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An adventurous life

July 28, 2012
By Kelly Fosness ( , The Daily Mining Gazette

CENTENNIAL HEIGHTS - While more than a decade has passed since Jim Jackman hung up his scuba gear, he still has a lot of memories to share - stories of sunken commercial tugs he's attempted to surface, bodies he's recovered and shipwrecks he's taken divers to.

One can say he's lived an adventurous life.

"I've never been afraid of anything," the now 79-year-old said as he leafed through his scrapbook of newspaper clippings at the kitchen table of his Centennial Heights home. "I used to skydive just for kicks."

Article Photos

Daily Mining Gazette/Kelly Fosness
Jim Jackman of Centennial Heights holds an undated Daily Mining Gazette article from when he plunged into the “icy waters of the Portage Entry” in search of the 57-foot commercial fishing tug “Ronald E,” which sank. In the photo, Jackman is involved in a recovery attempt.

Skydiving with Michigan Technological University's then-skydiving club was just the tip of the iceberg for Jackman's adventures. A retired auto mechanic of nearly 50 years, Jackman said the day he made his last jump was the day his late wife, Mary, finally decided to watch.

"I remember seeing the car pulling into the airport while I was standing on the wing strut," he recalled. "By the time I got down to the ground she had already driven home. When I got there she was pointing a finger at me. She said, 'I don't care what you do, you're going to give that up.' So, I brought some scuba gear home."

It was the beginning of an era for the adventure seeker. Getting his hands on an early 1940s U.S. Navy Divers manual, Jackman studied its pages from front to back. His first dive was at Tamarack Waterworks, which was "close to home." He took to it like a hand to a glove.

"My folks had a rock shop in Delaware on the way to Copper Harbor so they prompted me to dig for rocks and souvenirs," he said. "Then you start finding different things like old bottles and shipwrecks, stuff like that, so interests change."

Around the time the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company closed in 1968, Jackman opened his own scuba diving shop, Narcosis Corner Divers, in Centennial Heights.

There he sold equipment and provided instruction.

"There was an old boiler that I bought from C&H and I managed to put a ladder in it," Jackman said. "I cleaned up the inside, painted it aqua blue and we started training divers there."

Crossing paths with a Michigan Tech student who was a certified dive instructor, Jackman said they had connections to utilize Tech's "Olympic"-sized pool for training and eventually, were instrumental in creating an accredited scuba diving course on campus.

Treasure hunting in Lake Superior is what Jackman said he fondly enjoyed.

"I had quite a collection of bottles from way back," he said. "I really got into the history of the Copper Country with the shipwrecks."

And it didn't take long for other divers to take interest, too, especially after the wreck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite, which ultimately was intentionally sank and remains a tourist attraction.

Jackman said the Mesquite ran aground off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in December 1989. The 180-foot vessel was retrieving buoys when it drifted too close to a reef.

The Mesquite was among several shipwrecks along the shore of Lake Superior, from the lower entry to the upper entry, Jackman said. It was an area he and others, who shared an interest in preserving the sites, were instrumental in establishing as the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve.

"I was a caretaker on that for 10 years," he said. "I used to go out each spring, marking each ship with buoys and taking them out in the fall, and maintaining all of the hardware."

In 2000, Jackman received a "Sparkplug Award" from the Keweenaw Tourism Council for his "ability to make things happen in the community and throughout the Keweenaw ..." for his efforts with the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve.

After earning his captain's license, he began operating a charter boat to the shipwreck sites, including the Langham off Bete Grise.

Stationed in Lac La Belle, Jackman brought divers out from all over the Midwest and even Japan, Germany and Finland.

Because the Langham and the Mesquite were in excess of 100 feet of water, those particular sites were for advanced divers.

Jackman also took divers as far as Isle Royale for wreck sites.

"I made 16 trips one summer," he said.

Jackman said shipwreck charters were a refreshing change from dealing with customers who had automobile breakdowns.

"They're not the happy campers and then they hated to part with the money," he said. "When these people came from Wisconsin, Hawaii, Germany, Finland, wherever, they were in a joyful mood and money meant nothing. I'd get more in tips that I used to earn in labor."

However, diving wasn't always for recreation, Jackman said.

On several occasions, he assisted local emergency crews voluntarily recover bodies - "six locally in one summer" - boats and vehicles.

"It takes a certain kind of person to be able to go down and bring up a body," he said. "It wasn't bad when you had nice clear visibility and you knew what to expect. But when you were looking for a body in zero visibility, feeling your way, you can imagine the feeling."

Because of insurance liabilities and such, Jackman said he was among divers who trained personnel from the Houghton County Sheriff's Department in scuba diving recovery.

"In one case, one of the biggest, strongest guys I ever knew ... went in the canal down there and came out of there and said, 'this is not my bag.' And most of them felt that way," he said. "I had more volunteers coming in and half as many quit. You're going along and there's a lot of dead fish on the bottom and they grab one of these and they just panic. You can't blame them, you know?"

The amount of time one can spend underwater depends on the depth, Jackman said. At one atmosphere less than 30 feet of water, a person has an average of 80 cubic feet, and a person uses up one cubic foot a minute - 80 minutes, he said.

"If you go down two atmospheres it cuts that in half because of the external pressure, so 40 minutes, and on and on," he said. "It gets to the point where if you're diving in excess of 120 feet, nitrogen under pressure is toxic. It's a narcosis effect."

And so was the name of his dive shop - Narcosis Corner Divers.

"I wanted it to be something you would remember," he said.

Jackman assisted in an out-of-state recovery in Clinton, Iowa, one November when a buddy of his called and asked for his help.

"I packed my car that night and drove down there," he said. "In the morning I pulled up in Clinton, at the site, and one hour before services we found the car and they cancelled the memorial services," he said. "There were big ice flows and it was super cold, strong, strong currents ... and about 1,000 spectators watching the recovery."

Jackman said they received a $1,000 reward for their efforts in successfully finding the woman who drove her car into an icy river.

Another handwritten note Jackman saved in his scrapbook was from a recovery he did in Portage Lake. The letter was from the South Range Eagles Auxiliary.

"I got a letter from them (with a $5 donation)," he said. "That's the most I ever got paid."



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