Clean Waters, Great Lakes, Nature, Ontario, United States

At home in the HOMES. Thinking about The Great Lakes


As anyone who reads this column knows, I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

There’s eleven of these “fingers,” not ten, which is perfect, because it’s a region know for oddities.

Abolitionists, Suffragettes, Spiritualists, Actors, Chicken Nuggets, Traffic Lights, The Curve Ball, Lacrosse, possibly Rickshaws, all sorts of odd things have flowed out of here.  But it’s the waterways that largely define the area.  Growing up there, I enjoyed exploring this lake district, and learning bits & bobs of history about every little town, creek, and lake.  Obscure historic sites and house museums are common, and every other boulder seems to have a brass plaque stuck on it.  The Erie Canal also comes through our area, with its own history, and was a big deal in school, and even had songs written about it.


1848 map of lighthouses, Library of Congress.


The five Great Lakes, on the other hand, were mostly terra incognita to me. (I put that in just to bug Steve S., I guess it should be mare incognitum, or “unknown seas.”)

Basically, until very recently, I knew almost nothing about them.  But now I’m living in Wisconsin, close to the western shore of Lake Michigan, and quickly realized there’s a ton of interesting stuff to learn.

My vast experience of sailing on the Great Lakes…is limited to a single ferryboat ride from Toronto to Rochester when I was a kid. That experience, on the fast, massive “Spirit of Ontario” (a 284’ catamaran that could hit 45 knots) was exhilarating, and as a kid, I enjoyed visiting lighthouses, and skipping stones on the shore, but until I moved to Milwaukee, I otherwise thought little about the Great Lakes.

Well, the Lakes are amazing. Collectively, they represent the single biggest body of freshwater on the planet.  And nobody seems to pay much attention to them. Few people realize they’re one key to America’s global economic power. The lakes are under-appreciated and overlooked. Millions of people live on their shores, from Rochester and Buffalo to Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, and all the smaller towns and villages in between. On the Canadian side sit Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, plus the many towns and cities like Montreal and Quebec, along the St Lawrence River, that flows out of the lakes.


Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings / In the rooms of her ice-water mansion /  Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams /  The islands and bays are for sportsmen /  And farther below, Lake Ontario Takes in what Lake Erie can send her…  (Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“) Superior feeds Michigan and Huron, Huron feeds Erie, which feeds Ontario, via Niagara Falls. Then on to the Atlantic, via the St. Lawrence.


The Great Lakes flow and churn, serving millions of people, carrying millions of tons of cargo, and billions in trade dollars.  Despite the “rust belt” image, a fifth of U.S. manufacturing, and half of Canada’s, is still done around the lakes.  So why don’t we ever hear or learn more about them?



As a kid, when I thought of Great Lakes, I thought of the color gray. Gray, often frigid water, and I thought “boring”.

But how could lakes that hosted pirates, smugglers, Fenian raiders, fur traders, bloody naval battles, and countless shipwrecks possibly seem boring? As an Upstate New Yorker, living an hour’s drive from Ontario, and less than two from Erie, I’m surprised by how little we were taught about them growing up.  Those of us who live near them, take them for granted, even while those in arid places, look on enviously, hoping to share in that liquid gold.  As the world gets hotter, and huge swathes of it, drier and drier, interest in all that water will continue to grow.

Six quadrillion gallons.  One out of every five glasses of fresh water on the planet.  And yet, during the entire year I worked in a Milwaukee public school, I recall Lake Michigan being mentioned…once.


I took this picture when I was in grade school. It’s Kingston, the town in Canada where Lake Ontario ends, and the St. Lawrence River begins.


But now, after my travels abroad and at home, they suddenly seem… appealing, and fascinating.

They’re all connected, and navigable.  You can sail from Duluth, Minnesota, over a thousand miles to Kingston, Ontario – – and then into the St. Lawrence, and on to the ocean.


Another snapshot from grade school: A retired Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker/buoy tender CCGS Alexander Henry.

