Edmund Fitzgerald

Since before I was born, my family has traveled to the small town of Grand Marais, Michigan, to vacation every few summers. The town on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior is tiny–somewhere around 500 permanent residents–but the constant influx of tourists allows the town to maintain several decent restaurants and a small brewpub. My family moved constantly when I was growing up, and Grand Marais became a symbol of permanence to my sister and me, a place we could always go back to that would stay mostly the same year to year. We camped at a little state park nearby and ran into town for snacks as kids and beer as adults.

fitz 2On November 10, 1975, the steel freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during an epic storm. The 729 foot ship was one of the largest on the lakes, and the mystery of why exactly she sank has never been solved. Theories abound–a caved-in hatchway, rogue waves lifting her bow and stern and causing her keel to break, striking an unmarked shoal, and others–but no one knows for sure. She was on radar one minute and disappeared the next, taking all 29 men aboard to the bottom with her. The story of the shipwreck and the thousands of others on the Great Lakes have always fascinated me and my sister, and when we realized 2015 was the 40th anniversary of the sinking, we made plans to be in Grand Marais for it (the Fitzgerald sank off a Whitefish Point, about an hour’s drive from Grand Marais).

We spent a week with our partners at The Dunes Motel on a hill above the town early last November. We had breakfasts at the lovely West Bay Diner, an authentic old diner transported from hundreds of miles away a few decades back, serving enormous portions of wonderful food. The owner is an author, and signed a copy of her novel for us. Most of every day and evening was spent at Lake Superior Brewing Company’s Dunes Saloon (in no way affiliated with the brewery of the same name in Duluth, Minnesota). One could not ask for a more entertaining bar and grill for this sort of trip. The clientele is a mix of colorful locals and curious tourists, and the main bartender is hilarious and sometimes drunk. The jukebox is nicknamed “Legion” and may or may not play the music you’ve told it to. The bathroom walls are covered in graffiti, some of which is pointless, some of which is obscene, and some of which is quite clever. What follows are actual things I overheard while sitting at the bar, and I promise they are all 100% real and I have not altered any of them in any way:

My buddy who was in my wedding punched and round house kicked my cousin’s wife.”

I never did heroin on base. I swear to god.”

“The weasel went after the chickens, and then my cat got the weasel. Snatched his ass right up.”

The brewpub’s beer is excellent if a bit unadventurous. They feature four or so regular beers and a few seasonals, all solidly made, though their names are a bit confusing. The Puddington Brown sits on the line between brown ale and porter. The Sandstone Pale is 7.5% and much closer to being an imperial IPA. The pumpkin ale they had on while we were there is as pale as a pilsner and is actually a tasty, restrained pumpkin wheat. All these beers are solid and go well with the kitchen’s wonderful food options: nachos, pizza, catfish, steak, and all the other normal grill items.

fitzOn the evening of November 10 at around 7 pm, I headed to Grand Marais breakwater pier with my wife, my sister, and her boyfriend. We walked to the end of the long concrete pier with a six pack of Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald porter. This porter from the Cleveland brewery was one of my first forays into craft beer a decade ago (on a trip to Grand Marais, no less), and is still one of my six-pack favorites. At 7:15, forty years to the minute since the big ship sank, we read the lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song about the Fitzgerald (a little cheesy of us, sure, but we love the song and it was as good a way as any to tell the story of the sinking). Then we popped a bottle of the beer named for the freighter and each poured some out into the frigid lake for the lost sailors before dropping one unopened into the depths to hold them over till the next anniversary we can make it back. I understand this might strike some as environmentally unfriendly, but a single bottle in the deep water off the pier isn’t going to hurt anything, and it held spiritual significance to us. We opened the remaining four bottles and each drank one down in the unchecked wind off the big inland sea and then walked back to the cars and headed to the Dunes Saloon to get good and toasted.

The trip was lovely, and our time in Grand Marais during their off season only made me want to spend more time there. Who knows, maybe we’ll call it home someday for a little while. If you’re in the Upper Peninsula, stop it at West Bay Diner and Great Lakes Brewing Company. You’ll find them both very charming.

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