The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas

The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas

by Jerry Dennis

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Overview

The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis

Award-winning nature author Jerry Dennis reveals the splendor and beauty of North America’s Great Lakes in this “masterwork”* history and memoir of the essential environmental and economical region shared by the United States and Canada.

No bodies of water compare to the Great Lakes. Superior is the largest lake on earth, and together all five contain a fifth of the world’s supply of standing fresh water. Their ten thousand miles of shoreline border eight states and a Canadian province and are longer than the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Their surface area of 95,000 square miles is greater than New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined. People who have never visited them—who have never seen a squall roar across Superior or the horizon stretch unbroken across Michigan or Huron—have no idea how big they are. They are so vast that they dominate much of the geography, climate, and history of North America, affecting the lives of tens of millions of people.

The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas is the definitive book about the history, nature, and science of these remarkable lakes at the heart of North America. From the geological forces that formed them and the industrial atrocities that nearly destroyed them, to the greatest environmental success stories of our time, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario are portrayed in all their complexity.

A Michigan native, Jerry Dennis also shares his memories of a lifetime on or near the lakes, including a six-week voyage as a crewmember on a tallmasted schooner. On his travels, he collected more stories of the lakes through the eyes of biologists, fishermen, sailors, and others he befriended while hiking the area’s beaches and islands.

Through storms and fog, on remote shores and city waterfronts, Dennis explores the five Great Lakes in all seasons and moods and discovers that they and their connecting waters—including the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and the East Coast from New York to Maine—offer a surprising and bountiful view of America. The result is a meditation on nature and our place in the world, a discussion and cautionary tale about the future of water resources, and a celebration of a place that is both fragile and robust, diverse, rich in history and wildlife, often misunderstood, and worthy of our attention.

“This is history at its best and adventure richly described.”—*Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors and 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers

Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Winner
Winner of Best Book of 2003 by the Outdoor Writers Association of America

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312331030
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 129,160
Product dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Jerry Dennis writes about nature and the outdoors for such publications as Sports Afield, Gray's Sporting Journal, and The New York Times. His previous books have been widely praised and have been translated into five languages. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

The Living Great Lakes

Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas


By Jerry Dennis

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Jerry Dennis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8202-7



CHAPTER 1

LAKE MICHIGAN


Size Matters • A Child's View of Lake Michigan • What Tocqueville Missed • The Beach at Good Harbor • A View of Superior


To appreciate the magnitude of the Great Lakes you must get close to them. Launch a boat on their waters or hike their beaches or climb the dunes, bluffs, and rocky promontories that surround them and you will see, as people have seen since the age of glaciers, that these lakes are pretty damned big. It's no wonder they're sometimes upgraded to "Inland Seas" and "Sweetwater Seas." Calling them lakes is like calling the Rockies hills. Nobody pretends they compare to the Atlantic or Pacific, but even the saltiest saltwater mariners have been surprised to discover that the lakes contain a portion of ocean fury.

The first time I saw Lake Michigan, I thought it must be an ocean. I was five years old, and my family had just moved to the Leelanau Peninsula, the little finger of Michigan's mitten, and rented a hilltop house with a view of the lake. In the living room, centered before the picture window, was a brass telescope mounted on a pedestal, where I would stand on a chair at night and peer at ships on the horizon, each lit as brightly as a small city. My father told me that they were ships five-hundred to a thousand-feet long, with cargo holds that could carry a hundred trainloads of wheat or iron ore. If they were headed south, they were probably bound for Chicago; if north, for Detroit, New York, London, Hong Kong. I would stand in our house and watch those large, bright, slowly passing vessels and sense connection with the world.

It was a magical place to live. Our yard ran in a long slope down to the lilypads of South Bar Lake, with Lake Michigan a stone's throw beyond. At the big lake was a beach empty of people most days and a playground of sandblasted swings and teeter-totters set precariously a few feet above storm waves. My memories of that summer are filled with painted turtles and watersnakes, with excursions down the beach in search of treasures, with ominous dark thunderstorms passing over the lake, lightning flashing in the distance. My mother had grown up a few miles down the shore in Glen Arbor, and my father's parents owned a cherry farm and sugarbush a few miles inland, so for them it was a homecoming. For me it was a revelation.