Not one week goes by without me wishing to walk out of my office, continue to the shores of the lake, to hop aboard a coal barge or iron ore freighter and sail away.  Stop by Chicago for the weekend, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, right on the water in Cleveland, hop off in Buffalo to see Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, then Toronto for a ballgame.  The Rideau Canal will take you inland to Ottawa, but the ship in my fantasy is too big to fit through the locks.  .

If I timed it right, I could board one of the European-flagged ships, cruise through the lakes, then up the St Lawrence Seaway, hang a right at Gaspé, and before you know it, I’d be cruising the Atlantic, bound for Hamburg, Rotterdam, or even the Baltic. Today, as a lot of American grain is going to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, perhaps I could stay onboard ‘til I arrived at Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore or Lagos.  The only limitation on this fantasy, is that, as I discovered on my way to the Galápagos, I’m very inclined to seasickness.


Hattie Hutt, 1873 lake schooner. LOC

Ok, so while I’m no sailor, I sure love looking at ships and boats, and thinking about them. One of my odder fascinations is with “container ports.” I guess it’s a bit like train-spotting – it doesn’t really get you anything or anywhere. Nor can I win money during trivia night at a pub; nobody asks questions about those sort of things. But it doesn’t matter. I find that I am transfixed by them. From the giants of global trade like Singapore or Hong Kong, to the lesser ones like Albany, Wilmington, DE, and the Port of Milwaukee, I find that I can stand there watching ships churn past the grey waters for an unusually long time. I have pored over many articles online about them.


Leif Eriksson Discovers Milwaukee”   OK, just kidding, but when I arrived here, one of the first things I ran across, was a statue of him.  It’s never been proven, but it’s not 100% impossible that the Vikings explored the lakes.   The painting is actually “Leif Eriksson Sights Land in America” – – the Norwegian artist Christian Krohg painted this for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Kind of a dig at Columbus.  A copy hangs in the U.S. Capitol.


Recently, in an effort to make Milwaukee my true home, I’ve started joining various groups to meet people. On one occasion, I met a guy who works part-time in the US and part-time in Sweden. He described himself as a “waterways scientist” and didn’t elaborate, but shared a stream of anecdotes and facts about human impact on the lakes. The lakes have always drained into the Atlantic. But the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway, to allow ocean-going ships to sail into the interior of the U.S., allowed salt water to flow into the Great Lakes. Even distant Lake Michigan was impacted, and the local salmon population was harmed. A decade or so later, with the lake system polluted and full of chemicals, a hare-brained scheme was devised to introduce a type of mussel into the lakes, to clean them. The mussels would also serve as a source of food for the salmon.  It was very interesting, but a lot to absorb, and as the scientist continued on, with his tales of unintended consequences, I lost track of what happened to the mussels, but began to appreciate the complexity of the lakes’ ecosystem. We stave off, or invite in, invasive species. The lakes give life (drinking water), and also have spread disease and pollution.  After centuries of reliance on fish as a valuable food, we then hold the sturgeon to be so valueless, they were hauled up en masse,  dried, and used for steamboat fuel, and almost made extinct.  The lakes and their tributaries produce electricity to power industries and cities, then flood and destroy entire neighborhoods.


“Grain Elevator” (1955) Joseph Plavcan (Erie Art Museum)

Much as people-watching at an airport allows us to guess at the stories of those rushing by, ship-watching allows us to wonder about what cog of the global trading machinery we’re witnessing. Did that ship sail from some port in Russia? Where did it go, between here and there, and why is it here? What’s its cargo? Where are the sailors from? I read that 1/3 of all sailors are Filipino, so what do they think when they visit the U.S. or Canada? They leave the steaming tropics, for months or years, facing shipwrecks, geo-political logjams, Somali/Nigerian/Malaccan pirates, and typhoons, hurricanes, and potentially ice bergs. Sea-sickness, sketchy port cities, dangerous cargo, tedium, daily bowls of borscht, on the Russian ships, you name it, they have to face all that.

I don’t know why these lakes are unknown to most people, even those of us who live on them.  I’m ready to dive into a new project.  Well, once things melt a bit.  This is a fascinating region, the lakes and their stories are fascinating, and now I’m hooked, and want to learn more. These waterways will never seem gray to me again.


