The Great Lakes … they’re appropriately named being one of America’s greatest natural resources. The Great Lakes hold over 5,400 cubic miles of water, thereby comprising more than 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. Gouged out by glaciers and leftovers from the Ice Age, they are truly one of the world’s natural wonders.
I have a particular affinity for what I consider the greatest of our Great Lakes: Lake Erie. It’s an affinity that may be difficult to understand for those of us living near the Atlantic Ocean. In the big scheme of things, Lake Erie isn’t all that impressive, especially if you’ve never seen it. In addition to being freshwater and therefore without the normal lineup of salty sea-villains like shark, Portuguese Men-of-War or barracuda, Lake Erie is tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s the shallowest of the Great Lakes too. The Atlantic Ocean is almost 500 times as big as all the Great Lakes combined.
But you wouldn’t know it standing on Lake Erie’s shore in Northern Ohio peering across its vastness to unseen Canada, a vastness that could be an ocean if you didn’t know better. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know there’s a graveyard of ships buried under its sometimes violent waves too, caused by its shallowness.
I grew up just a few blocks from Lake Erie in Willowick, Ohio, playing along its shore in those simpler days when my Mom (as did most mothers of the age) kicked their free-range kids outside, telling us to, “Be back before the streetlights come on.”
And so out the door we flew and stayed outside … for hours … journeying blocks from home, unwatched and unsupervised, walking or riding our bikes to the lake to skip the large, smooth flat stones that litter the Lake Erie shoreline. Sometimes even as 7- or 8-year-old kids in the midst of skipping contests we could get those stones to skip so many times we lost count – a dozen times or more.
Lake Erie holds some other fascinations for me too. As the shallowest Great Lake, it has some of the biggest waves and worst storms. While there were none as famous as the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 (on Lake Superior, not Lake Erie), made famous by Gordon Lightfoot in his song of the same name, a winter storm sinking that took the Great Lakes’ biggest ship and 29 men’s lives), Lake Erie has swallowed thousands of ships, amongst the highest concentration in the world.
According to Wikipedia, “Lake Erie has perhaps 1,400 to 8,000 shipwrecks estimated by the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center. One report suggests there are more wrecks per square mile in Lake Erie than any other freshwater location.”
One particularly tragic sinking, that of the SS G.P. Griffith, according to Wikipedia, “was a passenger steamer that burned and sank on Lake Erie on June 17, 1850, resulting in the loss of between 241 and 289 lives. The destruction of the G.P. Griffith was the greatest loss of life on the Great Lakes up to that point, and remains the third-greatest today.”
There are more reasons I appreciate Lake Erie: its resilience. In the 1930s when my Mom lived by the Lake as a child, it was still relatively clean. Industrial pollution, farming runoff and human waste had not yet fouled its waters. Thirty years later when I was skipping stones from its shoreline, Mom allowed us to go to the Lake unescorted but warned us to stay out of the water and to keep our skipping stone-dirtied hands away from our mouths. Lake Erie was a filthy dirty, polluted mess.
The fishing industry was decimated and recreation on the Lake was restricted to, well, skipping stones … at least where we lived off East 305th Street … a suburb of gritty, industrial, Cleveland. You could smell the Lake, an unappetizing sewagey, sulfery kind of smell and the beach was littered with refuse including condoms, of which we kids (too young, at least back then, to know) wondered what those skinny, white balloons could have been used for.
One of Ohio’s mighty rivers, the Cuyahoga, that emptied into Lake Erie near Cleveland caught fire – again – in 1969, a river of burning chemicals and oils. This part of the river was dead, much like the Lake itself.
According the Smithsonian Magazine in a June 19, 2019, article by Lorraine Boissoneault reporting a steel worker’s comments about the river at that time, “The river was a scary thing. There was a general rule that if you fell in, God forbid, you would go immediately to the hospital.”
Today as a result of the Clean Water Act and increasing awareness and concern about how we were harming the earth and therefore each other, both the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie have come back from the brink. Both are still recovering but as bad off as the lake was in the 1960s, its resilience 60 years later is inspiring.
Another of Lake Erie’s enduring qualities, especially from the perspective of a kid, is her ability to dump lots of “Lake Effect” snow on surrounding communities, especially those south and east of the Lake. According to USA Today, the science of lake effect snow occurs as “cold Canada air flows over the warm lake water, the lake warms and moistens the air. Since warm, moist air is less dense than cold air, the heated air rises. Rising air cools and water vapor condenses into cloud droplets. The efficiency of snow production increases when the wind pushes the clouds over land. Friction with the ground causes air to pile up. This frictional convergence creates lift and enhances snowfall.”
But frankly, growing up south-southeast of the lake, we kids could have cared less about the science, just loving the masses of snow that fell where we lived. School was rarely canceled back then even with the massive snowfalls (we, like our parents before us would “walk uphill both to, and from, school in blinding blizzards” – or so they told us). Snow would pile up against the front door so high that it couldn’t be opened. We had to use the back door until Dad cleared the snow away from the front door so it could be used again. But not before my brothers and I burrowed into those drifts, building snow forts on our front porch … next week, a frozen Lake Erie.
Tideland News contributor Barry Fetzer lives on Queens Creek.