I remember standing in the sand, feeling very small. Gulls kited stationary above me, then banked their wings against the wind and soared away. The wind was cool and fresh and smelled like rain. A wave curled and broke; water rushed up on the sand, spread thin, and sank. The shore stretched for as far as I could see, from the haze-obscured curve of Platte Bay to the massive yellow flank of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The lake was too vast for comprehension. It was nothing but water to the edge of the earth. I thought sharks swam out there, and pirate ships sailed, and on its far shores lived people who spoke strange languages. I assumed the water was salty.

That summer my mother led my brother and me up a trail to the summit of the Empire Bluffs, a mountain of sand shoved up thousands of years ago by glaciers. It was grown over with stunted trees and dune grasses and capped with the long-dead trunks of ancient cedars bleached pale by time and weather. The view from the top was stunning. Down the shore was a strip of yellow beach between the lake and the bunched-up hills of forest, with the dunes looming beyond.

The bluff beneath us was so steep it was disorienting. I threw a stone thinking it would soar to the lake, but it struck sand a ridiculously short distance below me. I looked down at the water near shore and saw three black fish as big as logs patrolling in the shallows. Sturgeon, I now realize — the largest inhabitants of the Great Lakes and rarely encountered, though a century ago they were so abundant that farmers around the lakes pitch-forked them during their spawning runs and used them for fertilizer. The image of the gigantic fish had mythic weight. For years I wondered if I had dreamed it.

Now, forty years later, the Empire Bluffs are sheltered within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and are visited more frequently than when I was a child. Not much else has changed. The Bluffs are still topped with a ghost forest of cedars, lake and sky merge seamlessly at the horizon, Sleeping Bear Dunes tip to the water like a large golden pyramid. No sturgeon swam into view the last time I visited, but I expected none — not many remain in the lake. Down the shore, the beach in Empire was crowded with people, but I expected that also. As I looked over the water, a British tourist in shorts and hiking boots climbed huffing behind me and asked in a Piccadilly lilt, "Can one see Wisconsin?"

No, sorry, one cannot. Not even with the strongest telescope. Cross Lake Michigan by boat — cross any of the Great Lakes — and most of the way there's nothing to see but water and sky. Here if you head west the crossing is roughly sixty miles of open lake to Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, with Green Bay beyond it. Green Bay, incidentally, is where the French trader Jean Nicolet, who was probably the first European to enter Lake Michigan, went ashore in a canoe in 1634 firing pistols in the air and wearing a silk robe embroidered with flowers and birds. He thought he had reached China. When no representatives of the Khan showed up to welcome him, he marched into a nearby Winnebago village and repeated his performance, no doubt providing much entertainment for the locals.

Those of us who live near the lakes take their great size for granted. We also take for granted that travel in the region is made inconvenient by water, and that in winter we're likely to be buried in "lake-effect" snow when cold, dry, Arctic winds pick up moisture and heat as they pass over the lakes, conjuring ten, twenty, and in a few places as much as thirty feet of snow a year along our coastal snowbelts. We learn in elementary school that the acronym HOMES is a handy way to remember the names of the lakes. We're taught that their surface area of 94,676 square miles is roughly the size of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined (and is slightly larger than England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland); that the shorelines of the five lakes extend for more than 10,000 miles, about equal to the combined Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States; and that Michigan alone is bounded by 3,200 miles of coastline — only Alaska has more.

Give us an opportunity and we'll remind you that the lakes contain nearly a fifth of the freshwater on the surface of the planet; that if it were possible to pour all the water from all the ponds, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs in the United States into a hundred gigantic buckets, ninety-five of them would be filled by the Great Lakes; that if you distributed the water from those ninety-five buckets evenly across the land, it would cover the lower forty-eight states in a lake ten feet deep.