Lake Ontario



61 thoughts on “At home in the HOMES. Thinking about The Great Lakes

  1. George says:

    Wonderfully engaging writing. I love the journeys you travel in your head. Beautifully atmospheric photographs and some very thought-provoking ruminations.

    I flew over the Great Lakes from Newark to Ann Arbor once in a tiny little plane. I was knocked out by just how vast they are.

  2. “Much as people-watching at an airport allows us to guess at the stories of those rushing by….” You’ve reminded me of a time at the old Austin airport when I noticed a woman carrying a bouquet walking back toward the terminal from one of the gates. She was crying, and I assumed that whoever she was expecting hadn’t been on the plane she’d gone to meet. Of course other explanations are possible. Maybe she was crying out of gratitude that someone had met her and given her a bouquet, though as I recall, she was alone. In retrospect, I wish I’d gone up to her and asked.

    • I think we all remember incidents and scenes with people unknown to us, where we wish we’d stopped and talked to them. And now I think people are even more reluctant to interact with strangers. I found that even in Boston and Philly, where locals are more reserved than NY, if I asked a question or directions, most of the time people would warm right up pretty quickly and start talking to you. (But a crying person with a bouquet, you might hesitate and feel intrusive?)

  3. Your comment about terra incognita doesn’t bug me at all, though I’ll admit to being rather beetle-browed. The difference in grammatical gender between Latin terra and mare had me remembering that my father used to repeat a witticism (whether one he invented or had picked up from someone else, I don’t know) about the traditional generic use in English of man: he would speak of “man, which embraces woman.” If he made a joke like that today he’d run the risk of being hounded out of his job by the word police.

    Speaking of words, the expression “bits and bobs” is new to me. I see it’s in several dictionaries. Do you recall where you encountered it?

    • Not 100% sure, either from a prof, or during a semester at the U of Hull, in England. I didn’t pick up too many Anglicisms, because mostly I couldn’t understand a word the locals said.

    • “bits and bobs” is a term I’d use sometimes, here in NZ. Pretty sure my mother used the term and I picked it up from her (she was born in NZ).

      • Thank you, you’re right, that is interesting. I love British slang, they always have fun expressions. Sometimes they don’t click right away in the U.S. – – like calling a waterproof jacket an “anorak,” and then using that term for obsessive hobbyists, like trainspotters.
        I like the way Google includes a little chart tracking a word’s popularity – when I looked up “palpitation,” it looks like that word peaked around 1870, and then has steadily declined. I noticed Thoreau, Emerson, etc. all used it, but now it almost has an antique, slightly comic sound to it, when it’s not used as a medical term.

      • I didn’t seen that article but I had thought about the noun thingumabob, the last part of which appears to be the same bob. I see now from Merriam Webster that the earliest attestation for thingumabob is 1751.

  4. melissabluefineart says:

    I’m glad you are beginning to form an attachment to our beautiful lakes. I love Lake Michigan so much it is hard to leave, even if that means enduring, um, Illinois. We’re very protective of our Lake, and there is an international treaty (or something legal like that) to protect the waters from being siphoned off. Of course, that immediately invites people, industries (FoxxCom) states and countries to try. The human race is facing a real challenge in the coming decades. Will we find it in our hearts to peacefully share our resources, or will we go to war? And, will the water be used wisely, or simply slurped up the way farmers in the west have drained the aquifers like there is no tomorrow?

    I think you’d enjoy a day at the Aquarium in Chicago. They are doing some great work in restoring the Lake to health and studying the different facets of it.

    • Thank you, Melissa, I’m really liking Milwaukee, despite the recent deep freeze. Yeah, I’ve seen some articles about turning back attempts to fill tankers with water for the Mideast, or even Asia, or to tap them for irrigation/industrial. It seems pretty inescapable that people will keep coveting all that water. I want to learn more about it, but wondered if, as the ocean levels rise, St. Lawrence estuary will push farther upstream, and more salt will enter the lakes?
      Yeah, I have to check out the groups working for clean waters. Milwaukee has made a nice greenbelt along the river, and I’ve seen deer this winter, across the street from my bus stop!

