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Unusual 'offshore' excursions crafted for Lake Superior North Shore cruises

From left, the dark spots are the underwater mine shafts at Silver Islet, the yacht Gunilda prior to its sinking and the 2022 North Shore Inside Passage scouting party
Among the excursions created for Lake Superior's new North Shore Inside Passage itinerary are three unusual underwater sites.

For some time the Great Lakes Cruise Association has been developing the Lake Superior North Shore Inside Passage, and destination management organization Superior Country and Destination Northern Ontario have pitched in with visitor content.

'Superb' attractions

Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruise Association, highlighted three tours that focus on extraordinary underwater assets a short distance from the shoreline. He called each a 'superb attraction.'

'All three lie beneath the waves and are pre-interpreted before the guests leave the ship,' Burnett said. 'All three stories are curious and quite vivid.'

Underwater silver mine

Close to Thunder Bay at the foot of the Sleeping Giant land mass, Silver Islet once yielded the world's richest silver deposit from an underwater mine. It operated between 1869 and 1884 when a coffer dam held back the power of Lake Superior’s most formidable storms, allowing miners to pump out the shafts and extract large silver deposits.

One day the coal barge failed to arrive and when the pumps ran dry, Lake Superior reclaimed the mine shafts. Today, visitors can peer down at the two, dark, ominous-looking mine shafts from their ship's tenders or Zodiacs, while local guides interpret this historical site.

'The story of silver mining here, beneath Lake Superior, is almost unbelievable,' Burnett said.

Underwater train

A short sail east from Thunder Bay is the tiny community of Schreiber. In 1910 a CPR train derailed on June 9, near Mink Harbour, after hitting a boulder on the track. The entire train, its carriages, contents and freight, dropped 20 meters into Lake Superior, then descended another 60 metres to the bottom of the lake.

This became the train's final resting place. In 2016, the wreck was located by a remotely operated vehicle, and a video was made of the site.

For the tour, tenders or Zodiacs hover above the spot where the train is submerged as guides relate the incident. 

Burnett noted the rail line is 'still there on the shoreline, in daily use, and its presence lends a reality to what’s beneath the waves.' 

World's most beautiful shipwreck

In 1922 William Harkness of Cleveland, Ohio, along with friends and a crew of 20, sailed his steam yacht Gunilda into Lake Superior. Harkness fatefully declined the services of a local pilot, objecting to the cost, and Gunilda ran at full speed onto a shoal close to Rossport, Ontario.

Everyone on board was rescued, but efforts to dislodge the yacht proved disastrous and Gunilda sank into the depths. 

In 1980, Jacques Cousteau and the Cousteau Society used the research vessel Calypsoand the diving saucer SP-350 Denise to film the wreck. The Cousteau Society called Gunilda the 'best-preserved, most prestigious shipwreck in the world' and 'the most beautiful shipwreck in the world.'

Burnett said the dangerous Magarvey shoal where the yacht foundered and sank is quite visible, and it's up to the guides to share the saga.

North Shore Inside Passage development

A year ago, planners from six cruise lines made a scouting trip to the region, led by Burnett and accompanied by a senior Great Lakes pilot and a Lake Superior captain to assist planning.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Viking and Ponant have incorporated the North Shore Inside Passage into their programs, and Burnett expects additional lines will do so.

Tour development continues.