The setting sun and "The Living Great Lakes"

#14: The Living Great Lakes: In Search of the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis (2003)

Lake Erie taught me how important it is to watch the sun set. It was the summer of 2010, and I was in the middle of my divorce. The semester, my worst ever, had just ended, followed immediately by a whirlwind trip to China. I had a younger woman giving me the yo-yo treatment. I needed to figure out a way to calm the tumult in my life.

So for nearly a week, in early June, I found myself a spot along the breakwall that stretches out from Walnut Beach toward the lighthouse that guards the entrance to Ashtabula’s habor. I watched the sun, bright as a blood orange, dip to the horizon and vanish into the lake.

My son loved to come to this same beach when he came to my mother’s to visit. He’d play in the surf for hours, letting it bump and bat him around as he splashed against the waves and fought off sea monsters.

One day, as I watched him play, the lake chose to brand me. I was sitting in a lawnchair just above the waterline, my feet loosely tucked into my deck shoes. The sun, reflecting off the water, hit with extra intensity and burned the tops of my feet in an arc that matched the lip of my shoe. The near-blistery red eventually cooled to a walnut brown, but my toes, protected by my shoes, remained white. That tanline stayed with me for almost a full year. The lake didn’t want me to forget.

Another day, the sand itself burned by feet. Sand can get up to thirty degrees hotter than the air temperature, and on one 90-degree day, the sand got hot indeed. It didn’t sink in until I was already halfway to the restrooms—far enough along on my trip that I was committed.

But that June, I returned each cool evening to sit on the breakwall to watch a repeat performance of the sunset. I watched a lot of sunsets that summer. I learned a lot.

Other than sunsets, I’ve not had much connection with any of the Great Lakes. I’ve seen Lake Ontario a few times driving along its western horseshoe from Niagara Falls up to Toronto. As a mid-teen, I caught a glimpse of Lake Michigan during a trip to see a Cubs game back when Wrigley Field only had day games. And that’s it.

So when I saw Jerry Dennis’ The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, I was quick to check it out. I know little about the lakes but wanted to know more; furthermore, they constituted a distinct geographic area not yet represented on my reading list. That the Outdoor Writers of America chose it as its “Best Book of 2003” seemed to suggest it would make a good addition.

Dennis lives along Lake Michigan and so has had a lifelong connection with—and passion for—that lake. It triggered in him a larger interest in all five of the lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario (from west to east, as the water flows, although as a kid I learned them by the acronym HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). “All five shape the land and alter the weather and define the journeys of those who live nearby,” Dennis says.

Like a mariner called by the sea, Dennis heard a call from the lakes. For years, he’d been studying their stories and histories, their geologies and hydrologies, their people and places. “I had the love, I think, but not the perception,” he says. “I couldn’t see far enough. And I couldn’t unite what I saw with what I already knew.”

So Dennis secured himself a position on a 104-foot schooner sailing from Lake Michigan through the lakes and out to the sea, where it was eventually bound for Southwest Harbor, Maine (near the spot where, last week, I sat along the seawall with Rachel Carson’s books). Dennis uses the boat trip to frame the larger story of the lakes in what turns out to be a fascinating book—part natural history, part travelogue, part memoir. It’s exactly the kind of book I wish I could write.

Dennis is a great storyteller and a great researcher. His adventure, which lasts a month and takes him through Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, gives him the chance to unite all those things he knows about the lakes.

The only lake he doesn’t get to visit is Superior because it lies to the north, off-course. “Superior has always reminded me of charismatic people, the ones who dominate a room by their presence,” he says. “Superior is larger, deeper, cleaner, colder, less developed, and less traveled than the other Great Lakes. It is also more deadly. At 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, and with a surface area of 31,700 square miles, it is capable of swallowing oceangoing vessels with shocking ease.”

Yes, he does spend time talking about shipwrecks in the lakes—thousands and thousands of ships have met their doom there, it turns out—and yes, he gives appropriate space to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I suppose that’s another connection I have to the Great Lakes: Gordon Lightfoot’s famous inland-sea ballad about the 1975 shipwreck. I was seven when that song came out and have loved it, it seems, all my life. It’s so forlorn.

