Artists vMartin Potashner's painting of The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Martin Potashner’s The Sinking Of Edmund Fitzgeral.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Rumors of Gordon Lightfoot’s death, which have circulated on social media for 20 years now, continue to be premature. Apparently the Canadian balladeer, who turned 84 this week, plans to keep it that way. His website lists a bruising schedule of tour dates that extend through next October.

Greta Kaul, data reporter at MinnPost

Greta Kaul

The next thing to clear up: A data reporter who was inspired by an iconic Lightfoot song to deliver a delish story on history, meteorology and pop culture is not some aging Boomer clinging to their folksy youth. She’s 31. Her editor, who asked the questions that sparked the story, is not much older.

That reporter: Greta Kaul, of MinnPost.

The editor: Tom Nehil.

The song: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The questions, which also became the headline: “What exactly are the gales of November? And is November 10 really ‘early’ for them?”

A big story in a small space

Countless stories have been written about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive freighter that plied the Great Lakes for almost 20 years before it went down off the coast of Michigan on Nov. 10, 1975.  The crew of 29 men were all taken by the icy inland sea that is Lake Superior. Or, as the song says, “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.”

The bed of Superior is littered with dozens of shipwrecks. To this day, the Fitzgerald remains among the largest of its claims, and by far the most well-known. The exact circumstances of the freighter’s demise remain the subject of debate. Most theories focus on Superior itself, and the unforgiving storms it can whip up with little notice.

That’s where Kaul took a different journalist turn.

Her story is a compressed gem. In about 1,000 words, it includes a personality profile of Lake Superior, the history of other wrecks in its waters, what’s known about the wreck of the Fitzgerald, the memorials held every year, and Lightfoot’s ballad memorializing it. It fact-checks previous theories, including Lightfoot’s lyrics, noting this:

Another, mostly disproven — but that Lightfoot cites in the original version of the song — is that a hatch caved, letting water in. (In later versions of the song, Lightfoot changed the lyrics to remove the reference to the hatchway.)

But mostly, it’s a weather story — one wrapped in song and mystery that keeps you reading, but focused and structured so tightly that you can’t help but learn from it.

Or, as Kaul said, “It was just a total chance for nerdiness,”

Answering the call of the mused question

Kaul joined the nonprofit MinnPost five years ago, returning to her native Minnesota after a stint at the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s hard to get by in San Francisco on a journalist’s salary,” she said.

When she was a child, her family vacationed in March — another fierce season — at a townhouse overlooking Lake Superior. She had a bedroom in the loft, and would stare out the window as the lake’s rage crashed large and loud against the rocks. “If you go up there any time it’s gloomy out, that song is everywhere,” she said. It became what she calls her “gateway” to becoming a fan of Lightfoot’s music.

Back in Minnesota, the Fitzgerald ballad became part of the the soundtrack of her Novembers. “MinnPost is a very small newsroom,” she said. “We have a Spotify playlist running in background all the time, and a Slack robot that DJs. Inevitably in November this comes up a lot, probably because of me.”

 

 

This year, as the song ear-wormed its way through the newsroom, Kaul’s editor mused about the gales of November. What are they, really? And is it true that, when the Fitzgerald sank, they came early?

Editors and reporters muse about things all the time. Kaul didn’t let it stop there.

“It became an interesting data adventure, as often happens,” she said. “The question I really needed to answer is whether November is really a windy month on Lake Superior, and when is the windiest time of the month.”

That took her on one of those quests data reporters love. She studied several weather data sets, but needed to know more about wind: “Who do you measure it? Do you measure average wind, or gusts?” She found someone at the National Weather Service in Marquette, Michigan, who helped her out. She wanted to find information from the exact place the ship went down, but had to settle for readings at the nearest buoy station. That was Whitefish Point, which also happens to be home to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. She found a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who grew up on Lake Superior and was a Lightfoot fan.

Swenson did some back-of-napkin math on a 30-year-old storms dataset, finding the most intense storms in the Duluth area.

That led her to the Beaufort Wind Scale, which defines levels of wind and puts gales somewhere between a strong breeze and a storm.

Because of her personal history, she was able to put what she learned in the specific context of Lake Superior. “People who sail on the lake say it’s more unpredictable than storms on the ocean. Anyone who’s been up there  … the waves are so big and so cold and its so dark-looking. It’s a vibe, for sure.”

Or, as she wrote:

Great Lakes waves, furthermore, are a lot different than ocean waves, because they’re mostly driven by wind, compared to tidal-driven ocean waves, said Matt Zika, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Marquette, Michigan office. On the ocean, you often count seven or eight seconds between waves.

“Wind-driven waves on the Great Lakes, the period in between those waves is much shorter. And so it may only have a couple of seconds before the next wave comes rolling in. On top of you. So it’s a different environment than a lot of what you see on the ocean,” he said.

At the end of the story, Kaul wraps back around to the cause of the wreck. You won’t find any spoilers. She remains true to what is known, and thus to the mystery.

Postscript

MinnPost was early in the era of digital startups, and has survived with a tight focus on public policy and analytics. Yet Kaul delivered, with her editor’s support, a smart diversion into pop culture. They used their own curiosity to tap into reader curiosity. And then, in a nod to Lake Superior, November and Gordon Lightfoot, they made music. Here, posted Nov. 10, 2021, on Kaul’s Twitter account: “The maiden voyage of our newsroom band, the Gales of November.”

Further Reading