We can be fiercely protective, as politicians have learned, sometimes to their dismay. When Texas congressman Dick Armey came to Michigan a few years ago to endorse a local Republican candidate for Congress, he looked at Lake Michigan and said he knew a few ranchers back home who'd like to poke a siphon in that. Cribbing clumsily from Mark Twain, he said, "I'm from Texas and down there we understand that the whiskey is for drinking and the water is for fighting over." His point was that if we were to give up local control, Washington bureaucrats would be sure to take charge of the water. "If we get it in Washington," Armey said, speaking for thirsty Texans, "we're not going to be buying it. We'll be stealing it. You are going to have to protect your Great Lakes." By "protect" he meant, of course, defend our right to profit from it. But Great Lakes water is not Texas crude, and it's not for sale. His candidate lost.

* * *

The lakes extend 575 miles from the north shore of Lake Superior to the south shore of Lake Erie, a spread of eight degrees in latitude. From west to east they stretch nearly eight hundred miles. Their drainage basin encompasses 200,000 square miles, an area almost as big as France. In that basin live thirty-four million people, each of them affected in ways large and small by the lakes.

Anywhere you go in the region, the vernacular designates the nearest Great Lake as "the Big Lake." Each Big Lake is different, with its own character and characteristics, but the same water flows through them and they share many qualities. All five shape the land and alter the weather and define the journeys of those who live nearby.

Circumnavigation is an ambitious undertaking. From where I live, in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, I can fly in a commuter plane across Lake Michigan and be in Milwaukee in less than an hour. Or, if it's May through October, I can book passage on a car ferry, the SS Badger, and cross from Ludington to Manitowoc in four hours. If I choose to drive to Milwaukee, I can go south around the bottom of the lake, through Chicago, then up the coast of Wisconsin; or go north around the top of the lake and down Wisconsin. Either way, the trip is four hundred miles. That's half the distance around just one lake, and not the largest.

Drive U.S. highways from the eastern end of Lake Ontario to the western end of Lake Superior and you pass through upstate New York, a corner of Pennsylvania, most of the length of Ohio, sections of Indiana and Illinois, a good share of Wisconsin, and the slanted northeast border of Minnesota; take the shortcut through Michigan and you have to drive the length of both peninsulas. Returning by the northern route, it's all Ontario. From north to south and west to east you pass through distinct ecological zones, from boreal forests to hardwood forests to till plains to clay plains to corn-belt plains to lake plains — forests in the north, farms and industry in the south, with abandoned cutovers and vestigial prairies and abundant wetlands throughout.

Alexis de Tocqueville sailed on the Great Lakes in 1831, when he was twenty-six years old, during the tour of the United States that inspired his book, Democracy in America. While aboard the steamboat Ohio, bound for Detroit along the south shore of Lake Erie, he wrote in a letter: "This lake without sails, this shore which does not yet show any trace of the passage of man, this eternal forest which borders it; all that, I assure you, is not grand in poetry only; it's the most extraordinary spectacle that I have seen in my life."

Young Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave Beaumont, crossed Erie to Detroit, coasted the west shore of Lake Huron and steamed up the St. Mary's River to the village of Sault Ste. Marie, where they glimpsed Superior ("This lake much resembles all the others," wrote Beaumont, but he was mistaken), then returned to Huron, passed through the Straits of Mackinac, and crossed Lake Michigan to Green Bay. They witnessed wonders, but they missed more than they saw. They did not see Lake Ontario, with its wooded shores and cobblestone beaches, the clay faces of the Scarborough Bluffs, the thousand islands at the lake's outlet to the St. Lawrence. They missed Lake Huron's Bruce Peninsula, with its limestone cliffs tumbling to the water, and enormous Georgian Bay and its thousands of clustered islands, its fjords, and its water-sculpted escarpments. They missed the sand mountains along the east shore of Lake Michigan, and the young city of Chicago, which in 1831 was on the verge of booming. Especially they missed Superior. They never saw the mountain range called the Sleeping Giant, its peaks a clear profile of feet, knees, belly, chest, and face. They missed the mineral-stained Pictured Rocks, storm-battered and brilliant with colors; the wild and lofty Palisade Head Cliffs; the pine-covered Porcupine Mountains, which though only two thousand feet above sea level were once as high as the Rockies. They missed most of the wildlife — the Atlantic salmon that ran up Lake Ontario's rivers to spawn, the whitefish and lake trout and sturgeon in all the lakes, the deer and moose, the bear and wolf, the flocks of passenger pigeons that migrated in numbers so vast they blackened the sky for days as they passed, yet would be gone forever by the end of the century. And they missed the changes of the seasons — never saw maples turn scarlet in October or trilliums fill the woods with blossoms in May, did not witness snow squalls racing across the lakes or surf exploding against mountains of ice along shore.