      • melissabluefineart says:

        Wow, that’s cool! I love it when cities invite nature back in. A few years back Chicago started a dune restoration along the shore.
        You’re probably right that salt water will come up further into the Lakes. That is a bad thought. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Egan, is a good book.

  5. I like your passionate report on the Great Lakes and your lament over the lack of knowledge about them in the general public. It seems to me that in an age of online information it is deemed no longer important to have local geography taught in school. I still remember from my own school days that geography always started with the area in which we lived and then expanded to include the surrounding areas, until in the upper grades we learned about the countries in the rest of the world. That gave us a focus on our own home turf. Now the focus is on the entire globe and we neglect the love and passion for the land we live in. This was a great post, Robert! I like the photo at the very top with the person hardly visible in view of a grandiose seascape.

    • Thank you very much for this great comment, Peter! I feel lucky, because I had some great teachers who thought geography was important, and relatives who travel and got us interested in places all around the world. But somehow these lakes were generally dismissed as no longer relevant, and sometimes there’s a persistent perception that the surrounding communities are nothing but an embarrassing rust belt. There’s obviously a lot of progress still to be made, but I’ve found Milwaukee to be a pretty exciting place to be.

    • Thanks so much, Anne. I visited Toronto sev’l times with my folks, when I was in school, and really loved it. The science center was a blast, and I remember going up the tower and walking on the glass floor. We watched them open up the roof of the ballpark , but didn’t get to the game that trip – but we saw “Phantom” in the Pantages Theatre (I was probably the youngest person there) and that was amazing, too. I’m ready to go back to Toronto whenever I get the chance!! 🙂

      • Funny you should mention seeing Phantom. Our son went to see Phantom when he was four. On the way in he said he didn’t want to see it and then sat up on the edge of his seat for the whole thing. Hope you will get to see a game in Toronto !

  6. Having been born and raised through partway through the seventh grade in the Finger Lakes area just an hour south of Lake Ontario, it’s amazing how little I was taught about the Great Lakes in school in Geneva, and then nothing at all in California. I do know that ecologically these lakes have been through hell. I do recall that my overall impression of Lake Ontario back then – the early 1960s – was that it was dirty. I might I much preferred our nice clean at Seneca lake – which actually was rather dirty itself at the time. I seem to recall that later in the 60s – about 1965 or so – the counties surrounding Seneca lake decided to cooperatively clean it up and did so. That made me proud. But I realize that the Great Lakes are a system and have to be viewed as such. A far more complex job. I look forward to more of your excellent writing about the Great Lakes.

    • Thanks so much, Michael, for this comment. The algae blooms are getting to be a little scary, and I was glad to see some “Lake Friendly Farm” signs along Rte 14, the last time I was home, next to the “Right to Farm” signs. It can be confusing, reading about the effects of zebra and quagga mussels, which I guess do some cleaning functions, but through everything out of whack, etc. I walked along the Keuka Outlet one day, and it was bright yellow – – the DEC was treating it for lampreys (a DEC rep told us, the treatment somehow doesn’t hurt the perch or trout). And it seems an endless see-saw of cause-and-effect, tough to put things right, once they’re out of balance.
      Thank you again, I appreciate hearing your comments!

  7. One of the things that always fascinated me from afar regarding the Lakes was that they are connected. I was to young to have much recollection, but as a child I visited my father’s brother’s family in Erie, PA. So I have been to one, in a way I guess as I doubt we actually hit the shore, but in terms of a life’s experience not.

    • No kidding! I’ve read that geography has made something of a comeback in this country, integrated with economics and environmental studies, after skipping a generation. But you run into a lot of people that can’t point out a single country in Africa, for example. And now some smaller colleges are talking about dropping their history majors, due to declining interest.

      • It is generally said, and joked about, over here that Americans are particularly bad at geography. Obviously, I have no idea whether this is true or not, although you have had at least a couple of presidents who appear to have a great deal of trouble with the concept. Do you think that unfair?

