The Great Lakes have been around for 12,000 years or so, a hiccup in geological time. Still magnificent but far from pristine, the lakes have been altered dramatically in the last 150 years by settlers who scythed the forests, gouged out the minerals, exiled the indigenous peoples, drained vast wetlands, planted chemically dependent corn and beans, straightened and dredged feeder rivers, dug canals that let in invaders. Too, they and those who followed flushed their untreated and toxic effluent into a freshwater cistern mistakenly thought large enough to absorb it all.
The location of some of North America’s greatest cities — Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland — also provides the setting for some of humanity’s great ecological blunders: the extinction of the blue pike of Lake Erie and the Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario; the wipeout of the eastern elk and the passenger pigeon; the poisoning of birds to near-extirpation; the tainting of subsistence fish species with mercury and other chemicals; the introduction of non-native life forms that have significantly altered the food web and threaten to push some native species into oblivion. Where thousands of Huron and Eries once lived on abundant fish and game, millions of commuters now compete for space among tracts of sprawl and monoculture.
Wildness can still be touched north of Superior and every time a fall nor’easter kicks up 20-foot waves that roll across breakwaters and cast white spray into the shoreline air. Glimpses come, too, with the circling of a lone eagle, with the migratory rivers of waterfowl, with a climb up giant sand dunes, with the leap of a fighting muskellunge and with a hike through evergreen forests to splendid, hiding waterfalls.
Despite the fact that much of today’s Great Lakes shoreline and surrounds would be unrecognizable to yesterday’s Native Americans residents and European explorers, the great watershed clings to its past both despite human exploitation and because of human intervention. The fishing remains superior in Erie and the landscape eerily primal near Superior. Each of the lakes has its unique charm and special niches. Some of the hemisphere’s finest birding, camping, boating, hiking, hunting and fishing remain mostly because a portion of the public has refused to let the region’s signature natural resource go to waste. The struggle is far from over, however, and surrender would have devastating consequences for those who depend on the Great Lakes as a refuge from the world we have built for ourselves.