Exploring the Great Lakes

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on August 29, 2004

Capt. Kevin Fitch glances at his watch. It is 2 a.m. in the pilothouse of the S.S. Badger, the huge ferryboat that crosses Lake Michigan daily, transporting passengers and their vehicles from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich., and back from May through October. All is still and calm; a good night by the captain’s definition. The relief watch had arrived, and Fitch can relax. It’s one of his favorite moments on the job.

“When it’s 2 in the morning and the watch is up, people just talk about different things in their lives or life in general,” says Fitch, who has made about 400 round-trip crossings on the Badger each year since 1996. “There’s a certain peace and serenity to it.”

On another night, a few weeks later, the clock once again strikes 2 a.m. It’s mid-September, several days after Hurricane Isabel has spewed her worst on the East Coast, swamping North Carolina and Virginia. When her dissipated remnants reach the Great Lakes, swimmer Jim Dreyer is laboring six miles off the Michigan coast between Little Sable Point and the Big Sable Lighthouse, halfway through his daunting challenge to swim Lake Michigan’s 340-mile length. For the first time he encounters harrowing 20-foot waves. It is anything but peaceful and serene.

“When you’re on the crest of one of those waves,” explains Dreyer several months after his ordeal, “it’s like being on top of a two-story building. And this with a 75-pound, gear-filled kayak attached to my ankles. Of course, it keeps filling up with water and keeps capsizing and getting thrown into me and over the top of me. It got nuts.”

The ferryboat captain and the marathon swimmer both have experienced the majestic wonder and the terrifying awe of America’s vast inland seas, the gargantuan Great Lakes—five massive freshwater receptacles covering 94,000 square miles (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined could fit in the Great Lakes), bordering on eight states and Canada: the third largest source of freshwater in the world behind the polar ice caps and Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Yet, many people don’t grasp their enormity.

“It’s something a lot of people don’t even know exists,” Fitch says. “I’ve got cousins in Montana who, years ago, couldn’t believe that you couldn’t see across a lake. People come on the boat and can’t believe they’re out of sight of land.”

Swimming the seas

No one experiences the size of the Great Lakes quite like Dreyer, who has swum across four of them and planned to make his fifth assault on Lake Superior earlier this month.

“People who have never seen the Great Lakes have no idea how immense they are,” says Dreyer, 40, of Grand Rapids, Mich. “They truly are seas, inland seas. I’ve gotten comments from people from other parts of the country who have never seen the lakes before. Then they fly into Grand Rapids; maybe have a connecting flight out of Chicago that flies them over Lake Michigan. They’re stunned by the size of it. They tell me how much more appreciation they have for what I do, with my swimming.”

Dreyer’s challenge of the Great Lakes is nothing short of remarkable, considering that just eight years ago his fear of water was so intense that he couldn’t put his face in it. To overcome his terror, Dreyer, who wanted to compete in triathlons, tentatively began taking swimming lessons in 1996. Two years later he set a world record by swimming the 65-mile width of Lake Michigan. His efforts today, undertaken on behalf of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a mentoring program for at-risk kids, have wrought a diversity of rich experience. He has felt the indescribable beauty of the lakes even at the worst of times.

On the northern leg of his length-of-Lake Michigan swim last fall, Dreyer was fighting for his life as currents pushed him out way offshore toward Wisconsin. After already swimming 38 miles, he had to swim 10 more hours through the night with every bit of strength he had just to survive. When dawn came, a spectacular sight dimly appeared.

“In the midst of that fight with the current, I looked around and there was Sleeping Bear Dunes,” Dreyer recalls. “I’m arguably in one of the more beautiful corners of the world, but surrounded in chaos! I’m both enjoying the beauty and literally struggling for my life against the perils of that beauty. It was odd. In that swim of Lake Michigan, I truly saw the beauty and the beast.”

