The Great Lakes

My first encounter with the Great Lakes was four years ago when a boy I loved took me to the coast of Lake Surperior on the north shore of Minnesota. We stopped the car and ran out through the bushes to look down on the rocky beaches below the tall cliffs, huge trees lay scattered all around, their bark stripped and the wood turned white and polished from many years in the water. Down by the shore we threw off our clothes and went in. The water was crystal clear and exquisitely cold.

My second encounter with the Lakes was entering Lake Ontario after passing through the St. Lawrence. I thought a lot of the strangeness of being able to sail inland. Do the lakes feel secluded, cut off as they are from the sea? Does the sea feel more free than a lake?

Then Lake Erie, its water turqoise, almost like the Caribbean Sea. I went swimming after a hot day of walking in Fairport Harbor, and the water was almost as warm as the quivering, still air. The shores here are so alive with vegetation that they look like a mangrove swamp. The water is not only turqoise, it has an opaque, milky quality to it as well, and the green plants dip down and dissapear into the lake.

Lake Huron was colder and sharper, more awake. I stopped thinking of the lakes as sad and landlocked. Lake Huron made me see why they are in fact inland seas, which seems more fitting a description. If you could crossbreed sea and land, you’d get Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Surperior.

Lake Michigan, the deadliest lake in the world, I only spent a few days in. It made me recite a line from a song, over and over in my head: Lake Michigan rose and fell like a bird.

The lakes have inprinted themselves permanently on the lands around them and in the minds and lives of the people living here. It’s the same relationship as shore towns have to the seas outside their coasts, centuries of stories of beauty and loss. Collective memories of storms and shipwrecks, and generations of private memories of childhood summers and lake cabins and small boat rides. And also of decades of work in peoples lives, on Lake Freighters and before them fishing vessels and sailing ships and countless other working boats. Day after day, weeks into months into years of standing night watch drinking coffee on the bridge, of going in and out of locks and canals, tracing the same old shipping routes from town to town. Loading, unloading. Arriving, leaving. I am only a visitor to the Lakes and I see only small glimpses, but I sense that there is much more to them than I can see now. Below their surface lies the possibility of a personal relationship. I could grow to love these waters.

Illustration by Karin Gafvelin
Illustration by Karin Gafvelin

The Vikings were accomplished navigators, artisans, traders and story tellers, but their greatest triumph was the ship they built.