LAKE SUPERIOR ON A CALM DAY has a depth clarity of over a hundred feet. In shallow waters, boulders appear to be just below the surface. Near shore, trash creates a timeline of occupation: plates, tires, bikes, phones. Old dock pilings dot the lake bed in even lines. And on days when her surface is glass-smooth, it’s possible to see some of the 350 wrecked ships resting on the lake floor. They all look blue so far down.
I grew up with the lake. I’ve visited her, lived by her shores, returned to her year after year. I’ve seen the ships underwater. They’re as real as anything. One has its toilet seat up. Everything sits in the same way as the day it sank. The lake’s cold water acts as a refrigerator—preserving the ships and sailors who went down with them. The bed of Lake Superior is part museum, part graveyard.
I’ve never seen the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, but I’ve seen her bell. Recovered and back on land, it sits in a glass case, polished and shining. Every year it tolls twenty-nine times.
THE EDMUND FITZGERALD LEAVES PORT from northwestern Wisconsin on November 9, 1975. Her belly is heavy, loaded down with twenty-six thousand tons of taconite pellets. She is a giantess, one of the country’s largest freshwater ships, the so-called Queen of the Lakes, though in truth, her long body is less than glamorous—a dull maroon the color of dried blood. A workhorse on the water. After seventeen years, she breaks her own records, carries tremendous loads, and still, they push her forward.
The captain, Ernest McSorley, is on his last voyage before retiring, heading east once more across the vast expanse of Lake Superior toward the Sault Locks system, gateway to Lake Michigan. A quiet man with a mischievous streak, he’s spent four decades on the Great Lakes. He has sailed across Superior November after November, taught many men how to work a ship, seen everything the lakes are capable of creating. He knows the Fitz is tired, but after forty years on nine different vessels, he’s got a certain steady confidence.
The crew of twenty-nine men hears of a storm to the west, gathering energy over the Great Plains, rolling over Kansas, heading north. But from the safety of the harbor, McSorley looks out at the clear skies ahead and sees a quiet woman. Novembers are always bad, but maybe this storm will veer. Standing in the sweet cold breeze, he thinks—hopes—they’ll make it through this trip without much protest from the lake.
NAMING A SHIP AFTER A MAN used to be bad luck in sailing. The Edmund Fitzgerald is named after the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, who wanted to build the biggest freighter on the biggest lake. And there was her ill-fated nickname: “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Maybe greed cursed the ship. There were omens from the start. At the christening, Elizabeth Fitzgerald had trouble with the champagne bottle. She swung and swung and the bottle would not break. Then the Fitz refused to launch. Men hammered away at the great logs holding her up, and when she finally did slide into the water, she immediately crashed into a pier, sending up a great splash while a crowd of thousands looked on in horror.
Everyone knows how the Titanic sank, ripping itself open on an iceberg and splitting in two. But the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one mostly of speculation. The accepted report states she slowly filled up with water as the hatches leaked, and the storm brought too much pressure to her already burdened body. She’s said to have sunk like a boat in a bathtub.
But I don’t think that’s how it happened.
I think the lake sank the ship.
IN LATE FALL, THE LAKE’S surface water is still relatively warm. So when Arctic air from Canada descends, it collides with the warmer air hovering over the lake, and massive low-pressure systems build. For a time, the winds scream and whip the lake into a jagged frenzy, creating rogue waves. A rogue wave is any wave that is twice the size of surrounding waves. They rise out of large bodies of water when the currents and winds push several waves together to become one. These monster waves can exert a breaking force many times greater than what a laker vessel can sustain. Large enough to register as objects on radar, they are impossible to outrun. Although we have a general understanding of how they form, we don’t yet have the tools with which to predict them. They resist understanding, nearly hopeless to study because they appear seemingly out of nowhere. Where rogue waves shouldn’t occur, they do. They are usually singular, unless they’re in a group of three, what we call Three Sisters.
And the wind that whips up these terrible waves? Sailors call it the Witch of November.
WE NAME WOMEN WHO spend too much time with nature Witch. Dub her dangerous. Unpredictable. Call her Other. The land is something to fear, or exploit. To be a witch is to love the natural world more than the things human hands have made. And so we burn her. Or we revere her. We tell stories about her to frighten children in the woods or the water. Though some of us may ask her for help. Or maybe just mercy.
In Greek and Roman mythology, when the Titan Cronus unseated his sky father, Ouranos, the god’s blood rained down onto his wife, Gaia, Mother Earth. And from that spilled blood rose the Erinyes, the three Furies: Tisiphone (Avenger of Murder), Alecto (Unceasing Anger), Megaera (Jealousy). These three sisters hear complaints, pass judgment, dole punishment. To incur their wrath is to be relentlessly hounded.
