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.