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HARRISON – Videographer/storyteller Ric Mixter paid a visit to the Harrison District Library in October, bringing with him collected historical documents and photos, his own deep-water video footage, as well as his boundless enthusiasm for his topic. Mixter has been a video producer for many years, having worked at TV5 from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s where he produced the “Take 5” show. He said that work allowed him to get out and do a lot of SCUBA diving, sky diving and have a lot of other interesting adventures.
Mixter has long had a passion for underwater photography, and the mysterious and captivating stories that surround the thousands of big boats that have sunk in the waters that encircle the great state of Michigan. He has taken his camera on a multitude of adventures, from deep below the water’s surface, to heights of wonder in a military aircraft of war.
He also serves on the board of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and is president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Association. His goal with both those organizations is to preserve the stories of lighthouse beacons and those historic shipwrecks which are so much a part of the nation’s and Michigan’s history.
Mixter’s presentation in Harrison was “Storms of the Century 1905-1975.” There have been some 16,000 vessels lost to the Great Lakes and Mixter said he would bet about 6,000 are still unfound. He also said that five new ones were found just this year alone. They included the Kirby in many pieces 800 feet down in Lake Superior, the Hudson which has been missing for 118 years also was found in Superior west off Eagle Harbor, and the Russia which was found in Lake Huron south of Detour.
It was disturbing to hear was how many vessels and lives were claimed by the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 which lasted from Nov. 7 through Nov. 10. In that storm alone, statistics cite 19 ships were destroyed, another 19 stranded, and 250 people killed by raging wind and waves.
Mixter said the thing he finds most amazing about his work of collecting information about shipwrecks and the personal stories of crewmembers is that when he gives his presentations around the state, frequently someone in the audience will bring up their own family connection to one of the wrecks. That adds even more detail and clarity to the stories that Mixter is able to share. He said that, surprisingly, people are often eager to relinquish a family relic for use in his work.
Of course, diving on wrecks has its obstacles, some of which include accumulated silt which essentially engulfs the wreckage making it seem to sink into the floor of the lake. Mixter said he also has encountered quagga and zebra mussels which can proliferate to the point they totally cover the entire surface of the wreck. He also compared the preservation of wreckage: in saltwater, components are rapidly destroyed, however in fresh lake waters wood is well preserved.
Mixter showed slides of many of the vessels resting on the bottom of the Lakes, but by far some of the most interesting portion of his talk included video interview footage of survivors from three different vessels, two of which were caught in the Nov. 9, 2013 storm on Lake Huron.
H.B. Hawgood wheelsman Ed Kanaby, in a halting, frail voice recounted the events of that fateful November day.
“On Saginaw Bay – it looked like mountains,” Kanaby said. The Hawgood encountered the Charles S. Price in what Kanaby called “about a 90-mile gale.”
“[How I sailed her]…I have no idea,” he said. [The Hawgood next encountered the small package freighter Regina struggling to stay afloat.] “I looked to the east and I didn’t see that little boat anymore. They must have tipped over and sank.”
Then, seeing another boat in the storm, he wondered which one it was.
“That was the Isaac M. Scott, headed into the storm, but it never came back,” he said.
When Capt. A.C. May realized that the southbound course was futile, he ordered Kanaby to turn back into the storm. Kanaby put the boat up on the beach near Point Edward, next to a hotel across the river from Port Huron.
“Put aground and dragged anchors, and it saved the ship and the crew,” Kanaby said. “By throwing the ship out of control.”
Mixter said that despite surviving a storm that killed 200 people on Lake Huron, Kanaby continued to sail for two more seasons, then became an elevator repairman in Detroit.
Vessels lost in that storm included: [Huron] the Argus, Price, Hydrus, Carruthers, McGean, Scott, Regina and Wexford; [Michigan] Plymouth; [Superior] Henry B. Smith and Leafield; and [Erie] Lightship LV-82 Buffalo.
An aspect of storm rescue Mixter addressed was the fact that the Coast Guard is not always able to “come to the rescue” in all circumstances. Sometimes it is just too treacherous for the Coast Guard to jeopardize its own crewmembers in an attempt to save others. A second video Mixter presented was of a victim of a ship sinking who had just such an experience.
“…came up to that boat, took everybody off the bow, and we started heading for shore,” he said. “And don’t think that wasn’t a rough ride. That little fishing boat did everything but turn upside down. When it finally got ashore, they took us into the Coast Guard station. Coast Guard – they wouldn’t come out to get us – it was too rough for them. They wouldn’t come, but that little fishing boat come to get us. They took us off and took us into the Coast Guard station. In the station was a great big pot-bellied stove, and it was warm. And they brought us all the rum we could drink – I had three or four shots of rum. I dearly love rum.”
Another video featured Dennis Hale, the sole survivor of the Daniel J. Morell sinking in 1966. Hale attributed his survival in the frigid lake waters to the assistance of an apparition. He described it as a sailor having blue-tinged skin, deep-set eyes and white bushy eyebrows which contrasted with his neatly trimmed white moustache.
“I somehow believe he communicated with me with his eyes,” Hale said. “I called him Doc, because the first time I saw him he had ministered to me.”
He described an out-of-body experience and finding himself back on the raft. Hale had been encouraged by Doc to just slip his life jacket on over his coat, rather than putting the coat on the outside. Mixter said Hale’s survival is attributed to the insulation layering that choice provided.
Mixter finished out his extensive and intriguing presentation with the Nov. 10, 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He said Canadian researchers had discredited some hatchway cave-in lyrics in the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as being inconsistent with the facts of the situation. He noted that Lightfoot had re-recorded the song recently, with a change in the challenged lyrics. Mixter also noted that when he dove on the wreck, he saw the hatchways and that they had “totally caved in.” He went on to describe the massive damage to the Fitzgerald, and how difficult it is to get a proportional picture of the wreckage when viewing through a tiny window on a submersible.
Mixter had the pleasure of diving on the Fitzgerald in 1994 and found it to be an awesome and reverent experience. During that dive, he and his dive mates discovered a Fitzgerald crewman’s body near the wreckage, one of those who had been believed trapped inside the freighter. He noted the Fitzgerald had been the largest freighter on the Great Lakes when launched, a title now held by the Paul R. Tregurtha at 1,014 feet in length.
The full-house attendance for Mixter’s presentation was fully engaged by the meticulous detailing of the histories and interconnectedness of the vessels which were claimed by Great Lakes storms. And many were personally invested in the topic because, as Mixter had noted, so many people in the state are connected in some way to the great boats that carry goods over the cold, choppy waters surrounding Michigan’s peninsulas.
Those who missed out on Mixter’s talk in Harrison District Library or at Pere Marquette District Library in Clare have not missed out completely. Mixter is in constant motion delivering presentations, and even having to travel a bit to hear one of them would be well worth the drive. Of course, there is always the option to pick up one of his video productions. Videos made available for purchase after the Harrison District Library talk included: “The Wheelsmen,” “The Edmund Fitzgerald Investigations,” “Deep Six: The Ships that Time Forgot,” “Safe ashore. The 1940 Armistice Day Storm,” “Bombs Away: Goodbye Guardians of the Great Lakes,” “Cutter Rescues,” and “Offshore Outposts.”