WHEN I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD I was eager for adventure. My family lived on Long Lake, where any ordinary day offered opportunities for exploration and discovery. But ordinary days bored me. I longed for uncommon experience. When storms chased the summer people inside their cottages, I wanted to be on the shore of Lake Michigan, watching waves. I wanted a life filled with drama. And then one day I learned about drama.
It was August 1967 when Pacific salmon returned for the first time to Platte Bay. Nobody was quite prepared for them. The salmon had been released as smolts, and biologists thought there was a decent chance they would survive. But they did more than just survive. They scythed through the schools of alewives that filled the lake in those days. By the time they arrived in Platte Bay they weighed 15 to 20 pounds each and were ravenous. Any angler with a boat and a spinning rod could catch them.
I was 12 that summer, and had coho fever like everyone else. My family and I fished every weekend from mid-August through September. We launched our 14-foot runabout at the mouth of the Platte River and went out on the lake and caught our limit of salmon. We couldn’t get enough. And to top it off, the weather was magnificent: bright and mild and nearly windless. Some days the lake was so calm that people fished from canoes.
Saturday, September 23, promised to be another fine day. Friday’s forecast had given no indication of trouble: “Saturday partly cloudy and a little warmer, with a chance of showers near evening. Northerly winds … light and variable.” Thousands of anglers finished work Friday, loaded their boats, and drove to Platte Bay.
But that night a shift in the jet stream brought an unexpected cold front down from Canada. At 4:30 that morning, when the alarm went off, I could hear the wind in the trees. My mother argued for staying home. Dad and I talked her into giving it a try.
At dawn we stood beside the tiny weather shack near the mouth of the Platte. A red pennant snapped in the wind above us. Small-craft warnings.
The phrase had potency to anyone who knew the Great Lakes. We had watched storms, had seen gigantic waves batter breakwalls and lighthouses. We had been out in three-foot waves that seemed like they could break our boat in half. Even much larger craft were at risk when the waves exceeded four or five feet.
To the west, the sky was dark with squall lines. The water was the color of steel and booming with whitecaps. During the drive to the Platte, we had listened to weather reports announcing waves two to three feet high and winds 25 knots and increasing.
Many anglers ignored the warnings. They had driven hours to get there; why let a few waves stop them? Besides, others were going out, hundreds of them. A general assumption was that small-craft warnings were a formality, a way the Coast Guard avoided liability in case someone ran into trouble. And one thing was certain: You couldn’t catch fish on shore.
So they went out. The Coast Guard estimated that more than a thousand boats motored into the waves that morning. My father and I stood on shore with the wind in our faces and watched boat after boat motor down the river and meet the breakers at the mouth. Waves struck the bows of the boats and sent up explosions of spray. A few boats turned back and retreated upriver, their passengers shaking their heads in defeat. But for every one that returned there were a dozen waiting to challenge the waves.
All morning conditions worsened. By afternoon the wind had reached 40 miles per hour, and the waves were six to eight feet high. In some places they reached 25 feet. Yet hundreds of anglers stayed on the lake and fished. Then their boats began to swamp.
At first they tried to reach shore by motoring through the breakers at the mouth of the river. It was tricky, even in calm water. In the high waves, boats came in from all directions and wedged in the channel, collided with one another, turned sideways, swamped when waves broke over them. Soon dozens of boats were engulfed.
More timid boaters stood offshore. They circled, fighting the waves until they got up their courage and dashed for the beach. They came in fast, their engines screaming as the water fell beneath them, and ran aground. Six or eight of us on shore would run down with the descending wash and grab the boats by their gunwales and docking lines. The men inside jumped out to help and the women and children crouched against the decks with terrible looks on their faces, and we would pull the boats as far as we could up the streaming beach before they were slammed by the next wave. We were successful only with small boats. Larger ones were too heavy to pull. We would hold them as best as we could while they wallowed in the surge until a wave washed over their sterns and filled them with water and sand. A few waves later the boats would be capsized or anchored to the bottom.
Rumors ran up and down the beach. Hundreds missing, presumed dead. Dozens of bodies washed onto the beach near Frankfort. Boats sinking far out in the bay, beyond help.
Days later, we would learn that most of the missing had been accounted for and that in reality seven men had died. It was a wonder. One rescuer said that of the 15 or 20 boats he helped drag onto the beach at Empire, only two contained life preservers.
