Great Lakes Shipwrecks Expert and Author Valerie van Heest – Interview
Valerie van Heest is an award-winning local author and filmmaker with a great focus on Michigan history. Her story for how she began her journey as an author on the subject of Great Lakes shipwrecks is quite intriguing. I interviewed Valerie so she could tell us more.
Oakland County Moms: I understand you currently live in Holland, Michigan and you’ve lived elsewhere as well. What parts of Michigan are you most familiar with and how has that contributed to your career as an author on Michigan shipwrecks?
Author Valerie van Heest: In 1995 I moved from Chicago to West Michigan, settling in Holland. That first year I joined in the movement to create the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve and began researching ships lost off the shores of SW Michigan. Then in 2001, I founded Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates and expanded my studies to the waters off the entire western side of Michigan in Lake Michigan. My work for those two organizations resulted in my becoming an expert on ships lost in that region.
Oakland County Moms: Your background and expertise in the Michigan Great Lakes are very impressive. What led you to become such an expert on the history of the Great Lakes and Michigan shipwrecks?
Author Valerie van Heest: Since the day my dad strapped a scuba tank on my back and tossed me into the deep end of a swimming pool, I began seeing the world from a different perspective. After settled down from the initial rush of realizing I could survive in this foreign environment, I studied the new world around me. The drain, the scuppers, and the textured pool bottom appeared clear, but the world above me seemed blurred. I could hear nothing but a seemingly distant sound of my regulator as I breathed in and out. At fourteen-years old, I became hooked on the underwater world. A dive that fall to the site of worn and broken timbers of an old vessel in shallow water along the western shores of Lake Michigan off Greenwood Beach just north of Chicago, would shape my life, although I did not realize it at the time. I found myself wanting to know more about that shipwreck and how it came to be in twenty feet of water off a popular swimming beach. A chance encounter with a team of scuba divers with the Chicago Maritime Society years later introduced me to the history-steeped world of shipwrecks. Suddenly I could not only view the world from a different perspective at the bottom of Lake Michigan, but I could be transported back in time to the ages of sail and steam on the Great Lakes. At 26-years old, I became hooked on shipwrecks. It is amazing to explore a shipwreck, even when the sinking event and a century underwater have reduced it to rubble. I found myself rooting amid jumbles of twisted metal and wood, searching for clues that might offer a vision of what these ships looked like when they sailed and what the passengers and crew might have experienced in the final moments before the ship plunged beneath the waves. The people who sailed these ships became very real to. My life since that first dive on the wreck, which I later learned was the George Morley, a steam-powered propeller that burned and sank on December 5, 1897, has been about telling the stories of the ships and their crews.
Oakland County Moms: Your books on Michigan shipwrecks are non-fiction and regional studies. They are great educational pieces. For what ages are they written? Do you have books that are applicable for different age groups?
Author Valerie van Heest: I have only written one book for kids: Icebound. The others are for adult audiences interested in shipwrecks and maritime history. They include in order of publishing: Buckets and Belts-Evolution of the Great Lake Self Unloader, Lost on the Lady Elgin, Unsolved Mysteries-the Shipwreck Thomas Hume, and my latest that will come out this year: Lost & Found-Legendary Lake Michigan Shipwrecks.
Oakland County Moms: Your book, ICEBOUND! THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG GEORGE SHELDON AND THE SS MICHIGAN, is a recipient of a 2008 Michigan State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. Can you tell us more about the story and the inspiration behind it?
Author Valerie van Heest: In 1885, the steamer Michigan, a regular passenger boat on Lake Michigan, was called out of winter storage to be used as an ice-breaker to free the trapped ship Oneida, which had been caught in a fierce winter storm. Before the Michigan could reach the Oneida to free it, another storm blew in trapping the Michigan as well. For 43 days it remained trapped, low on food and heating fuel. The youngest crewman, George Sheldon risked his life walking back to shore across the treacherous ice to gather supplies and share news from the steamer. Despite trying to ride out the winter and sail the ship safely home, the ice caved in the ships hull and it sank. Because of George Sheldon, all 30 crewmen made it to shore safely. He was an unsung hero in 1885 when this occurred and died just five years after the ordeal because off weakness associated with his time on the ice. Now, the book ICEBOUND gives him due credit as the hero and inspires kids to be responsible, dedicated and compassionate toward others.
ABOUT VALERIE VAN HEEST
Principal in Lafferty van Heest and Associates Exhibit Design Firm, Director of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates and a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, Valerie van Heest has explored, documented and interpreted shipwrecks for over twenty years. She is a recipient of multiple awards from the Historical Society of Michigan for the collection, preservation and promotion of state and local history through her interpretation, writing, filmmaking and exhibit work. She has written several books, magazine/journal articles and more than a dozen documentary films.. Her work has been featured in numerous books and articles as well. Valerie is a regular presenter at museums, libraries, and film festivals, sharing the dramatic stories of ships gone missing on the Great Lakes and has appeared on television news networks as well as on the Discovery Channel. Valerie spearheads MSRA’s search for ships lost off western Michigan, which has resulted in the discovery of many new shipwrecks.
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