Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Kayaking To the Wreck of the Francisco Morazan

With Kayaks, Mountain bikes, Backpacks, Daypacks, Walking Sticks, Fishing Poles and an Airstream Travel Trailer

Bert Gildart: From a distance, the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, a Liberan freighter grounded on November 23, 1960 looks like the lower jaw of the deer so many of us find in the spring while walking in the woods. In this case the teeth are formed by the hundreds of cormorants that have found nesting sites on the iron girders, the old smoke stack, the railings that once functioned to keep this huge vessel afloat. Cormorants are bold creatures, and, they remained so until Janie paddled into the contortion of metal that Lake Michigan waves have twisted and folded over the years. Then the dark birds lost their nerve, departing the wreck by the hundreds.

It’s not an easy task to reach the Morazan, but it is certainly worth the effort, and is something we knew in advance we wanted to do. Several days ago, we pulled into the John Day Campground on the mainland in Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore. After meeting several campground hosts, and learning that we could in fact leave our Airstream unattended in the campground for several days (and feel safe), we began planning in earnest for a trip to South Manitou.

The real planning, however, had been done back in Montana and all camping gear and kayak gear was compartmentalized in substantial bins we carry in the back of our pickup. Arriving at a site, all that’s needed is to quickly transfer necessary items into daypacks, backpacks and kayaks for easy use. More monumental were other decisions: Should we attempt crossing the same narrow nine-mile-wide Manitou Passage the 26-year-old captain had braved the same passage that has claimed over 140 ships since 1835? Or should we drive 30 minutes to Leland and make the hour-and-a-half ferry trip to South Manitou?

Park rangers don’t try and persuade you one way or the other; they simply present the facts. And one of the facts was rather persuasive. “Each year,” said the ranger at the entrance to the John Day Campground, “the Manitou Passage seems to take a kayaker or two.” Then she explained that just last week two kayakers had set out for South Manitou. One kayak made it, but a week later now, and the other kayaker has yet to show. “We fear the worst,” said the ranger. “In fact, we’re simply watching for bodies to wash ashore…

“It’s the uncertainty of weather on Lake Michigan,” said the ranger, “and it can never be predicted.”

Several days later we took the ferry to South Manitou, and two hours later were erecting our tent at Bay Campground, a campground designated as “an entrance to the wilderness.” Three hours later we were shoving off for the three-mile paddle along the shore of South Manitou. Four hours later, the wreck of the “Francisco Morazan” was in sight.

When you first see the old freighter, the huge ship seems an apparition; it simply doesn’t seem real. Sure you’re acquainted with tragedy of some form or other; most of us are. But because we’re so insulated from massive catastrophes, the sight of one, even a relatively old one, seems unreal. But there it was, a huge wrecked ship–a significant tragedy–and even from a distance, you know something is wrong, for the ship is listing slightly away from the shore.

Closer now, and you can see that the bow of the boat is separated from its more central part, but, essentially, the front of the ship is beneath the water’s surface, and it may or may not be connected. Only the scuba divers really know.

The Morazan met her fate on November 23, 1960. The previous day, the young captain had departed Chicago bound for Rotterdam, when he suddenly encountered one of those unexpected storms we had been told could so quickly occur—and that could make our kayaking most unpleasant. Now, with decks awash and navigators blinded by heavy snow squalls, the captain turned to the port and ran his 246-foot freighter aground on the southern shores of South Manitou, where it has remained for the past 46 years.

For several hours we paddled around the Morazan, examining it from a variety of positions. We recalled that others had met their fate here and had created legends of their own. One island legend concerns two young men determined to explore the Morazan. Swimming from shore to the vessel, both climbed aboard. One of the young men apparently slipped, and though the specifics are unknown, apparently he cracked his head, was knocked unconscious and then he drowned. Because the young man had once been so vibrant, some islanders believed they could look through the portals and see his ghost. The “sightings” so unnerved some that they covered the portals, and so eliminated further such “encounters.”

Other stories abound, and though we had difficulty breaking free of the magnetism created by the Morazan, we paddled ashore, climbed the bluff and viewed the wreck from that perspective. Unlike the 26-year-old captain, we had wonderful luck, for Lake Michigan had turned to glass, and from the bluff we could see the shallow water into which the captain had the misfortune to direct his vessel. But he did retain some luck, for his crew of 13—and his wife and unborn child—were all rescued.

That evening, our magnificent luck continued unabated, for a slight wind rose up from our stern, almost pushing us back toward our campground. Off in the distance and on the mainland, a crescent moon ascended over the huge expanse of sand that comprise the Sleeping Bear, and we recalled the legend of the Sleeping Bear and her cubs cited in an earlier posting. Then, turning around for one final look of the shipwreck, we saw that the cormorants had returned, creating that ominous appearing “jaw,” we had first seen.

The apparition reminded us that this national park was created out of a land containing much uncertainty. Such conditions, of course, give rise to some of the best stories, and it was impossible to conceive that we might never pass this way again.




4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

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Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

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4 Responses to “Kayaking To the Wreck of the Francisco Morazan”

  1. Pete Voss Says:

    Just saw the Morazan last week, camping on S. Manitou for a night, albeit without kayaks. Would love to bring kayaks out and explore there, probably via the ferry. Safety well worth the extra $29 to tote the kayak via the ferry.
    Great article.

  2. Fred Kramer Says:

    I was one of those two young men that swam out to the Morazan.
    The young man who died was named Ronald Riker, whose parents owned and operated the last farm on S. Manitou.
    Ron had turned 18 just two days before his death.
    At the time, a section of the hull on the sea-ward side of the ship had broken open, providing entry to the stern hold.
    The wind had been from the SW, and there was a 2-3 foot sea runing from that direction.
    Ron and I swam to the stern, where a cable hung down to the water from above.
    Ron was confident that he could make it safely into the hold, reach the ladder there and make his way up to the deck.
    I was not that confident, and left him. I swam back to shore, and he was killed by the wave action inside the ship.
    I lost a very good friend that summer, and I shall never forget the incedent.
    If spirits haunt that ship, his is one. A life cut short by a bad decision.
    F. Kramer
    Still living in northern lower Michigan

  3. Robert Barnard Says:

    This week has been unusually warm and sunny in Northern Michigan which probably prompted a fellow kayaker to South Manitou Island. The news today is about the Coast Guard who rescued the stranded kayaker off the island. That story and my wanderings brought me to your enjoyable website.

    Thank you for the pictures and words.

  4. Zachery Says:

    monroe – Zachery, quick-struts can be good and easy for a person whom doesn’t
    recognize how to handle a spring mechanical device.