to have inspired Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. I thought it perfect for my day trip.
I began my journey at the M123 side of the byway. On both sides of the road were dense forests of white pine, jack pine, birch, maple and oak. A few miles down the road is the first stop on the route, Big Bark Beach. There are eleven stops along the byway, each with a parking lot, restroom facilities, and wonderful interpretive signage.
When I arrive, I am disappointed to see the water and wind both calm. I was hoping to see massive surf and heavy snow. Instead I find grey skies and lapping waves. I’m here, so I take some time to investigate and take some photographs. That is when I notice that, in the distance, the sky is growing dark near the horizon. By the time I finish taking photos, the wind has picked up slightly, the surf gets larger, and a light snow begins to fall.
I get in my car and drive to the next stop, The Shallows.
As I walk towards the beach, the wind is blowing so heavily that I have to take off my hat for fear of losing it. I have to keep my gaze downwind because the snow stings as it strikes my skin. The lake grows angry, waves visibly increasing in size and strength with each passing minute. I try to keep my camera lens dry, but it is impossible. The snow is now coming sideways.
I visit the next stop on the byway, but leave my camera in the car. Although the snow is still light, it blows with such force that I fear damaging my equipment. The Naomikong Overlook promises a glimpse of the forest canopy and peaks of Lake Superior. In the summer and autumn it must be a stunning vista. Today there is not much to see, so I move on.
The next stop is indoors. The Pendill’s Creek Fish Hatchery. Although they are closed, I run into a National Park ranger on his rounds. He agrees to give me a look inside at the hatchery.
Pendill’s Creek stocks lake trout. Here small fish are raised in long channels until they are five to eight inches long. They are then released into Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. I don’t know if it is an effect of the storm or everyday weather conditions inside the building, but a fog floats over the trout beds. I try to snap a photograph of the fish, but the water is too dark and the fish no larger than minnows.
After Pendill’s Creek, the byway passes summer cabins and year-round homes of various sizes. I drive through Dollar Settlement, a small village consisting of a few shops. At this point the weather has cleared. I stop and take photographs of an abandoned train car.
After Dollar Settlement, I come across a burned cabin in the forest. The colors of the cabin, forest floor, and trees intrigue me. The cabin looks like pencils stacked upon each other.
I stop to take photographs. As I walk around the site, the sky grows increasingly darker and I am forced to keep changing the settings of my camera and drying the lens. As I get back into the car, the snow and wind rage once more.
The next stop is the iconic Point Iroquois Lighthouse.
Located along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes from the entrance to the St. Mary’s River to the Soo Locks, a light has been kept in this location since 1853. The current lighthouse was erected in 1870 and abandoned in 1962.
A steep, twisted staircase leads visitors to the top of the tower. There I am greeted by a spectacular view of the forest and shoreline.
Throughout the grounds of the lighthouse are boardwalks, meant to keep visitors from trampling the endangered native grasses.
Although it is difficult to see in photographs, the wind was at its heaviest now. The surf pounded the beach and crept high up the bluff. The waves were at least 10-12 feet high. In the distance, two large freight ships made fast for the safety of harbor.
I drove through the quaint Native American town of Bay Mills and was intrigued by the ‘Old Indian Burial Ground’.
The cemetery is fenced, and no access is granted. However from the fence it is possible to see the wooden spirit houses that are placed over the graves for protection. Inside these little structures were placed tools and resources to sustain the dead on their journey to the land of the spirits.
Sitting at the base of a massive tree is a sign that tells ‘The Legend of this Pine Tree’.
“Among the Indians who moved from Nay Oh Me Kong to what is not the Indian mission at Bay Mills was a little girl of fifteen named Eliza Waishkey nee Eliza Labranch. It was Eliza who selected the tree, then only a twig, and planted it at the head of her father’s grave who was Chief John Waishkey of the Waishkey band of Chippewa Indians. The tree, a white pine, was planted about the year 1841.”
When I left Bay Mills, the wind and snow had calmed. When I got home, I checked the weather service’s observations along Lake Superior.
- Snowfall 1.2″
- Highest Gust Speed 33 MPH
Not the storm that I had expected and nothing like the storms I listed above. Yet, at the height of the storm I was surprised by how much the snow and rain stung against my flesh. The lake appeared rough, with waves at least 10-12 feet high.
This storm went from nothing to raging in the matter of less than an hour. I am forced to think about the historic storms, and the fury that was unleashed on unprepared ships who were too far from shore to outrun the weather.
Much like my other day journeys, I left Whitefish Bay more curious about then arrived. I made a mental note to return in summer and hike the 27 miles from M123 to Brimley. I would have liked to spend the day exploring the villages of Dollar Settlement, Bay Mills and Brimley, but November days grow dark quickly. By the time I hit Brimley, it was already dark.