* * *

Though I've lived near the Great Lakes most of my life, there came a day a few years ago when I realized how little I knew of them. To get better acquainted, I drove around each of their shores. Eventually I drove around them again. I explored beaches and shoreline villages and city lakefronts. I met passionate people who showed me the places they loved and were fighting to protect. I filled boxes with brochures, pamphlets, reports, books. I took notes and photographs. In the end I got to know some of the people, cities, and roads — but not the lakes.

For a month and a half I stayed alone in a house on the north shore of Lake Michigan. Mornings I worked at a desk in front of a sliding-glass door with a view of North Manitou Island, low and darkly wooded, and beyond it the horizon of the open lake blurring with the sky. Afternoons I walked the beach. It was February and March of an unusually warm winter, and I had the shore to myself. I would follow a trail from the house to the foredunes, walking through snow in February, then, in March, after the snow melted, on sand. Pausing at the bluff, I would look up and down the length of the bay. A few miles to the north was Whaleback, a wooded promontory in outline shaped like a giant sperm whale — Moby-Dick beached and grown over with forest, his blunt head yearning lakeward, his fluke raised behind. To the south, beyond the long swerve of the bay, was Pyramid Point, a raw sandy dune topped with forest. From a distance the Point looks like someone once tipped a knife at an angle and carved it smooth.

Every afternoon I walked along the same stretch of uninhabited beach and watched the ways it changed. I became interested in the relationship between sand and wind. High on the beach, where the sand was dry, was a lunar landscape I had never noticed in my years of exploring Lake Michigan beaches. Scattered across it were thousands of stones the size of golf-balls, each stranded on a pedestal of sand and casting a thin shadow. I learned that geologists call the stones "lag gravel," and that they are stranded there when wind blows the sand away from them. Larger stones that stay in place for years become faceted on the side facing the prevailing wind. Geologists call them "ventifacts."

I became interested also in the kinds of waves I saw. The smallest were capillary waves, hardly more than wrinkles on the surface of the water, which act like tiny sails to catch the wind and make larger waves. Gusts blowing over the land plummeted to the water, flurried into cat's-paws, then gathered force and raced away toward Wisconsin. Whitecaps marched across the bay and pumped up and down against the horizon line, their tips bright as snow against the blue of the lake. Breakers purled and galloped down the shore. Low swells made sluggish by the cold seemed to rise from the bottom of the lake and crawl to shore, finally collapsing on the sand like exhausted swimmers.

From Walter J. Hoagman's genial little guidebook, Great Lakes Coastal Plants, I learned the parts of the coastal zone. The fringe where the sand is always wet is called the "swash zone." The dry beach, above the reach of ordinary waves, is the "backshore." "Bluffs" are banks built over millennia, rising a few feet to a few hundred feet above the backshore. "Foredunes" are uneven, hilly dunes, well above the high-water mark, scattered with coastal plants. "Backdunes" are larger hills of sand, where trees and shrubs live among coastal flowers and grasses, punctuated by "blowouts" of barren sand, eroded by wind.

In the foredunes and backdunes I examined winter weeds, trying to identify by stalks and dried leaves such plants as sand cress and sandwort, fringed gentian, yarrow, false heather, and silverweed. After a few weeks I was as enchanted with the names as I was with the plants they designated. Guidebook in hand I walked the beach, reciting into the wind:

Lake tansy, calamint, Queen Anne's lace.
Little bluestem and horsemint.
Mossy stonecrop.
Starry false Solomon's Seal.
Sea rocket and beach pea.
Soapberry, pigweed, and spiked lobelia.
Indian paintbrush.
Seaside spurge.
Bugleweed, horsetail, windflower.