There were heroics. Coast Guard helicopters lowered baskets to floundering anglers and lifted six of them to safety. Two men clung to the side of their capsized boat for more than two hours until they lost consciousness in the 50-degree water and were rescued somehow by people on shore who waded through the surf and pulled them to safety.
My father and I helped as much as we could. Dad had been a police officer and was trained to save lives. I knew he could rescue anyone in danger. The knowledge was exhilarating. It made me feel more competent just to be with him. I felt capable of adult heroics.
Somebody told us that people were in trouble at the boat ramp in Empire. We drove there to help and joined a small crowd on the beach. A boat with two men inside circled beyond the breakers. The men seemed unsure of themselves. They had watched others try to run the gauntlet of breaking waves and seemed to be looking for a way to save their boat. They circled, rising on each wave, disappearing into each trough, their heads swiveling as their boat turned, always facing shore. We could see them working up their courage. Finally they steered toward the beach. But instead of accelerating, they came cautiously, their engine at trolling speed. The boat went up on a wave, down in a trough, up on another wave. They went down in a trough and did not come up. When the wave passed, the two men were in the water.
They were so close to shore we could see the hair plastered to their scalps and could see the expressions on their faces. They looked more surprised than frightened. Their eyes were big and they worked their mouths, as if apologizing. They bobbed low in the water in their orange life preservers. Every time a wave came over them, they disappeared for a few moments in the froth.
Waves broke with so much force the ground shuddered. I stood on the beach above the wash and felt the booming thump of every wave through my feet. My shoes were soaked with water and full of sand and my socks had fallen around my heels.
The breakers shoved the men toward shore, then dragged them away again. They never got closer. A current pulled them down the beach away from us. We walked beside them, shielding our eyes from the spray and sand thrown at us by the wind. Every time a wave broke over the men, they tumbled in the foam. Sometimes they turned upside down and kicked their legs in the air as if trying to run. The wave would pass and they would struggle upright and get a few breaths before the next breaker came.
People on shore ran to the water’s edge carrying coils of rope and tried to throw them. The ropes would shoot out and unfurl and hang for a moment in the wind, then come back. One man knotted a rope around his waist and waded into the waves but he was knocked down, and others pulled him to shore against his will.
Waves broke over the two men, one after another. With each wave they disappeared, and we saw only a glimpse of orange in the froth.
I had sand in my eyes. I turned away and rubbed them and turned back and saw the faces of the men in the water. I made eye contact with one of them. He was heavy and gray, the age of my grandfather. He seemed apologetic. I kept expecting him to smile at me and shrug. A wave would crash over him and after a few moments he would come up coughing and spitting water. Every time it happened, he looked a little more apologetic. A woman standing near me put her hands to her face and screamed for somebody to do something.
Children were excused from responsibility, but I was no longer a child. I was 12, nearly 13, old enough to help. I pitched on a baseball team and could have thrown a rope better than anyone on the beach. I could have heaved it low and hard beneath the wind and made it straighten like a bullwhip and land within reach of first one man, then the other. I was lean and fast and swam well. I could have tied a line around my waist and dived through the waves and reached the men in the calm of a trough and spoken reassuring words to them as the people on shore pulled us to safety.
A wave broke over them. Their legs rose in the air but did not kick. Another wave came and I could see two dark, slick objects rolling in the spume. My father gripped me high on my arm and turned me away. I tried to look back but he gripped harder and pulled. An ambulance waited in the parking lot, its lights flashing urgently. People ran past, shouting, their voices torn to fragments by the wind.
The men in the water wore bright orange life preservers with bulky collars designed to support their heads above the water. They should have been safe. Everyone said if you wore a life preserver, you were safe. It was an article of faith. Preserver of life. The Coast Guard guaranteed it. Our parents taught us to believe it.
But the heads of the men did not stay above the water. The preservers hadn’t worked. The guarantee was not valid.
I had wanted to be a hero.
I had wanted drama in my life.
My father gripped my arm and pulled me across the parking lot past the ambulance, past people holding their faces in their hands. He put me in the car with my mother and brother and drove us home.
For weeks I lay in bed at night hearing the roar of the storm and feeling the awful draining power of the waves. I wanted to remain a child, but it was too late. Childhood fades with the knowledge of peril, and peril is everywhere. My father could not protect me from it. No life preserver could save me.
They died a hundred feet from shore.
(Adapted from The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis.)