        • Nope, often true. People can rattle off hundreds of street names and route numbers, but couldn’t name a single waterway they pass over. And Asia and Africa are often big blanks

  8. How lucky is it to be someplace like the Great Lakes which are your portal to the homeland and everywhere else you’ve ever been (or maybe will end up regardless whether it’s thirty or nine hundred miles this or that way) in the wide world? You never knew Milwaukee is the center of the universe, did you? Love that 1848 map of the lighthouses a small, wrinkled facsimile of which graces the cluttered wall above my desk along with a collection of papers and reminders of baseball practices and forgotten appointments. Anywhere along Lake Superior is a favorite place and Robert if you really do like ships and stuff maybe you haven’t lived the Great Lakes until you’ve stood along the Duluth Ship Canal. Holy cow last summer my jaw about hit the ground when the big red freighter from Majuro floated a few feet away and it was high as a couple Redwoods and the crew up there started waving with childlike excitement they were thrilled as the crowd milling below. Maybe you’ll get out for a walk along the lake this weekend for some fieldwork and observation or if it’s too cold you can hit the stacks in the library and build the bibliography a little. In honor of this essay I’m gonna listen to Rainy Day People and it’s not that I’m feeling blue or anything but that song always cheered me 100% with its mawkishness, always been a big Gordon Lightfoot fan. Take care of yourself and keep writing.

    • Thank you, Jason. Currently without a vehicle, my car suddenly developed a magnetic attraction to a lightpole one icy night, but they didn’t get along. But I’ll get up to Green Bay, Duluth, etc. at some time, and I’ve been visiting Chicago this winter.
      I’m a Lightfoot fan, too, And how the heck did I not work a song by Great Lakes Swimmers into this story? “Merge, a Vessel, a Harbour” just for the title

  9. There you go again, with your beautiful photographs and curious musings. Having lived in NY a lot, I did know a little about the Great Lakes, but I gotta say, not enough. 🙂 I had a view of NY harbor that you’d love when I lived in a 5th fl. walk-up on Staten Island. You could read the names of ships with binocs, and then look them up online and find out where they were going. We had favorite ships. favorite tug companies….well, I look forward to hearing about what you’ll find when things thaw out enough to get up close. 🙂

    • Thank you, Lynn, you’re always kind about my snapshots and digressions, and glad to read your comments.
      I’ve been looking at a blog called “Tugster” by Will Van Dorp, a professional mariner – in the NY harbor, Great Lakes, and he takes an interest in the canals, too. He’s originally from a town on the Erie Canal, very close to my hometown. He photographs all kinds of ships & boats, not just tugs.
      This summer there’s going to be tall ships on the Great Lakes, stopping at Green Bay and Kenosha, but not Milwaukee. I haven’t planned my summer at all, but if I’m in NYS, the ships will come by Buffalo, and then Brockville, Ont. so who knows.
      Your apt overlooking NY harbor sounds great! I’m very close to the Milwaukee River, but miles from the port, but maybe I can find a place in a year or two that overlooks the harbor area. It would be nice to have binoculars or a telescope on a stand by the window, like in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

      • 🙂 I know Tugster! I used to follow that blog pretty closely when I lived in NYC. I just took a look – haven’t seen it for a while – and there’s a McAllister tug, one of the companies I used to see all the time, chugging back and forth through the Kill van Kull. Cool. Tall ships are definitely fun to see….there are a few that ply the waters out here and hang out around Seattle every summer for a bit.
        They stage fake skirmishes (That’s got to be the wrong word!) with their cannons. Really fun to watch.
        Any tall ship is well worth a detour, as they say.
        And TOTALLY worth an extra few dollars to live with a view of a port. Endless entertainment!

  10. There’s nothing like the thrill of discovery — as you’re rediscovering! I’m looking forward to learning more about the lakes through your explorations. We learned the names of all the lakes when I was in grade school, and some of the history attached to them, but they’ve always been a bit of a blank in my mind. There was that old joke that popped up from time to time — “It’s a good lake, but it’s not a great lake!” — but that was about it.

