It was a TV movie about scuba divers raising a sunken submarine that inspired Elmer Engman to try scuba diving in the big lake in his backyard.
While watching that movie nearly 50 years ago, Engman and a friend of his, both in high school in Duluth at the time, saw an ad for a scuba diving class.
“We signed up the next day to take scuba diving lessons and that was a hard class,” he said — so challenging that half of the 20 students dropped out before the end. “Back then, scuba gear was pretty antiquated. You had to be physically fit just to survive Lake Superior with the diving gear that we had … and try to stay warm too because it got chilly.”
For his first time diving, Engman and his friend borrowed scuba gear and walked the short distance from his house on 15th Avenue East to the lakeshore. They had only one pair of diving gloves between the two of them, so they each wore one glove. Diving into Lake Superior in November, they lasted only a few minutes before their ungloved hands became so cold they had to get out of the water.
“We didn’t know what to expect. We knew it was going to be cold, but not that cold,” he said.
On a subsequent dive, they found two bottles of champagne in Lake Superior. They didn’t know how the bottles got there, but Engman guessed that someone put them in the lake to cool and the bottles drifted away. Too young to drink alcohol, they gave the bottles away — but the discovery was a sign of things to come.
“Lake Superior still has a lot of secrets,” he said. “You’ve just got to get out there and look.”
Forty-eight years later, Engman has written three books on diving — including a guide to western Lake Superior shipwrecks that was the go-to guide for years — and has taught diving in the Northland for 44 years. He also created the Gales of November conference on shipwrecks in 1988 as a way to bring divers together.
“Diving has always been an interesting, relaxing sport. You never know what you’re going to see when you’re in the water,” the 64-year-old Proctor resident said.
To recognize Engman’s efforts, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society will honor Engman with the Dive Community Contribution Award during its banquet Saturday at the Upper Midwest Scuba and Adventure Travel Show in the Twin Cities.
“Icons in our dive community open doors to new diving experiences for all of us and few have opened more doors than Elmer Engman,” states the letter nominating him for the award.
Phil Kerber, president of the society, said Engman has been the “go-to guy” when it comes to diving. Ships are built to last a long time and shipwrecks have a story to tell, he said — and Engman has helped tell that story with his guides to Lake Superior shipwrecks.
“It helps a lot of the people that have that interest in maritime history. It keeps those types of things alive,” Kerber said.
Engman said he was surprised to learn he was receiving the award.
“I’ve been plugging along all these years and, getting an award for it is kind of exciting,” he said.
He’s operated Viking Diver for the past nine years and previously had a scuba gear shop in Duluth, all while working for Minnesota Power for 33 years.
In the beginning, he didn’t think diving would become a lifelong passion.
“It was kind of one of those decisions in your life that takes a completely different path,” he said.
Engman had been interested in shipwrecks for a long time and he made his first visit to a shipwreck — the Samuel P. Ely — in 1969, not long after starting to dive. He explained that the Ely is a good shipwreck to visit for a first-timer because its location close to the breakwall in Two Harbors means it’s shallow, safe and relatively intact.
“At that time, the ship turned 100 years old. It was an amazing feeling swimming across the deck that sailors walked on 100 years ago. It’s hard to put into words,” he said.
Visiting the Ely isn’t scary because of its location, he said.
“Granted, you do have wrecks that are a little creepy. It depends on visibility. If you can see everything, everything is fine. But if you can’t, that makes things a little more hazardous,” he said.
After visiting shipwrecks for a while, Engman decided to write a book describing wrecks in Lake Superior. It began as drawings of the shipwrecks and the wreck locations; then he began to add photos of the wrecks.
“In the ‘70s, there wasn’t a lot of information about shipwreck history or even where the wrecks were, and that’s where I got interested in doing research and actually doing a dive guide for Lake Superior shipwrecks — because I was told, ‘Yeah, the wreck is right over there,’ (but you’d) go there and there’s nothing there,” he said. That frustration spurred the book.
Engman has visited the wreck of the Thomas Wilson near Duluth hundreds of times and was part of the group that raised its anchor that now sits in Canal Park. His book, “In the Belly of the Whale,” focuses on the Wilson, a whaleback freighter.
In his early days of scuba diving, he found a lantern in the engine room while diving aboard the Wilson with a friend.
“I was hanging on to it like this,” he said holding his arm out, “going down to the engine. My buddy sees that and thinks I’m a ghost of a crewmember with this lantern. I scared the crap out of him,” he recalled with a laugh.
Engman has taught diving in the area wherever there was a school pool he could use for the class. He still runs into students that he taught 30 years ago, he said.
His main lesson for students is to stay active.
“There’s all kinds of things a person can do in water. There’s no reason why you should be bored,” he said. “Wherever you go, there’s going to be water.”
It makes no difference if he’s diving in a spot he’s been numerous times before, or if it’s the first time, Engman said — each dive is different.
It’s a sport people can do at any age and once they own the gear, it doesn’t cost a lot to get out into the water, he said. “Sign up for a class, get in the water, see the other half of the world.”