Dennis writes an amazing biography of the Great Lakes, and he’s full of surprising information. As an example: “For most of the twentieth century more tons of cargo were shipped every year on the Great Lakes than in all the American ports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts combined.” As I think about it, that boggles my mind.

But I guess it shouldn’t. I have sat on that breakwall and watched cargo-sized lakeboats, as big as overturned skyscrapers, scudding back and forth along the horizon. Sometimes one drifts into the coal yards that flank Ashtabula’s harbor, where it unloads its cargo onto waiting train cars.

This is the Lake Erie I typically think of, one whose shoreline is bespotted with bubonic piles of coal and iron ore, where chemical factories churn out sour-smelling steam and pungency and blighted factories and warehouses crowd out trees.

Industrial abuse, which stretched back decades, made the lake a cesspool. “Until the early 1970s,” Dennis says, “it gave off a stench of human and industrial garbage that could be smelled many miles inland. Not much lived in the lake then except trash fish, algae, bacteria, and sludge worms.”

He explains that “[t]he ecological devastation that struck Erie in the 1960s was caused by an influx of nutrients from fertilizers, detergents, and municipal and industrial waste that essentially made the lake old before its time.” Scientists estimated that the lake had “aged” fifty thousand years.

But as Dennis and his crewmates discover as they sail into the lake from the Detroit River, Lake Erie today “is blue and clear and smells of clean water and beach sand, with a hint of approaching rain. It smells healthy.”

Stringent environmental regulations, prompted by a strong public outcry to protect the lakes, have had surprisingly effective results. “Erie’s return to health is now recognized as one of the greatest environmental victories in North America,” Dennis says. Erie in particular and all the Great Lakes in general still face several serious problems, though, including continued industrial pollution, invasive species that have impacted fisheries, fluctuating water levels that have impacted shipping, and the possible exploitation of oil, natural gas, and the water itself.

“What of their future?” he asks. “Will people a century from now see a motherlode of clean water or a wasteland?”

“One of the consequences of the degradation of the environment is a vague but undeniable cultural despair,” he says. By the end of his journey, he lays out a clear case for the need for stewardship.

He comes to other self-discoveries, too, which give the book a deeper resonance. Long nights under the stars and bright afternoons with the wind blowing his hair prove to be effective teachers. “People crave a quieter, slower life,” he realizes, “but have no idea how to achieve it.”

But what if it does damage? What if the pace wears insidiously? Maybe it beats us down. Maybe we don’t notice the damage until we step away from our normal life and experience a slower, quieter, less demanding one.

“Living on the boat made all that seem clear,” he says.

I understand what he means about the need for a “quieter, slower life.” These days, as I plow through this doctoral program while still teaching, too (not to mention parenting and writing), I constantly feel balls-to-the-wall—moreso than usual. It’s invigorating, but it’s also exhausting. I crave that quieter, slower life.

Because that’s a lesson Lake Erie taught me, too. As I sat along that breakwall and watched the sun set those evenings, I appreciated what it meant to take a time out from whatever I was doing so I could just take time to watch. A sunset is one of the most beautiful wonders on earth; just because it happens every night doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be deliberate about enjoying it.

“It’s our spirit that makes us encounter the wonders of the world and know that they are wonders,” Dennis says.

The Great Lakes, it seems, have been good teachers to us both.

1 reply »

  1. Another fine book on our Lakes is:

    Val Eichenlaub, Weather and Climate of the Great Lakes Region (1979)

    He taught me things about local weather effects that i still remember and apply. Indeed, today’s TV weather reminded me of his schema of the ‘unstable season’ ( roughly Nov-May?) when water temps are higher than air temps, causing air over lakes to warm and rise, generating local low pressure systems. Converseley in the stable season, water cooler than overlying air creates sinking and thus local high pressure cells.

    A fine writer with real depth of local knowledge and insight.

    Oh, and i see i don’t need to put you in to John McPhee as you’ve got him in your line-up already. Have you read his Pine Barrens? If not, after the dust settles from your manic mega-month of many books, do look that one up. His best in my view.