Sunday, June 22, 2008

Isle Royale National Park

Spring/Summer is a busy time in my world. The hard Chicago winter builds up a pretty big to-do list that has to be completed before I can get back to flying. I try to keep this blog focused on aviation, but I haven't been doing a lot of it lately. In fact, I've done all but fly... I put a new roof on our house & garage, built a second floor deck out of composite material (pretty cool stuff), planted trees in the yard and even had to weld our spiral exterior fire escape!

I won't boar you with my honey-do list, but thought you may be interested in reading about my recent scuba diving vacation to Isle Royale National Park...

Isle Royale
Isle Royale is North American National Park that is located in Lake Superior a few miles South of Thunder Bay, Canada. The park is actually an island in the state of Michigan, but it significantly closer to Minnesota and Canada. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior. It is over 45 miles in length and 9 miles wide at its widest point. The park is made of Isle Royale itself and multiple smaller islands, along with any submerged lands within 4.5 miles of the surrounding islands.

Isle Royale National Park was established on April 3, 1940, was designated as a Wilderness Area in 1976, and was made an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. It is a relatively small national park at 894 square miles, with only 209 square miles above water. At the U.S.-Canada border, it will meet the borders of the future Canadian Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area.

Outside of pristine nature that takes you back to the beginning of time, Isle Royale is known for shipwrecks. Lake Superior maintains a variety of shipwrecks in outstanding condition. The sunken vessels are protected by the National Park Service as cultural treasures, which keeps them in near original condition. It is remarkable to see how well preserved these vessels are. There are wrecks in the area that date back to 1800's wooden schooners to steam powered 500 + ft steel freight haulers.

The Journey Begins
My trip started in Grand Portage, Minnesota. This is a small American Indian reservation about 10 miles south of the Canadian border and has the closest North American port to the island. I was fortunate enough to travel with one of the foremost dive shops in the country -- Elmer's Water Sports -- and we chartered the RLT Diver III, which is a spectacular 36 ft. wooden ship that has been taking divers out to Isle Royale wrecks since 1966.

The trip started off at the Grand Portage Marina on Monday and we ended the trip on Friday. The trek from Grand Portage to the Isle Royale takes about 2 hours and throughout the week we circled the island spending most of our time on the North and North East section of the island where the majority of the wrecks reside.

The Diving
Scuba diving shipwrecks in Lake Superior is not anything like diving in the Caribbean. The surface of the water was averaging 38 degrees and at depth we were in the mid to low 30's. The weather in Lake Superior is also quite volatile. It can be clear with the temperatures in the 60's and in a matter of minutes switch to rain, fog and 40 degrees.

There are quite a few certified scuba divers in the world; however, only a small handful have ever experience this type of diving. The primary reason is because it takes a ton of specialized cold water gear and lots of training. In fact, the majority of the must-see wrecks are below 100 ft, which is well below where most recreational divers spend their time.

My Gear
I have what many would consider some of the best gear one can buy. Everything I have is specially designed for cold water. This equipment requires a substantial investment, but well worth every penny when you are inside of a wreck at 140 ft in the pitch black freezing cold water!

Outside of breathing, the most important piece of gear is the drysuit that is designed to protect a diver from the elements. What keeps me dry is a Divers Unlimited International (DUI) Custom CLX450 drysuit. My CLX 450 is a fully water tight diving suit that is made of a patented trilaminate Cordura® material that is resistant to punctures from protruding pointy objects. The US Navy Seals and many commercial/professional divers use DUI because these suits are virtually indestructible and backed by a 10 year unconditional warranty.

I use Argon to pressurize the drysuit. Pressurizing the suit with Argon provides three key benefits... 1) Argon does not compress like air so it provides an additional layer of insulation between my thermal undergarments and the exterior of the suit. 2) a separate Argon tank fills the suit from a redundant air source instead of using breathable air (don't want to waste life support air at 140 ft!). 3) adding air to the suit helps neutralize buoyancy at depth (helps you hover so you don't sink or float).

Some other gear I used on the dive include a Scubapro UWATEC air integrated Dive Ccomputer that you can see on my right wrist in the photo above, a Scubapro S600/MK25 regulator specially rated for cold water diving and depths down to 650 ft and a Salvo Rebel 21 Watt HID can light used to see in rooms that have zero ambient light. I also carry a Staging bottle that contains redundant air and has a separate regulator in case my main tank and/or regulator is damaged. A compass, a Slate to take noes on, titanium knives, diving goggles, air tight gloves, thermal underwear, fins, underwater camera, 2 redundant lights, etc. In total, this stuff easily weighs over 100 LBS!

The shipwrecks
I was able to get in 10 dives on 6 different ships:
  • Henry Chisholm: is a 256' wooden steamer that launched on August 28, 1880 and wrecked on October 21, 1898. This ship is in two major sections with the engine resting completely in tact and connected to its prop in 140 ft. of water.
  • Cumberland: is a 204' wooden side-wheel steamer that launched on August 9, 1871 and wrecked on July 23, 1877.
  • The America: is a 183' steel-hulled passenger steamer that launched on April 2, 1898 and wrecked on June 7, 1928.
  • Chester A Congdon: is a 532' steel freighter that launched on August 29, 1907 and wrecked November 6, 1918.
  • Emporer: is a 525' steel bulk freight steamer that launched on December 17, 1910 and wrecked June 4, 1947. The Emporer is the most impressive wreck out there. It is in pristine condition. We dove it 5 times and didn't even come close to seeing it all.
  • The Monarch: is a 240' wooden passenger and freight steamer that launched sometime in 1890 and wrecked December 6, 1906.

My Photos
I took too many photos to include them all in this blog, so I've uploaded them to Flicker. If you would like to see them follow this link.

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