Another trio, the Moirai, the three Fates, together hold a person’s life. Clotho spins the thread of destiny. Lachesis holds it out. And at the moment of death, Atropos cuts the thread. The Fates and Furies are goddesses, but the line between goddess and witch is thin.
WHEN IT COMES TO BODIES of water, we often use contradictory terms. In one breath, they are women, naked and angry: a jealous lover. In another, they are cleansing: a baptism. A goddess. A witch. We name things we want to control after women.
But a name can be a kind of offering, too, a protective spell. For we also give vessels the feminine pronoun: a ship is a buoyant body that cradles sailors as they cross lakes and oceans and rivers. A type of mother, she carries her children safely through another woman’s unruly body. Or at least that is what she was made to do.
WHEN I LEARNED THE WORD genderqueer at twenty, I learned a new way of understanding my body. I tried out the label trans, but it didn’t stick. It felt too much like I was picking an identity that forced me into a box, restricted me in a new way. Genderqueer felt broad, expansive, fluid. It felt encompassing. Encompassing, like my lake. I could let the lake and the language hold me in ways I did not hold myself—that is, gently.
When people talk about questioning their gender identity, they often use words like grappling, coming to grips with. There’s a holding and slipping and missing and reaching and reaching and reaching. The turmoil I felt, and continue to feel, about my body, my gender, is more like Lake Superior in November than a calm day in July. But when I float in the lake, I am a body in a body and she is soft, even when I am not.
And the wind that whips up these terrible waves? Sailors call it the Witch of November.
I SPENT MY MOST formative years with this lake. I swam in her waters as a child, diving for rocks. I hiked along her shores and built castles in her sand. Later, in college, I let her waves lull me to sleep as the northern lights shimmered over a dying fire. I used to think I knew everything I needed to know about her body. I was superstitious in my adoration of her. If I love her enough, she will stay the same forever. But lakes are bodies. And bodies do not—cannot—stay the same.
At twenty, I did not want new pronouns to accompany my newfound identity. A singular “they” pronoun didn’t yet exist in the queer community’s vocabulary. There were complicated options that tripped on my tongue, caught in the back of my throat. And besides, I felt something powerful in keeping my feminine pronouns, my feminine name, in forcing strangers to reconcile a dissonance that I felt all the time.
I DON’T WANT TO NAME Lake Superior’s body “it.” “It” as a pronoun takes away agency. Takes away a life. There is too much power in the water. Too much I can’t name.
ON THE MORNING OF THE TENTH, the gale warnings are upgraded to a storm warning, and the temperature drops. The winds are high, gusting at fifty knots. The waves rise to eighteen feet. Lake Superior’s blue water turns gray. Without sunlight, the clouds meet seas at the horizon line, and the division between water and sky blurs. The Edmund Fitzgerald tandems another ship, the SS Arthur M. Anderson. The two ships keep tabs on each other, on radar and radio, stay close along a northerly route heading east for the safety of Whitefish Bay. The harbor there has some of the only docks between the port and the Sault Locks big enough to shelter such giants.
It starts snowing hard in the afternoon, and the Fitzgerald is seventeen miles ahead of the Anderson, visible only on radar. A wave crashes over the deck and breaks one of the fences. The water drags the screeching, twisted metal into the mouth of her, swallows it. Superior presses against the belly of the ship, pushes her sideways. McSorley radios Anderson captain Bernie Cooper: “I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” The Fitz slows down, lets the Anderson gain on her again. There is a sense of safety in proximity.
IN THE UPPER PENINSULA, when storms roll in, the lake often feels warmer than the air. When my brother Peter and I went bodysurfing as children, I huddled in her water against the chill of the wind, waded out to just above my knees—No farther! Mom called—as another wave rose up behind us. Dad waved beneath a gray sweatshirt, Psychology Today or Newsweek in his lap, a pile of towels folded next to him.
It’s easy, now, to forget about all the times I caught the wave wrong and Superior tumbled me over and over on the hard sand bottom. Turned me around until I wasn’t sure which way was up. Everything turned monochrome. The gray of the water and sky, in my memory even the sand looks gray. And maybe there, in all that gray, were the Fates, holding a thread as thin as the wind. Maybe I became part of the lake for a moment. Maybe the Fates considered me as the lake turned me over—watched as I reached out my hands, instinctively searching for the bottom, stretching my legs for sand to stand on. When I finally found it, I pushed up toward the gray sky, stood in the surf coughing the water from my mouth, my nose, my lungs. I shivered, thankful the water wasn’t deeper, then huddled back down, squatting there in my pink suit, my blue suit, my tie-dye suit—year after year after year. In Superior, I was always sure of my identity: I was part of her. Breath caught, I waded back out to the waves. Together, my brother and I glided toward the beach, walked up the sand to wrap ourselves in warm towels.