Presenting that symbiotic union, through the magnificence of the Great Lakes’ attractions, to potential visitors from around the world is the job of William Anderson, director of Michigan’s Department of History, Arts & Libraries. As part of his job, Anderson is putting together driving tours linking all of the state’s maritime assets—lighthouses, underwater preserves, maritime museums, historic vessels, fish hatcheries, cruises, and the visual and performing arts rich in maritime music, stories and lore.

Shipwreck showpiece

One of those destinations, the remote but popular Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a showpiece for the legacy of the shipwrecks that have taken place on the big lakes. It is also the site of the first lighthouse built on Lake Superior.

“Horace Greeley (mid-1800s editor/abolitionist) lobbied for it,” says Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. “He recommended Whitefish Point, because it’s the most important turning point for all ships entering and leaving Lake Superior. So critical a stretch of water was it between there and Munising, Mich., that it already had earned the title of ‘Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast’ by Greeley’s time.”

More than 90,000 people annually visit the museum, famed for housing the original ship’s bell from the most famous disaster in Great Lakes history—the wreck of the iron-ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, on Nov. 10, 1975.

“It’s one of the more popular reasons people come,” Farnquist acknowledges. “Everybody recognizes it. Some people think it’s the only shipwreck. There are 6,000 other ones.”

While the lure of shipwrecks beckons thousands of visitors, the Great Lakes offer unique conditions for preserving those wrecks.

“It’s the unparalleled cold freshwater that makes the big difference,” notes Russ Green, underwater archaeologist for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve on Lake Huron near Alpena, Mich. “All of the Great Lakes have fairly equal preservation. Lake Erie is fairly shallow, so it’s a more dynamic environment. Lake Superior is the deepest, so you may find some really intact wrecks there. The neat thing about Thunder Bay is the concentration of shipwrecks; you’re able to study them all within the bay there. Though the East and West coasts have plenty of shipwreck history too, they’re on saltwater oceans, and salt is corrosive. We don’t have that problem here in the Great Lakes.”

Shipwrecks, lighthouses, underwater preserves, ferryboats, fishing, recreation, education—it’s all part of the magical maritime experience of the Great Lakes, America’s true inland seas.

“You know, we covet waterfront property,” Anderson says. “It’s the most expensive real estate. In most places, it’s all developed—built up with condos, marinas and so forth. To go there, you’re almost intruding. It’s somewhat exclusive. But when I walk out there, to the big point—the Big Sable Lighthouse—I become the wealthiest person in the world. Because, it’s my world, my terrain, my vista and my experience. And I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission.

“That’s our place. That’s your place.”

Great Facts on the Great Lakes

  • Spread evenly across the continental United States, the Great Lakes would submerge the country under about 9.5 feet of water.
  • The Great Lakes’ collective shoreline is equal to almost 44 percent of the circumference of the Earth.
  • Six quadrillion gallons of freshwater—one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water—are contained in the Great Lakes.
  • The lakes were formed during the Ice Age between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago, the result of glacier “scouring” (advancing and retreating). Melting water then filled the huge basins created by the glaciers.
  • Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, could contain the other four Great Lakes, plus three more lakes the size of Lake Erie.
  • The deepest part of the Great Lakes is in Lake Superior—1,333 feet near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan waters.
  • Michigan sits in the middle of the Great Lakes. Its unique peninsula shape interacts with four of the five Great Lakes.
  • Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, with an average depth of 62 feet. It is also the warmest and most biologically productive, with its walleye fishery widely considered the best in the world.
  • Lake Huron, the second largest Great Lake, has the longest shoreline of the five: 3,827 miles, counting the shorelines of its 30,000 islands.
  • The world’s largest freshwater dunes line the shore of Lake Michigan.
  • Lake Ontario lies 325 feet below Lake Erie, at the base of Niagara Falls. The falls were always an obstacle to navigation into the upper lakes until the Erie and Welland canals were built, in 1825 and 1829 respectively, for ships to bypass this legendary bottleneck.
  • Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes that does not have a Canadian shore. It is surrounded by the states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.