As sometimes happens with these From The Vaults pieces, I like to go back and revisit a topic when there is something new to add to a story. If we didn’t already need to be reminded that ‘time flies when you are having fun’, I went back to find the first volume of FTV: Lake Superior in the fall of 2018 files and could not find it. It turns out that this Lake Superior article is actually a follow up a piece from November 11, 2017. Nonetheless, what prompted this revisit was reading Jerry Dennis’ excellent book The Living Great Lakes – Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (Thomas Dunn Books, 2003), a winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award and a selection of the 2019 Two Community Two Books program for Marquette and Munising.
Dennis has written about nature and the outdoors for Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and The New York Times. He currently resides in Traverse City, Michigan but in the late 1970s, Dennis lived in Marquette while attending Northern Michigan University. I contacted Jerry in the spring of 2019 to ask his permission to reprint part of a story from The Great Lakes, which he graciously agreed to. The ‘Part 1’ of this article was written around the theme of Gordon Lightfoot’s epic Great Lakes song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. What sparked me to revisit the topic was a trip Dennis took to Whitefish Point on the twenty third anniversary of the Fitz going down. Having already described why some of the deadliest Lake Superior storms happen in November, Dennis described taking an impromptu trip to Whitefish Point on just such a morning in 1998. While there, he was invited to join the one hundred or so assembled family members of the Frizgerald’s crew at the Shipwreck Museum for their annual reunion/memorial. The guest of honor that day was a tribal fisherman from Brimley, Michigan who was there to tell his story about the night the Fitz went down. John Lufkins was also out in the stormy waters of Whitefish Bay the night the Fitz went down, but this is the first time I have heard his story.
John Lufkins and his brother-in-law, eighteen-year-old Pat Kinney, headed out into the lake in their sixteen-foot open launch in the early morning hours to tend their gill nets (as they did most days). As the weather deteriorated, they found the nets impossible to handle and soon realized they would not be able to make it back to shore. Their only hope was to make for Tahquamenon Island out in Whitefish Bay. I asked for and was granted permission by the author to share his excellent account of Lufkins’s story rather than retelling the tale third hand. Here is how Jerry Dennis related John Lufkins’ story as he told it at that Fitzgerald family reunion:
“They beached on the lee side of the island and pulled their boat above the reach of the waves. They knew they would have to spend the night there and they needed shelter. They got lucky. On the island were a pair of abandoned tarpaper shacks. The first was wrecked beyond use, but the roof and walls of the other were intact. Inside was a cot and an ancient oil stove. The stove’s fuel tank held a couple of inches of oil in the bottom. They managed to light it.
Lufkins kept a pair of sleeping bags in his boat for emergencies. He carried them into the shack, along with a thermos of hot coffee. He and Kinney settled in for a long wait.
Suddenly the door flew open and a fisherman they knew, Billy Cameron, stood in the doorway, soaked to the skin and nearly frozen to death. His boat had capsized, he said, and his partner, Andrew LeBlanc, was in the water. The three men ran to the shore and found LeBlanc struggling in the surf, clinging to an empty gasoline can. The three waded into the wash and pulled him to safety.
But the danger wasn’t over. They had to take steps to prevent hypothermia – or “exposure,” as it was called in those days. Half-walking and half-carrying Billy and Andrew, they got the two men inside the shack and stripped them of their wet clothes, and wrapped them inside the sleeping bags.
It was late afternoon by then and the day was growing dark. Lufkins went outside to circle the island one more time, scanning the lake for others who might be in trouble. He saw nothing but enormous breaking waves to the horizon, He returned to the shack, planning to stay inside all night.
But as he opened the door, the wind ripped it from his hands and slammed it against the wall. He turned to grab it and when he did he caught a glimpse of color far out on the lake. There it was again: a flash of orange. A life jacket. Somebody was in the water out there.
Pat Kinney wanted to take the boat himself, but Lufkins wouldn’t let him. Pat was young, he had his life ahead of him. Lufkins was the older and more experienced; it was his responsibility to go. He stripped to his long underwear and strapped on a life jacket. He and Pat went down to the beach and pushed the boat into the waves. He jumped aboard, started the engine, and turned the bow quickly into the next incoming wave.
Water rushed across his feet and the boat wallowed, He had forgotten to replace the drain plug in the bottom. He returned the boat to shore and ran it up on the beach and replaced the plug. Again, they pushed the boat off and again Lufkins motored into the waves and powered through the line of breakers.
By now he could no longer see the man in the life jacket. He knew approximately where he had been, but in those seas, in such powerful wind, he had probably been blown far downwind by now. And it was getting impossible to see. A little daylight remained, but the sky was low and black and the rain and spray were blinding.