BY 5:30 THAT EVENING, gusts rise to seventy knots, and waves peak at twenty-five feet. They swat at, then destroy, the lifeboats of both ships.
At 7:10, the Anderson checks in with the Fitz. The pumps are going, doing their best to clear the water flooding the decks and the hold. Captain McSorley says, “We’re holding our own.”
A few minutes later the Anderson loses the Fitzgerald on radar. When the Anderson reaches Whitefish Point just before 8:00, the Fitz, the larger ship that was ten miles ahead just an hour ago, is not there. The Queen of the Lakes never arrives.
THE EVENING MAY HAVE GONE something like this: A witch cackles in the sky. The lake below is a bubbling cauldron, waiting for a nasty spell. Beneath the rough water she finds copper, iron, and basalt. The copper was laid down ages ago when glacial ice dredged the land, and the iron formed long before that, when Earth was still new. Cooled basalt rises up, ready for rebirth. Above it all, the witch snatches snowflakes, fierce winds, the night itself. Blood meets water, her recipe complete. A transformation brews.
She trains her eye on this grand rusty Queen, jealous of her size and extravagance. The witch sees the endless hunger of men. How they have hollowed out the land, searching deeper and deeper for more ore, more copper, more nickel. How they have weighed down their Queen with this quarry, worn her out. But no man looks at a lake and thinks she could be any more than she is. The witch knows better. The lake, the sky—these are endless, and the ship is temporary. Peering down between clouds, she releases her spell.
Three Sisters gather their strength. Three Furies, three Fates, charge toward the freighter. They are walls of water, taller than any of the other waves. Their whitecaps trail terrible veils from their crests. The first, the smallest, rushes over the hull, empty of sailors, fills the ship with water. The second sister follows close behind before the water can drain, heaves herself over the railings, smears her forty-foot body across the length of the Fitz, weighs her down, and waits.
The third sister, the tallest, throws her body on top of her kin. Their combined weight presses the bow of the ship low. Then all that ore down in her belly, all 26,000 tons of it, cracks the hull of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the waves keep shoving her down. And it’s too much.
AFTER REACHING THE HARBOR and not seeing the Fitz, Captain Cooper asked the Coast Guard if they were looking. Their responses sounded like excuses: Their boats weren’t big enough to navigate the seas. They were searching for another small vessel that didn’t make it. The Fitzgerald wasn’t a priority. She’s so big, the Coast Guard thinks maybe she ran aground or got offtrack. They assume she’ll be in to port soon. They say the Anderson should go searching.
Cooper knows what it means when a vessel doesn’t reach the harbor. He does not want his ship to join the Fitz. But he goes back out anyway, hoping to see something, someone. He finds nothing but gasoline tanks and empty life preservers.
Later, a crumpled lifeboat will wash up onshore, its metal frame bent and battered, a hole punched through its bow.
WHAT WERE THOSE FINAL MINUTES LIKE? Certainly the men would have known the options were grim for a sinking ship in the middle of a lake in the middle of a storm. Did they hope beyond hope that the Anderson would catch them, drag the body of the Fitz to bay, and climb through the half-submerged frame to find them all clinging to pillars?
Maybe as the winds scream, the men cry. Or pray. Maybe one thinks of the single crease in his wife’s forehead, another of ice-skating with a child on these same frozen waters. Maybe they think of slow cups of coffee on a Sunday morning, the quiet crinkle of a newspaper, the comfort of sharing space with their love.
Everything happened so quickly. Captain Cooper thinks the men didn’t even know they were sinking until the very end. He thinks the Fitzgerald started slowly sinking in Wisconsin. A tear somewhere in her body, bogging her down as she chugged across the lake. Even so, she still might have made it had there not been a storm.
When the third sister arrives, perhaps they think it is a just another big wave, and they will pop up in a second. But they don’t pop back up.
Maybe the men sit on their bunks and listen to the lake pounding against the ship, the steady whir of rushing water like radio static. Maybe they hear a cackle in that howling wind. And then, the deepest moan as the ship cracks herself in half.
And then, water.
And the sisters fill up the bodies.
They are all one now, the bodies and the sisters and the lake. She is made whole by the storm, a whole made and remade again and again. In this one body, there is no need for names. Everything is quiet and blue, and in the dark, still.
More than thirty lighthouses guide ships along eastern Lake Superior’s treacherous coastline, where the lake’s oldest operating beacon of Whitefish Point has been lit for 160 years.