Commercial fisherman Alvin Anderson could talk for hours about his experiences and encounters out on the Great Lakes. He has seen just about everything and every condition imaginable in his 54 years of commercial fishing. In his younger days, there was not much that would keep him from going out to get a lift. His peers coined him “Geronimo,” because of his brazen and unflappable demeanor. When it came to fishing, he was adamant on getting a lift on those nets, no matter what Mother Nature threw at him. However, there was one experience that still wakes him out of a sound sleep and is a reminder that he’s still lucky to be alive to fish another day. The year was 1951; he and his brother, Floyd, were fishing lake trout in Lake Superior:
Caught in a Northeaster
I was talking to my brother Floyd some time ago, and we got talking about the time we were both put to the test of endurance and seamanship. It was fifty-two years ago, in 1951. My brother Clarence and I were caught in a heavy northeaster while we were fishing out of Port Wing [Wisconsin] up in Lake Superior. We had the boat the RVH at the time. We had a Caterpillar [diesel] engine in her. It was around the time of the vernal equinox. I think it was the days of March 19, 20, and 21. At that time, we were gone for a week fishing 40 miles out from Port Wing.
We left Two Harbors, Minnesota, in the spring of the year. We wintered in Two Harbors, because we could get out of there earlier than Port Wing. In Port Wing, you could be stuck in there half of the spring. We would go out for four or five days, you know; then come back. That was an awful thing, you know. Back then, we had no radios, no depth recorders — nothing. We had an old window weight for a sounding lead and a clock and compass. We were out there three days lifting probably 100 boxes of nets. We had 100 boxes of nets and we’d lift and set around there [Apostle Islands] and we’d lay…If we couldn’t get in by the islands…Well I’d never do it again. At first if we couldn’t get in by the islands, we would just shut the engine off out in the middle of the lake and lay there overnight. Then wake up and start lifting at daylight, the next morning; otherwise, if we could get in between the islands…most of the time we could get in between Rock and South Twin Islands.
Well, shit man, the night before, it was getting late, and Everett Johnson came by. He was fishing way east of us in the old Margaret. He came by us on his way back to Port Wing — the ice had cleared out of there. He stopped by us and we were just about done lifting — ready to set back, you know. It was just getting dark — late afternoon. It was such a beautiful day; the sun was shining; it was warm. The lake was glass — just shiny. I remember I took a hold of the buoy. I had all cotton or sisal buoy line — no synthetic in those years. There was a lot of times I’d just run the buoy line on top of the roof to dry. We set back and told Everett that we had one more day of lifting and then we’d be back. He asked if everything was all right. We said “Yeah sure, fine.”
We pulled in behind the islands that night. It was beautiful, but during the night she started to blow out of the northeast — Holy Christ did she blow. We were tied by the Rocky dock there at Rock Island. We were sleeping. We had hammocks at first in the boat, but they didn’t work well, especially when it got choppy — you would roll right out of the damn things. Then we got a rollway bed we put in there, you know that we could fold up. Anyway, during the night that dirty son-of-a-bitch started to blow. Middle of the night to early morning, and what the hell are we gonna do? The boat was pounding up against the dock. We tried everything and then it got to be daylight. Holy Christ, then it really whistled through out of the northeast. Oh shit man, we tried to untie the boat and get away from the dock — well that didn’t work. Then we thought…Well maybe if we run across in between the islands over to South Twin, there was a dock over there too. Maybe we could get a little more lea. We ran over there first and it was getting pretty late in the afternoon when we decided we got to do something. We can’t lie here anymore.
In between Rock Island and South Twin is only a five – or ten-minute run. Well we seen that wasn’t going to work, and then we thought Holy Christ we have to get out of here. By that time, it was really starting to blow, and the seas were building — even in there. Actually, there was a reef… shallow water outside of North Twin Island and one at the entrance; we knew how to get into there. Usually the shallow water will break the seas, but Christ they come screaming down through there, it was unbelievable. So then, we decided, we have to try to scoot down between the islands farther and around to get out of some of this. We went down through the little narrow passage. We never been there before — we didn’t know if there was enough water — deep water or not to get through. We whirled around down through there; then we’re thinking, Christ what if a big heavy ice field would come down and get a hold of us. It would have dragged us right out. We had so much on our minds.
We pulled right behind the island — right south of South Twin Island where there was deep water right up to the beach. You could probably touch the beach and you still had 15 to 20 fathom of water. We went up as far as we could and dropped our anchor. It must have been such a damn steep bank and, of course, with the sea, there was such a tremendous undertow all the time that our anchor wouldn’t hold.
Then about 8:00 p.m. that night, that dirty sucker started to snow. You couldn’t even see the water, I tell you and blow. We never slept for 72 hours. We never shut the engine off for anything. My brother Floyd and I never said one word to each other. We knew what we had to do — we didn’t have to talk. Most of the time we had to keep the sounding lead out of the porthole to keep sounding the water for depth. We knew the anchor wasn’t holding when each time I’d drop the sounding lead we were getting in deeper water. We pulled up the anchor and hoped we were heading for the island — we couldn’t see nothing.
Then during the middle of the night, she kept snowing. The water was so damn cold and that gol’ damn wet heavy snow. Little did we know … we didn’t even know it until the next morning when it started to lighten up, and hell it was still snowing like a bitch – looked out the porthole, Christ I could see the water. What the hell is going on here? The heavy snow formed around the hull of the boat and kept dragging us down — pulling us under. You would not believe it. We had side doors in the stern of the RVH — one on each side, but we had to be careful to get the ice off from the hull. We had to work together — a little on each side, at the same time. If we knocked her all off on one side, she would have rolled right over, so we had to be real careful what we did there. I mean, another full hour we would have went right under without knowing it. I’ve seen so much shit that you would not believe. That wet heavy snow and slush formed so thick on each side of the hull — Holy Christ, it kept sucking us down.
We were gone a whole week that time, and nobody knew where we were. It was the third day when the northeaster hit. We couldn’t move, and nobody knew where we were. We had plenty of coal for the stove and plenty of fish to eat, along with potatoes and onions, but we weren’t thinking about eating. All we were trying to do was survive!
During that northeaster, while we were out there, Norman Johnson was at Jardine’s Tavern, west of Port Wing. He was out by the tavern that night. He walked the floor all night, and kept saying, “You’ll never see those guys again. There ain’t no way that anybody can survive that storm nobody! When we finally come by, “Korny” must have seen us come by. When we hit Port Wing, I think practically all of Douglas County was on the pier. They thought they were seeing a ghost ship come in. I tell you that was a hair raising experience. Every time I see my brother Floyd, we talk about that day.