Lufkins estimated the waves at fifteen to twenty feet. He would power the boat at full throttle up the steep slope of a wave and reach the crest, where he could get a glimpse of the surrounding chaos, but the wind would catch the bow of his boat and spin it around. He would motor into the trough, turn, and climb the wave again. Every time he reached the top, he was spun around and sent back down. In this way he made progress, but it was progress without control. He knew with heart-sinking certainty that the person he had seen in the water was going to die there.
But he kept trying. He figured that as long as there was a trace of daylight, he had a chance of finding him.
And then he powered over a wave and below him was a capsized boat with two men in life jackets clinging to the hull. They were family; his uncle Francis Parish and Francis’s son, Christopher. They’d been in the water for two or three hours and by then were so exhausted they could barely raise their heads. Lufkins steered down the wave toward them. He figured he had one chance to save them, so he plowed his boat directly on top of the hull of the capsized vessel, between the two men. If they could grab his gunwales on opposite sides, maybe they could climb inside without capsizing him.
But the men were too weak to lift themselves. Lufkins crawled forward and grabbed Chrstopher by the back of his life jacket and somehow pulled him over the side and into the boat. He lay there, too exhausted to speak.
A wave struck them and the two boats separated. Lufkins scrambled back to the motor and accelerated it to turn his boat into the next wave. But the motor stalled. He cranked the starter cord. He cranked it again. It started and he turned the boat a moment before a wave would have struck it sideways and swamped him. He climbed to the crest, but the other boat and Francis were gone. He tried to remain in the same area, circling the best he could, accelerating to avoid breaking waves, shooting lengthwise down the troughs, turning quickly to bust over crests. He had no idea where he was.
Then, again, “blind luck”, the capsized boat was dead ahead, Francis still clinging to it. Again, Lufkins ran his boat onto the upturned hull. Again, he crawled forward and grabbled a fistful of life jacket. He hauled Francis over the side. The older man fell into the bottom of the boat. He seemed limp as a rag doll.
Christopher raised his head from the bottom, His eyes were glazed with cold, most of the life and hope drained from him. He asked: “Are we going to live?”
“Damned right we are,” Lufkins said. “I didn’t risk my ass coming out here just so you could drown.”
But in his heart he knew they were doomed. He had no idea where they were. It was almost night now and he could not see the island. No land was visible anywhere. All he could see in any direction were waves as big as hills, twenty feet high by now, one after another racing downwind so fast they overran themselves and broke apart in tumbling froth, only to climb higher than before and continue on, roaring and crashing.
He didn’t know how many minutes they had before they ran out of luck. It would take just one wave to drown them. If the engine stalled again, they would die. If they ran out of gas, they would die. As wet and cold as they were, if they did not find shelter soon, they would die. He had no choice but to try to find that tiny island in the immense bay before the lake claimed them.
And there it was, dead ahead. They topped a wave and the island was right in front of them. Lufkins’s brother-in-law and the others stood on the shore, waving their arms. He shot across another wave and hit a trough as deep as a canyon and followed it to the breaker zone. A wave threw the boat into a rock and the motor sheared a pin and was useless. But they were close to shore now. Pat threw a line and Lufkins caught it. The men on the shore pulled until the boat grounded on rocks, then lifted the two exhausted men out and carried them to the shack, They removed their wet clothes and wrapped them inside the sleeping bags. They gave them hot coffee. They would live.
Lufkins stepped from the boat and fell to the beach. His legs had gone to rubber. He knelt in the sand and gravel for a few minutes. “I felt,” he said, “like the luckiest son of a bitch on the face of the earth.”
It was a long night, They drank coffee and adjusted the stove to keep it burning. They tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Once they heard a helicopter and ran outside into the darkness, but they had no way to signal it.”
Lufkins finished telling his story to the crowd at the Shipwreck Museum: “…he admitted that he has never felt like a hero, which is maybe why it’s been so hard for him to talk about what happened that day on Whitefish Bay. He said he felt as if some greater power took over him and performed those acts for him and that he had no choice but to go along. “It’s just something I had to do,” he said. “I don’t know why. I don’t know how I did it. But I think most people in that situation would have done the same thing. We lived, we got very lucky. But it breaks my heart that twenty-nine other guys weren’t so lucky.””
Top Piece Video: No way I couldn’t give Gordon his due – again – a great song about a timeless tragedy sung by an artist who has sailed the same waters himself. Note this version contains the line about ‘the main hatch way gave in’ – while he has not rewritten the lyric, he has begun singing about ‘the water rushing in’. Some family members of the crew felt his original lyric cast doubt on the crew, perhaps implying that they had not secured the hatches properly. Lightfoot acknowledges that the dives taken to the wreck have given rise to other theories and he does not want to cast the brave crew in any negative manner.