In the Upper Country

Ominous and not-so-ominous changes afoot around Lake Superior. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff
Lake Superior

Lately, when I look into Lake Superior, I can see the centuries passing. It must be the clarity of the water. Observers three and four centuries ago remarked, as we do today, on the brightly colored stones 30 feet below, the water so cold and crystalline it’s like looking up at the stars at night. When we see the same water and sky that the earliest people saw, the sweep of history carries us along.

Limnologists tell us that Lake Superior is oligotrophic — a young lake. All five Great Lakes remain geological adolescents, but we’ve grown older. In 1535, when Jacques Cartier ascended the St. Lawrence River to what is now Montreal and learned there were vast seas to the west, Leonardo da Vinci had been dead only 16 years, and Copernicus was mathematically demonstrating the heretical assertion that the Earth orbited the sun and not vice versa. By the time separatists from the Church of England landed at Plymouth in 1620, the French explorer Étienne Brûlé already had spent 10 years exploring the Great Lakes and their surrounding forests, the land then known as le pays d’en haut, the Upper Country.

Of course, the place has changed much since then. A fine, recent book by environmental historian Nancy Langston, “Sustaining Lake Superior,” documents the changes of the past, as well as those we’re likely to see in the future. Among the most significant of them is that it is warming.

Researchers say the average surface temperature has increased 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1979, enough, Langston writes, to explain why algae blooms are showing up where they had never been seen and why invasive species are expanding their ranges. Another consequence is that snowfall amounts are declining, and major rain events are increasing, causing contaminants from municipal wastewater systems and farmland to wash into the lake. Additionally, surrounding forests likely will become stressed, resulting in die-offs that trigger wildfires, erosion, and sediment runoff and debris into Superior and its tributaries.

Luckily, not all the changes are so ominous. People are more committed to protecting the lake than they were 50 or 100 years ago, and judging from those I’ve met, their children will be, as well. We’ve learned that ecosystems, with their interconnected populations of plants and animals, have an impact that extends hundreds or thousands of miles, making it everyone’s business to protect, conserve and restore them. And, best of all, Lake Superior country remains the wildest and most majestic place in the middle of the continent. It’s no wonder we’re so passionate about defending it.

Historians say that on much of Superior, there is less boat traffic now than at any time since the age of the fur traders. Travelers from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries wrote often about how busy the lake was. Every day and often every hour, they met Ojibwe or French-Canadian voyageurs in canoes, barges rowed by British soldiers, schooners with their decks piled high with lumber or their holds heavy with copper, or chugging steamers carrying immigrants, tourists and cargo.

Yet, when you travel by boat today, notice that a few miles past the cities and their safe harbors you have the lake mostly to yourself. A distant ore carrier might break the horizon, and jet trails probably will trace the sky. Otherwise, it’s just you, the water and the sky, as it has been since the beginning.

Author and essayist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City. He and illustrator Glenn Wolff regularly collaborate on projects.

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