By Shari Abbott, Reasons for Hope* Jesus
29 perished in Gitche Gumee
If you know Native American/Indian history or lore, you probably know the meaning of Gitche Gumee. You might even recall the first two lines of the well-known poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled The Song of Hiawatha:
On the shores of Gitche Gumee
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water….
Gitche Gumee is Longfellow’s spelling of the Indian word “gichi-gami” which means “great sea.” Gitchi-gami is the name the Ojibway Indians gave to the largest, deepest and the most beautiful of the Great Lakes — Lake Superior.
(Note: Because I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, I might be a bit biased about “the most beautiful of the Great Lakes.” However, I can attest to the grandeur, power and beauty of this lake.)
In addition to being the largest, deepest and most beautiful of the Great Lakes, Superior has a long reputation for experiencing the great “wrath of nature” in tumultuous storms. Storms on Gitche Gumee have claimed many lives. The frigid and deep waters of this lake have given rise to the often quoted saying, “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead.”
On the southern shores of Lake Superior, about 70 miles west of the city of Sault Ste. Marie, is Whitefish Point. The waters surrounding Whitefish Point have long been called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” because of the number of ships lost in that area of Lake Superior. It was only 15 miles from Whitefish Point that a disastrous shipwreck occurred 40 years ago.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Although not the greatest loss of life from a Lake Superior shipwreck, the 29 who died on November 10, 1975 are the best-remembered. In the haunting lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the memory of those who drowned has been immortalized. Lightfoot’s words proclaim the power of nature that changed the course of this strong, seaworthy vessel. On that November day, the raging winds gave a “beating” and the lake waters “rose up” to become an instrument of death. On that November day, Gitche Gumme “swallowed-up” the 729-foot ship and claimed the lives of all its crew members. On that November day, 29 men stepped into eternity.
We can only wonder how many of those men were welcomed into the arms of their loving Father, and how many perished in the depths of a watery judgment?
Such a tragedy makes me think of the catastrophe of the Tower of Siloam. In Luke 13:4-5, Jesus referred to the18 who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.
Luke 13:4-5 “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus’ words are a reminder that all will perish, unless they repent and receive saving grace. When we hear Gordon Lightfoot’s memorial ballad, it should serve as a reminder that we must be diligent in sharing the gospel of saving grace with all people. Oh, how quickly one’s future can change; and oh, how quickly the finality of one’s destiny is sealed.
The crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald had no idea what lay ahead of them when they boarded the freighter in Superior, Wisconsin on November 9th. The ship launched and headed east with a destination of Detroit, Michigan and then on to Cleveland, Ohio.
The next day the gales of November raged from 58-67 mph,with gusts reported at 86 mph, and the “Big Sea Waters” of Gitche Gumee rose as high as 25 feet with rogue, or killer, waves as high as 35 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald “drank” of the “wrath of nature” and the seasoned-crew tasted of that “wrath” poured-out upon them. The boat succumbed to nature’s power–a power much greater than any man-made vessel– and 29 souls went to their watery graves.
As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in another of his poems:
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.
The soul is eternal and at death one’s destiny is sealed. How many of those 29 rose to be with the Lord and how many faced another wrath? We don’t know. But there’s always hope that they are with the Lord.
I remember that November day. Although I was not living in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, friends and family reported of the extreme power of the storm and the great sadness of the tragedy. Most who live in the area, myself included, have lost loved ones to the depths of Gitche Gumme and well understand why Lightfoot sang, “the witch of November came stealin.”
Most poignant in the lyrics of Lightfoot’s song is the line,
That’s the age-old question many ask, where is God in my suffering. When asked that question, we need to be ready to give an answer. The Bible tells us that in all trials, tribulation and suffering God is right where He has always been: on the Throne and in complete control. We do not suffer in vain, for our God has a purpose in everything He allows to come upon us. In every trial and tribulation, in all our pain and suffering, God is present and He is our comfort. Psalm 119:50 tells us that God speaks to us through His Word to give us life in our suffering. The NIV translation beautifully renders this as, “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” (Psalm 119:50) For those who die in Christ, they have the promised that their life is preserved.
Always be ready, and always be willing, to share saving grace with those who do not know Jesus. We don’t want anyone to step into eternity without the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Fitzgerald’s bell was retrieved from the watery grave and is showcased in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Paradise, Michigan.
Take a minute now and listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s classic song that remembers the lives of those 29 men who died 40 years ago in the waters of Gitche Gumee, “when the gales of November came early.” Let the words of this song move you and motivate you to go forth and share God’s saving grace.
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