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W. W. NORTON
INTRODUCTION

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T
here are few views that can draw noses to airplane windows like
those of the Great Lakes. From on high, the five lakes that strad-

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dle the U.S. and Canadian border can appear impossibly blue,
tantalizing as the Caribbean. Standing on their shores and staring out
at their ocean-like horizons, it hits you that the Great Lakes are, in one
significant way, superior to even the Seven Seas. The Great Lakes, after
all, are so named not just for their size but for the fact that their shore-
lines cradle a global trove of the most coveted liquid of all—freshwater.
The world’s largest freshwater system has captured the public’s
imagination since the first European explorers arrived on the shores

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of the “sweet water seas” in the early 1600s convinced—or at least ever-​
hopeful—that on their far shores lay the riches of China. In 1634 voya-
geur Jean Nicolet paddled his birch bark canoe across northern Lake
Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac and headed for the western

W. W. NORTON
side of Lake Michigan—a place no white man had evidently ever set
eyes upon. Nicolet arrived in a bay on the far shore of Lake Michigan
apparently trying to look like a local—in a flowing Chinese robe burst-
ing with colorful flowers and birds. Although he might have thought

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xii   I ntroduction

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he had finally finished the job Columbus started a century and a half
earlier, he actually landed on the southern end of an arm of Lake Mich-
igan known as Green Bay. There is a statue today of Nicolet in that

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robe that stands near the reputed landing site. It’s 20 minutes north of
Lambeau Field, some 7,000 miles shy of Shanghai.
It’s hard to fault Nicolet if he really did believe his journey had taken
him to Asia, because there were no Old World analogues for the scope
of the lakes he was trying to navigate. The biggest lake in France, after
all, is 11 miles long and about 2 miles wide; the sailing distance between
Duluth, Minnesota, on the Great Lakes’ western end and Kingston,
Ontario, on their eastern end is more than 1,100 miles. No, the bodies of

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water formally known as the Laurentian Great Lakes are not mere lakes,
not in the normal sense of the word. Nobody staring across Huron,
Ontario, Michigan, Erie or Superior would consider the interconnected
watery expanse that sprawls across 94,000 square miles just a lake, any

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more than a visitor waking up in London is likely to think of himself as
stranded on just an island (the United Kingdom, in fact, also happens to
span some 94,000 square miles).
A normal lake sends ashore ripples and, occasionally, waves a foot
or two high. A Great Lake wave can swell to a tsunami-like 25 feet. A
normal lake, if things get really rough, might tip a boat. A Great Lake
can swallow freighters almost three times the length of a football field;
the lakes’ bottoms are littered with an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks,

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many of which have never been found. This would never happen on a
normal lake, because a normal lake is knowable. A Great Lake can hold
all the mysteries of an ocean, and then some.
In 1950, when Northwest Airlines flight 2501 flying from New York

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City to Seattle disappeared from radio contact after it hit a summer
storm over Lake Michigan, it was at the time the worst commercial
aviation accident in U.S. history. The Coast Guard and Navy dispatched
five ships to look for the wreckage. They dropped sonar devices, divers

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I ntroduction  xiii

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and drag lines into the lake to hunt for the nearly 100-foot-long fuselage
that carried 58 souls.
The wreck has never been found.

W. W. NORTON
Here is a different way to grasp the scale of the Great Lakes. Roughly
97 percent of the globe’s water is saltwater. Of the 3 percent or so that
is freshwater, most is locked up in the polar ice caps or trapped so far
underground it is inaccessible. And of the sliver left over that exists as
surface freshwater readily available for human use, about 20 percent
of that—one out of every five gallons available on the planet—can be
found in the Great Lakes. This is not an insignificant fact at a time
when more than three-quarters of a billion people don’t have regular

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access to safe drinking water.
In 1995, World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin made a
provocative prediction: “The wars of this century have been fought over
oil, and the wars of the next century will be on water . . .” Perhaps. But

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the biggest enemy facing the Great Lakes in the early 21st century is
not would-be profiteers seeking to siphon them off to make far-away
deserts bloom. The biggest threat to the lakes right now is our own
ignorance.
Nearly 500 years after Nicolet first nosed his canoe into the waters
of Lake Michigan we are still treating the lakes the same way, as liq-
uid highways that promise a shortcut to unimaginable fortune. Nicolet
might have made an honest mistake. The same won’t be said for us,

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because continuing to exploit the world’s largest expanse of freshwater
in this manner is wreaking increasingly disastrous consequences.

W. W. NORTON

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