Six weeks on the beach, and I never got tired of it. On the contrary — I wanted more. I wanted to see it all and know everything about it. Gradually I began to know those two miles of beach and dunes. But of course it wasn't the same as knowing the lake.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis. Copyright © 2003 Jerry Dennis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Dedication,
Chapter 1: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Chapter 2: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Chapter 3: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Chapter 4: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Chapter 5: THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC,
Chapter 6: LAKE SUPERIOR,
Chapter 7: LAKE SUPERIOR,
Chapter 8: LAKE HURON,
Chapter 9: ST. CLAIR RIVER/DETROIT RIVER,
Chapter 10: DETROIT RIVER/LAKE ERIE,
Chapter 11: LAKE ERIE,
Chapter 12: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Chapter 13: LAKE ONTARIO,
Chapter 14: ERIE CANAL/HUDSON RIVER,
Chapter 15: THE ATLANTIC,
Chapter 16: LAKE MICHIGAN,
Notes,
Acknowledgments,
Index,
Also by Jerry Dennis,
Copyright,

Reading Group Guide

If fresh water is to be treasured, the Great Lakes are the mother lode. No bodies of water can compare to them. One of them, Superior, is the largest lake on earth, and the five lakes together contain a fifth of the world's supply of standing fresh water. Their ten thousand miles of shoreline bound seven states and a Canadian province and are longer than the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Their surface area of 95,000 square miles is greater than New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined. People who have never visited them -- who have never seen a squall roar across Superior or the horizon stretch unbroken across Michigan or Huron -- have no idea how big they are. They are so vast that they dominate much of the geography, climate, and history of North America. In one way or another, they affect the lives of tens of millions of people.

The Living Great Lakes is the most complete book ever written about the history, nature, and science of these remarkable lakes at the heart of North America. From the geological forces that formed them to the industrial atrocities that nearly destroyed them, to the greatest environmental success stories of our time, the lakes are portrayed in all their complexity. The book, however, is much more than just history. It is also the story of the lakes as told by biologists, fishermen, sailors, and others whom the author grew to know while traveling with them on boats and hiking with them on beaches and islands.

The book is also the story of a personal journey. It is the narrative of a six-week voyage through the lakes and beyond as a crewmember on a tallmasted schooner, and a memoir of a lifetime spent on and near the lakes. Through storms and fog, on remote shores and city waterfronts, the author explores the five Great Lakes in all seasons and moods and discovers that they and their connecting waters -- including the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and the East Coast from New York to Maine -- offer a surprising and bountiful view of America. The result is a meditation on nature and our place in the world, a discussion and cautionary tale about the future of water resources, and a celebration of a place that is both fragile and robust, diverse, rich in history and wildlife, often misunderstood, and worthy of our attention.

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Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Ed Tibbetts More than 1 year ago
I went to the Great Lakes last summer. I could not believe how big it was. The lakes are one of Gods great creations, After seeing them I could see what God has done, so we could enjoy them. The book is great you will think you are their. I love the book get it you will love it to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am an ocean person but after reading this can appreciate the Great Lakes so much more. The author combines the true story of his trip through the Great Lakes with the right amount of history and environmental information. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in any of these topics.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book!  Read it and share it, send it to your friends who grew up near the Great Lakes but moved  away (like me)! A great nautical adventure woven with natural history and current events, the story is engaging, the prose often poetic.  I read it at the beach, with a beer, but it would be good curled up by a fire with a glass of bourbon on a snowy night.  This author is a Michigan treasure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved reading this book. I have grown up around Lake Michigan and I never knew all the history. This is a book that I will suggest to everyone I know. :) Especially those who live around any of the Great Lakes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you grew up near the Great Lakes, visited them, or are interested this is a book for you. This book is so well written, including lots of history and science written in a way that makes it easy to read. I was sad when it was done. I would highly recommend it to anyone.