10 Deep Facts About the Great Lakes

NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN
NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Great Lakes of North America, which span 750 miles from east to west, form the largest fresh water system on Earth. Here are 10 facts about Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

1. LAKE SUPERIOR IS BY FAR THE BIGGEST AND DEEPEST.

The numbers for the world’s largest freshwater lake (in terms of surface area), which straddles the U.S.-Canada border and touches Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are staggering: 31,700 square miles of surface water; 350 miles wide and 160 miles long; 2,726 miles of shoreline; an average depth of nearly 500 feet, with a maximum depth of 1,332 feet; and a volume of 2,900 cubic miles, more than enough to fill all the other Great Lakes combined.

2. ONTARIO AND ERIE ARE THE SMALLEST.

Lake Erie, which borders Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, measures 241 miles across and 57 miles long, larger than Lake Ontario’s 193-mile-by-53-mile footprint. But Erie’s average depth is just 62 feet and has a volume of around 119 cubic miles, much smaller than Ontario’s average depth of 283 feet and volume of 395 cubic miles. The two lakes are connected by the 35-mile long Niagara River.

3. ONLY ONE OF THE LAKES IS LOCATED ENTIRELY IN THE U.S.

As its name suggests, Lake Michigan and its 1180 cubic miles of water, 22,300 square miles of surface water, and 1600 miles of shoreline is the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within American borders. It is the second-largest of the Great Lakes by volume and is connected to Lake Huron by the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

4. YOU CAN TAKE A 6500-MILE DRIVE AROUND THE LAKES.

The Great Lakes Commission established the Circle Tour in 1988 as a scenic tourist drive around the five lakes and through the eight states (and Ontario) that make up the GLC. Just to navigate Lake Michigan’s 900-mile Circle Tour alone would take approximately 14½ hours without any stops.

5. A FIRE PAVED THE WAY FOR MASSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS.

A fire on the Cuayahoga River in June 1969, and the iconic image that was published thereafter, helped spur a number of environmental regulations aimed at cleaning up the waterway that feeds Lake Erie, as well as America’s lakes and rivers in general. Amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known as the Clean Water Act, were enacted in 1972 regulating water pollution and discharge, and gave the Environmental Protection Agency broader pollution control powers. In addition, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Act in 1972 to “restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes.”

6. THE LAKES CONTAIN MORE THAN 35,000 ISLANDS.

Of the thousands of islands scattered throughout the lakes, the largest is Manitoulin in Lake Huron. It is the largest freshwater lake island in the world at 1068 square miles and has a population of around 12,600. Georgian Bay, also on Lake Huron, includes about 17,500 islands, while the archipelago in the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands actually houses around 1,800 islands.

7. EACH LAKE NAME IS DERIVED FROM EITHER NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGES OR FRENCH.

Lake Erie is named after the Erie Tribe, which occupied the southern shores of the lake. Michigan comes from a French version of the Ojibwa word michigami. Huron is named for the Huron tribe. The Iroquois lent their language to the naming of Ontario, which means “beautiful lake.” French explorers called the great body of water above Lake Huron “le lac superieur,” or upper lake.

8. SHIPPING STILL DOMINATES.

The Canadian and U.S. lake fleets, made up of carriers, tankers, bulk freighters (“lakers”), tugs, and barges, haul upwards of 125 million tons of cargo a year. About 40 percent of the cargo is iron ore and other mined products like coal, salt, and stone, while another 40 percent is wheat, corn, oats, soybeans, and other agricultural products. Other cargo includes steel, scrap metal, iron products, fuel, and chemicals.

9. THE LARGEST FISH IN THE LAKES CAN WEIGH OVER 200 POUNDS.

Fishing is a revered pastime on the Great Lakes, one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. Some of the most common catches include trout, salmon, walleye, perch, herring, and bass. Lake sturgeon are the biggest species of fish found in the lakes, and they can weigh over 200 lbs. 

