Americana: Wisconsin

Dead Wood Does Not Float
January 10, 2012 to January 30, 2012

The Apostle Islands are in the very most Northern area of Wisconsin. They pepper the shoreline of Lake Superior and consist of the number thirteen, although they were named after Jesus’ twelve apostles. The area has drawn settlers for hundreds of years and to this day is a popular vacation spot for many Wisconsinites.

The islands harbor a rich history of ship-building, ship-wrecking, French fur trading, colonization, and native American space. One of the majesties surrounding these islands are their “sea-caves” or arguably “lake-caves” since Superior is a fresh water Great Lake. They are the subject of many folk art pieces, stories, and spiritual existences. The Chippewa deemed this area as a spiritual home.

The most significant part of this areas history, however, lies in destruction, darkness, and death. A number of ships went down in the troubled waters of Lake Superior in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Moby Dick, hailed as the greatest shipwreck story of all time, Ishmael says, “these grand fresh-water seas of ours…possess an ocean like expansiveness. They are swept by Borean and dismasting waves as direful as any that lash the salted wave. They know what shipwrecks are; for, out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.” The detritus of Lake Superior’s wrecks still remains on the floor of the lake housing animals, traded goods, and the souls of those lost at sea. Wisconsinites tell tales of ghosts and haunted waters around the Apostle Islands as if trading war stories. Messages in bottles from lost captains, bodies frozen solid in a foot of floating ice, heroes fighting ten foot waves to save the unconscious, and entire ships engulfed in a fiery blaze.

Lake Superior shares state borders with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan—It’s northern most border being that of the Canadian territory Ontario. The lake has access to eight river outlets and is part of the Great Lakes Waterway. In it’s earlier trade days Native Americans and early settlers braved the great distance between Canada and the United States to exchange goods ranging from fur, to fish, and alcohol. Entering into the 19th century Lake Superior and Wisconsin began to herald the major trade systems for iron ore and other mined material coming from the Mid-West and Canada. Shipbuilding, export, and transportation fed into a sustainable economy for Wisconsin.

Even the most experienced Captain’s ships met their fate at the bottom of Lake Superior. Deadly storms could have an onset of mere minutes, breaking ships in half, and dragging them to the bottom of the icy lake. The shipwrecks that still remain on the bed of Lake Superior, with their goods and bones are marked by buoys in the Apostle Islands and have been documented by a team of underwater archaeologists. Perhaps as a reminder to those navigating the islands that Lake Superior will reclaim its territory with little regard to those lives in the balance.

Amanda Roscoe Mayo

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