Journeys: Scuba in Superior

Shipwrecks, silver fish, and a weekend away make it worth the extra warm-weather layers

The Sol Mates, the boat owned by Hanz Lehrke. Photo by Andrew Leidel, courtesy Hanz Lehrke. This was our home from Oct. 6 & 7 during our Lake Superior dive in 2018.
The Sol Mates, our home for the Superior diving trip. (I can even point out which wet suit set is mine—it’s the two left of the flag.)

Photo by Andrew Leidel, courtesy Hanz Lehrke

When we got back from our weekend trip a few days ago, my friend said, “Thanks for not laughing at me when I asked you guys if you wanted to go diving in Superior in October.” 

Really, though. No matter when you go during the year, Superior just sounds cold. But we wanted to dive some ship wrecks, so we signed up for the trip, which was hosted by Hanz, one of the scuba teachers at the University of Minnesota. Between Hanz, Nate (who volunteered on the trip), Andy (another of Hanz’s dive friends), and the six of us who signed up for the trip, it was a full boat of people who wanted to get dunked in 50-degree water.

For a scuba dive in October, if you don’t have a dry suit, you have to go the farmer john route, which means 6.5 mm-thick neoprene overalls with another 6.5 mm of thickness via long sleeves and core coverage. Add on some gloves that were a beast to get on, a hood I could never tuck in on my own, and some boots (which, to be fair, I would have needed for my fins anyway). Voila. No more cold—except putting it on outside, getting out of the water and taking it off outside, or having to put the now very wet and very cold suit back on for a another dive. C’est la vie.

Because the weather cooperated with us on Saturday, after we drove up to Silver Bay Marina and threw our stuff into the boat that would be our home for the next two days, Hanz took us straight to the Madeira wreck.

The Madeira was a 436-foot steel schooner barge that gained some fame when it ran into the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge in 1902. It lasted another three years until a storm with gales of 70 to 80 miles per hour caused the crew of the William Edenborn, a steamer towing it, to cut it loose so the storm didn’t take them both down. 

I won’t lie—my first dive of the day was something I’d rather not get into detail here in case my dive guides question my certification. During my second dive of the day, I had collected myself enough to be able to appreciate the steel sheets that lay in gentle slopes along the bottom of the lake and the steel rib cages that made me feel like I must be looking at several small boats instead of huge parts of a gigantic whole. I know my fiance liked playing around more, pulling at levers and sheets—I still have the Caribbean’s DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING engrained into me—but I definitely liked peering inside the dark holes punched into the ship or seeing how time stopped and corroded the once-mobile braided cables on the spool. 

Still, my favorite dive was the one I expected to enjoy the least: the night dive. We knew going into the trip that we would have our share of goosebumps, but it didn’t mean we were breaking down doors to go outside in the night air, don our frigid layer of blubber for the third time that day, and go into the water. However, I was in Superior, and it would be my first night dive. After a little bit of coaxing, I couldn’t say no.

While I was getting my gear on, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the cold that made me nervous; it was the darkness and the thought of not being able to see everyone in the group. I’m sure Nate and Andy would have done this anyway, but after reassuring me that there would be plenty of lights, they decked us out. Each person got their own blinking color for their tank (mine was white; my fiance’s was “blinky green” (compared to the solid green of another diver), and we each got ridiculously powerful flashlights. In case we had trouble locating the boat, Nate tied a strobe light onto the Sol Mates‘ ladder … which then tested its waterproof quality when he forgot about it and dropped the ladder into the water. It kept on flashing down there, though, so it did its job either way. 

Some of the dive was admittedly uneventful and had low visibility, but what was beautiful were the fish. There were a couple schools of minnows and one or two fish we could see during our day dives, but at night, it was something else.

In a few of the spots, the minnows were spread all around you and suspended against the inky blackness of the water. The light from our flashlights made them shine bright silver, and they wouldn’t move until you were inches away. It was beautiful and ethereal. Our flashlights were so luminescent that when you got close, saw through the fish’s skin to its organs, what gave it life, and in the water, you could even see pulsing tendrils of small creatures the size of a pin head. It was a balance of macro and micro, peace and wonder. Even when we moved away from that galaxy, we found more guardians of the lake, two large fish slowly roving the bottom of the lake.

On Sunday, we did went diving again, but because of choppy waters (and not for lack of trying on Hanz, Nate, and Andy’s parts) we couldn’t do the Hesper wreck. Instead we did a spot that, for lack of an actual name, I put down as “Hanz’s Dive Spot” in my dive log. We were supposed to see a number of industrial barrels littered and half-buried along the sandy bottom, but we ended up going the opposite way and found a monolithic 40-foot rock face that a few people pretended to climb up. 

I could keep on rambling about how Hanz and Nate stuffed us to the gills with food or the craziness and yelling that was involved in getting Andy back out of the water when he was trying to find the mooring buoy for the Hesper wreck. There were also the little moments that were pure pleasantries, like sitting on the boat’s deck while Hanz drove us past the autumn-colored and rocky bluffs of Silver Bay or the simple joy I found with my first night in a down sleeping bag.

As a writer, I know this is not a focused piece, nor is it one that offers a lingering emotional message or life lesson. However, I will say this. Superior is gorgeous, and if you have the chance, whether by land or by water, you should explore it. I was fortunate to have the trifecta of great company, good weather, and idyllic nature, and with a little luck, you will, too.

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