Fishing Legacy Lies at Bottom of Betsie Bay

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Fishing Legacy Lies at Bottom of Betsie Bay

Postby admin » Tue Jun 06, 2017 10:17 am

The tale of a faithful ship and the “Good Will” of a community
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Fishing Legacy Lies at Bottom of Betsie Bay


“If only those weathered old timbers could talk” people often remark as they explore the ancient forests, gracefully aging barns and bleached shipwreck timbers along the shores of Benzie and Leelanau counties. Herein is the tale of an aged boat sinking into the muddy headwaters of Betsie Bay, a fishing vessel named “Good Will” which plied the quicksilver out of Leland for 64 years. It is a tale of the human spirit, of kindness and adversity, of independence and community. It is a tale that reflects the ways of life along our northwest coast.

The story begins in the mid 1870s, when a great influx of immigrants arrived to this area of the Great Lakes. Among the thousands laying their claims here was Nels Carlson and his family. They settled on North Manitou Island and cleared land to begin farming. Life in the new land was not easy; the soils here were sandy and poor and people quickly learned to be resourceful. Nels and his son, Will, soon began fishing on Lake Michigan to help feed the family and earn extra income. Fishing was apparently more fruitful than farming for the Carlsons, and in 1906 they moved to Leland and established a fishery.

The weathered hands and face of Will
Carlson betrays the rugged life of commercial
fishing on the Great Lakes. Erhardt Peters Collection / Leelanau Historical Museum.

At this time Leland’s community centered around it’s modest harbor and fishing fleet. As time passed and maritime commerce became less prevalent, Leland’s fish town became a community within a community, the sailors and fisherman being understanding and sympathetic to the often harsh ways of making a living on and around the water. The early morning hours of August 1941 saw Will Carlson and his son, Pete fishing aboard their boat Diamond, between South Fox and North Manitou Islands. The Diamond was the Carlson’s first boat, a 34′ open boat similar to the early sailing Mackinaws. Rather than being propelled by sail, the Diamond had a gasoline engine, which allowed fisherman to more reliably travel to and from their nets. ‘These nets were often set many miles from safe harbor around the fertile fishing grounds of the islands. Fate intervened that day when a fire broke out in the engine of the Diamond.

The flames soon leapt into the oily wood timbers adjacent to the burning engine and the searing orange flames became a horrific contrast to the cold dark blue waters that surrounded them.

The fire could not be extinguished, and it became apparent they were now confronting the unenviable decision of death by fire or drowning. Pete gave the only life jacket to his father, and then cleverly began stuffing fishnet floats into his own shirt for buoyancy. Although it was August, the deep waters of the Manitou Passage took their breath away when they leapt overboard. Floating together in the frigid lake, the radiant heat of the flaming Diamond was of little consolation. Within a short time, the unmerciful effects of cold water took its toll on the elder Carlson. Will soon died of exposure. In desperation, Pete began swimming with his father, the life jacket still on his body, towards North Manitou Island, miles away.

Pete was ultimately forced to release his father’s body, as it had become too much of a burden and would clearly imperil his already minute chance of survival. After nearly a full day of swimming, darkness fell. The night was clear with a bright moon; fighting exhaustion, Pete swam on.

Read the conclusion of this remarkable story here.
"There's no better bilge pump than a scared man with a bucket"