Alternative Breakers visit marine sanctuary, discover more about Michigan's history


After a long three-hour drive to Alpena, Emily Sznitka and her fellow students on alternative break were eager to explore the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary earlier this month.

The Armada junior had no idea what to expect when opening up the large doors of the museum.

Surrounded by dozens of information stations and exhibits, she found herself facing a large replica of a massive shipwreck. She was amazed and shocked while wandering through the destroyed ship display.

The shipwreck gave Sznitka a hands-on experience while learning the damaging effects of a maritime tragedy from the Great Lakes. The amount of shipwrecks in the museum shocked her.

“There were a lot more wrecks than we ever expected,” Sznitka said. “You don’t realize what’s underneath you when you’re out there on the water. You wouldn't expect that from the Great Lakes.”

Various stations were set up throughout the sanctuary for student volunteers to work on over the weekend. The artifact documentary station was set up for students to look at artifacts and document them on paper.


Courtesy Photo Senior Adam Weidenfeller documenting an artifact during the Alternative Weekend at Thunder Bay.

Conserving the artifacts by scraping off rust and cleaning was a popular station among volunteers.

“All of the staff and volunteers were so welcoming,” Sznitka said. “They said we helped them with conserving so many artifacts, it took a lot off of their shoulders. What takes them a long time to set up the sanctuary only took us one weekend to accomplish.”

Abigail Diaz, education and outreach specialist for Thunder Bay, said the students left an incredible impact on the facility. They cleaned and restored 33 artifacts, documented more than 20, including sketches, reached out to dozens of visitors, copied hundreds of shipwreck archival documents, and cleaned 641 artifacts.

We had a really great group of volunteers,” Diaz said. “They participated in great teamwork and had good communication. It was nice to walk by each station and hear the conversations the students were having. Everyone here was very impressed.”

Because of the hard work done by the students, some of the artifacts are ready to go on display now, Diaz said. Updating and cleaning more than 20 different displays allowed the sanctuary to open them back up to the public.

The lack of knowledge of Great Lakes shipwrecks is what inspired Sznitka to attend the alternative breaks weekend trip. She learned more history about Michigan and grew a stronger love for the Great Lakes.

“I live in Michigan, you know, and I never thought about the Great Lakes and all of the shipwrecks and history that was in this little part of Michigan,” Sznitka said. “That was really cool for me.”

Site leader and New Boston senior Shawn Knight said it was eye-opening for him to learn about all of the different shipwrecks they have at Thunder Bay and the research and effort put into preserving the artifacts.

“I never realized at all how much work they do there,” Knight said. “The experience was really educational.”

After having a great experience on a previous alternative break, Fenton junior Caitlin Miller immediately signed up once one opened up. She chose this break because it was different from any other issue she had seen.

Traveling to Thunder Bay was better than Miller could’ve hoped for. Meeting the workers and seeing how passionate they were about the artifacts inspired her.

“I had an absolute blast there,” Miller said. “I would love to go back again and encourage anyone to visit. I learned a lot about the maritime history of the United States and the efforts that our federal government has put forth to preserve, not just our Great Lakes, but also more shipwreck research.”

Miller said visiting the sanctuary was a good experience for any student.

“No matter what field you’re going into, this trip can benefit you in some way,” Miller said. “We all had different majors going into it. You may not think you can connect with something, but you really can.”

Being able to volunteer at a place full of dedicated workers gave Walker senior Adam Weidenfeller a worthwhile first experience with the Alternative Breaks program at CMU.

Weidenfeller chose the break because he knew a staff member at Thunder Bay.

“Going to Thunder Bay this past weekend gave me the perfect opportunity to get involved in a way that wasn’t too overwhelming,” he said. “I had an awesome experience.”


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