    When family vacations were a thing, we did visit the iron mines in Hibbing, Minnesota, and then went on to Duluth, so Lake Superior was the first I actually saw. Otherwise? It wasn’t until I took up sailing and met people who made pilgrimage every year to Chicago for the Race to Mackinac that I paid attention to Lake Michigan. The “Mac,” as it’s called, starts in Chicago, crosses Lake Michigan, and just enters Lake Huron at Mackinac Island. It’s quite something, and there’s all sorts of information about it — the first race, in 1898, had just five boats entered. This may amuse you:

    “Racers who compete in 25 Mackinac races are invited to join the exclusive “Island Goats Sailing Society.” Originally named for their appearance, aroma, and behavior upon reaching Mackinac Island, these salty veterans represent an elite chapter in the heritage of the Race to Mackinac. The Island Goats Sailing Society was established by Hobart “Red” Olson in 1959, and 2009 marked the 50th anniversary for the IGSS. Island goats have raced at least 8,325 miles from Chicago to Mackinac Island.”

    All of this brought the song about the Erie Canal to mind. Why it was popular in Iowa when I was a kid, I don’t know, but we sang it all the time. I still have some stamps from my dad’s collection, and I just dug through them — sure enough, I have a block of 1967 five-cent stamps issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canal. We learned a lot of history from stamps back then. That’s an interesting thought all on its own.

    I’m going on too long, but there’s this, too: where I happen to be working right now is right next to the Port of Houston Container Terminal. Ships come and go, loading and unloading, and those huge, giraffe-like gizmos creak and moan, and it’s just part of the scenery. Maybe I ought to take a photo some day.

    Don’t forget the various cams that are available. We don’t have to go to Duluth to watch the action any more! Here’s the info from the Duluth Harbor Cam page:

    “From atop the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth, these cameras provide one of the most intimate views of Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and Shipping Canal. Watch ships from around the world arrive and depart the Twin Ports as they traverse the cold waters of Lake Superior. The cameras are owned and operated by the Corps of Engineers’ Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center with funding from the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association.”

    I’m watching the Canal cam right now. There’s a lot of snow up there!

    • Thank you for all the interesting info! I never knew there was an Erie Canal stamp. My sister is the philatelist (another word that I always have to look up. I guess she’s also kind of a philologist, so maybe I’ll just start calling her “Phil.”) You can learn some interesting history from stamps, and it seems like an interesting challenge, to create an effective graphic in such a tiny size. Kind of like haiku.
      Your racing goats quote made me laugh, “appearance, aroma, and behavior” that’s great! 🙂 I definitely need to visit that island, sounds really nice, and tons of history. When I just looked it up, it mentioned the Seneca (the largest of the Iroquois tribes) attacked there, I think during the Beaver Wars, probably traveling over 500 miles by water, lots of paddling and portages, and no sailboats.
      That’s cool that you’re working near the port, it must be a pretty busy place, I know it’s on the top ten list for the U.S.

  11. Growing up in Minnesota we’d learn a bit about Lake Superior, and we’d talk about going up to see the north shore, but the other lakes barely made honorable mention. Now in Oregon, we don’t hear about them at all, except maybe for those troublesome mussels. Boat owners are used to having rangers check out their bottoms (boat bottoms that is) for the mussels, in an attempt to prevent them from infesting here too.

    Looks like even as a wee lad you knew about rule of thirds…

    • Thanks, Dave. I was a history major, and when you read colonial-era stuff, you get pretty quickly, that back then, waterways defined people’s worlds, in a lot of ways – – the James in Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, Hudson Valley, etc. I still hear in Pennsylvania, people describing where they live that way, “We’ve lived in the Lehigh Valley for a long time…” etc. But now they’re referenced just for floods, issues with fishing, etc.
      I transferred those old photos from a backup hard drive, and cropped ’em, but a bit grainy. It was a little pocket-size Olympus, not a bad camera

  12. Great read! I grew up just north of Chicago and now I’m just a bit farther north… Almost Wisconsin, a favorite state of mine. I would highly suggest visiting Door County, WI. There’s great geology (hiking) and kayaking where there are some small caves to see.

  13. this is a wonderful post and beautiful ode to the lakes i so love. thank you for reading and following my blog, robert and i look forward to doing the same and reading much more from you. best beth

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