And every man knew, as the captain did too, T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
Anyone who has heard Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will no doubt recognize “The witch of November” — the nickname for the strong gales that blow across the Great Lakes in autumn, caused by low pressure that pulls both cold Canadian and warm Gulf air across the lakes.
The Great Lakes really are inland oceans, and you can’t really appreciate their size until you see them first-hand.
The “witch” has been responsible for a number of disasters in the Upper Midwest, including the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975.
“Big Fitz,” as she was known, was carrying 26,000 tons of taconite ore from Superior, Wisconsin, to Cleveland when she was caught in a storm and sank near Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
All 29 members of Big Fitz’s crew perished. Her wreck was discovered 17 miles and 530 feet below Whitefish Bay four days later.
With the release of Lightfoot’s haunting ballad about her loss, she sailed into history, along with some 10,000 other shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.
I’ve been captivated by the story of “Big Fitz” for years. One day I hope to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point to see the Fitzgerald’s bell, which was raised from Superior’s frigid waters in 1995 on the last expedition to the Fitz and now serves as a memorial to the crew.
Another November witch blew across the Upper Midwest in the infamous Armistice Day storm of 1940. An intense low pressure area that stretched from Kansas to Michigan caught many a hunter by surprise.
November 11, 1940, began with sunny skies and temperatures in the 50’s, deceiving many a waterfowl hunter to leave their winter clothing behind.
By late afternoon a cold front brought a full-on blizzard to the Midwest, trapping many a duck hunter in wetlands along the region’s rivers.
The National Weather Service notes that over a million turkeys were killed by the storm in Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with thousands of cattle in Iowa.
Almost 160 people perished, either in the fields and woods, on islands in the Mississippi or on the Great Lakes when their ships sank.
The noted author and naturalist John Madson tells of his own experience with the Armistice Day storm in his book, “Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.” It’s a riveting read.
Even with tragedies like the Fitzgerald and the Armistice Day Blizzard, there are lessons learned that can save lives.
With “Big Ftiz,” Great Lakes shipping learned that it was better to drop anchor and ride out a storm rather than push through a gale to get one last load of cargo to port and risk the witch’s wrath.
With the duck hunters of 1940, being prepared in terms of foul-weather gear is a simple, yet vital means of survival “when the gales of November come slashin.”