April 5, 2017 6:43 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The Great Lakes


Seen from above by one of NASA’s mapping satellites, the Great Lakes can be viewed covering a huge area that runs from New York State to the far reaches of Minnesota. The Great Lakes, from its western most point near Duluth, Minnesota, to the eastern most point at Kingston, Ontario, is over 1,100 miles in total. The total interconnected waterways of the Great Lakes is just over 94,000 square miles. In comparison, the largest fresh water lake in Europe is Lake Ladoga in Russia which has just 6,834 square miles and is 137 miles in total length. Even with these facts, the Great Lakes have always been taken for granted by most citizens of Canada and the United States.

The lakes began to form at the end of the last glacial period around 14,000 years ago, as retreating ice sheets exposed the basins they had carved into the land which then filled with the melting ice and snow. Though the five lakes reside in separate basins, they form a single naturally interconnected body of fresh water. Also formed at the same time were thousands of smaller lakes, which are often called “Inland Lakes”, within the basin.

When I was still in elementary school, many of us learned the names of the lakes with a simple name – –HOMES.  Huron – Ontario – Michigan – Erie – Superior.  But today, most schools do not even bother to teach such seemingly unimportant information to their students.

However, these five immense lakes, which lie at the heart of North America, constitute 20% of the world’s fresh water. In size, they cover an area the size of France and the United Kingdom combined.  They and their drainage basin are home to over 50 million people.

Most lakes in the world send ashore small waves or ripples under one foot in height.  Some will produce two foot or so waves in high wind situations.  The Great Lakes,however, have been known to produce waves of over twenty feet. The lakes have been known to simply swallow lake freighters of 400 feet long in a lake storm.  Records show that 8,000 ships and 30,000 lives have been lost on the Great Lakes. Our Lake Erie is the overall champion, having recorded nearly 2,100 shipwrecks.

Lake Freighter off Presque Isle

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous ship to be lost on the Great Lakes, was, in 1958, the largest man-made ship ever launched into fresh water. On November 9, 1975, it sailed out of Superior, Wisconsin with a full load of taconite pellets. The next day near Whitefish Point, Michigan, it was hit by 96-100 mph winds and 55 foot waves and sank with all hands.




During this Great Storm of 1913 that lasted five days and blew over all the Great Lakes, the following ships were lost on the lakes:

  1. Lake Huron – – 10
  2. Lake Michigan – – 3
  3. Lake Erie – – 1
  4. Lake Superior – – 5

That is nineteen total in just 5 days with over 248 lives lost.

British poet Rupert Brooke noted the following later in 1913:

“These monstrous lakes, which ape the oceans, are not proper to fresh water or salt. They have souls, and they are wicked ones.”

Our lakes are indeed unique in the world. They provide drinking water for over 40 million people. They contain over 260 species of fish. About 120 bands of Native Indians have occupied the Great Lakes basin over the course of history.  Over 10% of the U.S. population and 31% of the Canadian population live in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes make up 95% of the U.S. freshwater supply. Lake Huron, as strange as it may seem, was the first of the lakes to be discovered by the European explorers. (For explanation, see my book “A History of Presque Isle.”)

From Lake Superior eastward, the Great Lakes are like stairs leading down to the Saint Lawrence River which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Lake Superior is 601 feet above sea level, and via the St. Mary’s River, flows downhill to Lake Huron which is 577 feet above sea level.  The St. Clair and Detroit Rivers drain Lake Huron into Lake Erie which is 569 feet above sea level.

Niagara Falls

At this point the Niagara River and Niagara Falls combine to setup a huge level drop down to Lake Ontario which is just 244 feet above sea level. This stairway effect combines to 357 feet in drop from Superior to Ontario Lakes.

Before you ask, Lake Michigan is not included because it is the same level as Lake Huron and is actually the only lake that is 100% located within the United States.

Of all the Great Lakes, many travelers believe the Georgian Bay area of the eastern area of Lake Huron has garnered the boaters vote as the most scenic of all the Great Lakes.  Back in 1859, Paul Kane, author, may have described it best in his book Wanderings of an Artist.    “We reached Penetanguishene, where we obtained a fresh supply of provisions, after which we threaded a labyrinth of islands of every form and size, amounting, as is said, to upwards of 30,000; and both strangers to navigation, we continually lost ourselves in its picturesque mazes, enchanted with the beauty of the ever-varying scenery, as we glided along in our light canoe. We fished and hunted for 14 days, almost unconscious of the lapse of time agreeably spent.”

The most well-known weather effect of the Great Lakes is what is called lake effect snow. This snowfall is usually very localized. Even late into the winter, the lakes often have no ice pack in the middle.  The prevailing winds, usually from the west, pick up moisture from the open waters of the various lakes and as the warmer, now moist air passes over the colder land surface, this moisture often produces heavy snowfall.  During freezing weather, especially when accompanied with high winds, the “snow belts”, usually along the southern or eastern shores of the lake, begin to receive this localized heavy snowfall.

In the next blog, The Great Lakes – Part II, I will focus on our hometown lake, Lake Erie and in the following blog, The Great Lakes – Part III, I will focus on present and future perils on the Great Lakes. Until then:


See you on the park!!








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