Seeking Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes | Midwest Living
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Seeking Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes

Thousands of ships, pulled under by the Great Lakes and eerily preserved in their icy waters, give visitors a glimpse into a treacherous past.

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Ships Preserved by a Freshwater Tomb

For tourists tracing the lakeshores, lore of the lost ships is never far away. Guides on lighthouse tours spin heart-wrenching tales of ships going down in sight of the towers' beams. Billboards in Michigan's Upper Peninsula invite tourists to board glass-bottom boats and drift over the ribs of shattered hulls. In gift shops, shipwrecks decorate coffee mugs, posters, afghans and kids' T-shirts. Unlucky ships star at museums around the region, including the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which draws 80,000 people a year to lonely Whitefish Point in the northeastern corner of Michigan's UP.

In shipwreck-heavy areas such as Whitefish Point, Wisconsin's Door County or eastern Michigan's Thunder Bay, shoreline visitors can almost hear the stories carried in on the breeze.

"The legend continues to be there," Stone-house says. "People know the wrecks are out there, even if they don't know the details."

As a graveyard for ships, the Great Lakes are nearly unique, thanks to their icy freshwater depths, which seem to forbid time from touching lost boats. While Caribbean wrecks might show divers no more than a coral outline, vessels that struck bottom in the lakes 120 years ago often look almost like they could sail tomorrow. The lakes may soon lose this distinction, however, as zebra mussels carried in on saltwater ships since the late 1980s are threatening to encrust many wrecks faster than archaeologists and divers can document them.

The race against the mussels is critical to writing the history of Great Lakes wrecks, as mystery still enshrouds about 9,000 of the 10,000 lost ships. Most lost ships have never been found, and the names of many located wrecks are unknown. Each summer brings sport divers exploring the known wrecks, as well as divers and professional researchers following clues from old newspaper stories and insurance reports, recent sonar readings and other leads, hoping to pinpoint a "virgin wreck."

Divers who venture into ships' inner rooms must always be ready for shocking discoveries, thanks to the lakes' slow decay rate. Among the "frequently asked questions" on the state of Michigan's website about underwater resources is, "What should a diver do when human remains are encountered on a shipwreck?"

Those who would search for wrecks must be ready for equal parts archaeology, history, scavenger hunt and finding the guts to stand on a frigid lakebed and stick your head into the darkness of a potential gravesite.

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