10. LAKE SUPERIOR HAS CLAIMED A NUMBER OF SHIPS AND LIVES.

While the wreck of the famed SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior has generated a hit song, memorials, and conspiracies surrounding its sinking, a number of other commercial ships have sunk and perished through the years in the area around Whitefish Bay near Whitefish Point, Michigan. A wooden steamer called the Vienna of Cleveland sank in 1892 on Lake Superior and is a popular spot for divers; the Comet also sank on Lake Superior and took 11 lives with it in 1875; the John M. Osborn collided with the Alberta in 1884 and drowned four men; and on just its second voyage, the SS Cyprus sank near Deer Park, Michigan in 1907, killing 22 of its 23 crewmembers.

The dangerous stretch of water on southern Lake Superior between Munising, Michigan and Whitefish Point has been called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” and “Shipwreck Coast,” as hundreds of ships have been lost in the area. It is estimated that 6000 ships have sank in the Great Lakes, with a loss of nearly 30,000 lives.

Note: The piece has been amended to include lake sturgeon as the Great Lakes' largest species of fish.

Why Iceland Gets Its Ice From Other Countries

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iStock

Iceland is a country known for its glaciers—they cover about 11 percent of the nation's area—so it's a little surprising to hear that most of the ice cooling the country's beverages isn't homegrown. But as a new video from Half as Interesting explains, it's all thanks to the eccentricities of modern economics, in which a country with high domestic labor costs and cheap inbound shipping can buy the cold stuff for less than it takes to harvest it. While it may sound strange, Iceland is one of the highest-income countries in the world, and its isolated, rugged geography means it already relies on imports for many staples. For more on the history of ice as a commodity—and Iceland's unique situation—check out the video below.

The Florida Beach Town Where the Amish Go on Vacation

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iStock

In the coming months, with the arrival of low temperatures and the slowdown of the farming season, thousands of Amish people in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania will pack their bags and head south to a snowbird paradise that has attracted Plain People since the early 20th century—Pinecraft, Florida.

Located on the Gulf Coast, Pinecraft is an idyllic place nestled a few miles from the crystalline beaches of Sarasota, dotted with cozy white bungalows and oak trees strewn with Spanish moss. The Amish first arrived in Pinecraft in the 1920s, back when the area was little more than a tourist campground. At first, farmers hoped to plant celery in the region, but the soil proved to be better suited as a spot to lounge in the sun than it did for gardening. In 1946, the Tourist Mennonite Church in Florida was established in Pinecraft so that the Amish could “take vacations without breaking their beliefs,” Atlas Obscura reports. Over the coming decades, word of mouth spread up north. Today, approximately 5000 Amish and (some) Mennonite people visit Pinecraft every year to relax during the winter months.

Most Amish visitors make the long trip by charter bus. In 2012, Miki Meek of The New York Times hopped on one such bus in Ohio and traveled 19 hours to Florida. She described the scene aboard: “Stiff black hats are gingerly stowed in overhead bins as the bus winds its way through hilly farm country ... grandparents, neighbors, sisters, and childhood friends ... talked into the night, using conversation as entertainment instead of movies or music.”

Down in Pinecraft, crowds of Amish people welcome the arrival of each bus. There, visitors can expect to see men and women in traditional dress. “Clothing choices clue you in to hometowns,” Meek wrote. “Men from Tampico, Illinois, wear denim overalls; girls from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, cover their dresses with black aprons; and women from northern Indiana have neatly pressed pleats on their white bonnets.” It’s one of the few places in America where different communities of Amish have the opportunity to mingle.

However, the rules here are much more lax, with vacationers often showing much more skin than usual. Many of the rental homes, which sometimes have to be booked a year in advance, have electricity. (Overall, the restrictions preventing the Amish from connecting to the public power grid aren't as tight when a home is temporary.) Rather than riding in a horse and buggy, many people move around Pinecraft on tricycles. Most days are punctuated by fish fries, auctions, yard sales, and fierce bocce matches, with shuffleboard, the nightly women’s volleyball game, and live musical performances being the biggest draws.

As Meek reported, many people joke that the village is the closest thing the Amish have to Las Vegas: “What happens in Pinecraft, stays in Pinecraft.”

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