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Great Lakes Journey: A New Look at America's Freshwater Coast

"This Book is easy to become immersed in and one that is often impossible to put down. I would strongly recommend [Great Lakes Journey] for anyone wanting to understand the Great Lakes and the environmental pressures that they are under."

--David Klarer, Inland Seas

"Engrossing, informative, descriptive, and lyrical."



Fate rarely calls for an appointment: it prefers to sneak up and smack us unaware. Mine caught up with me in Cleveland, Ohio, on a cold, gray, dismal March morning in 1981.

I had come to Cleveland to do an interview on – well, the subject no longer seems to matter very much. The flight I had booked arrived at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport on Sunday morning, and the man I had come to see was leaving for church. There were several hours to kill. It was March, it was cloudy, and it was Cleveland. Not, I thought, a particularly hopeful prospect.

I took the train downtown, to the bowels of Cleveland's fusty old beaux arts Terminal Tower. I stowed everything but my camera in a coin-op locker and ascended several dreary flights of broad marble stairs to street level. Outside, wind gusts rattled vagrant newspapers in Public Square. The sky was gray. The gray had bled onto everything else in sight. I could feel it running along my skin, testing my pores, trying to get inside.

I walked east and north up Rockwell and Saint Clair and Sixth, aiming vaguely toward City Hall. I crossed Lakeside to Pulaski Square. An ancient Polish cannon squatted near the far edge of the square, pointing north. I wandered over to it, peered into the barrel, sighted along it.

There was the Water.

It is one thing to read of fresh water that stretches like an ocean to the horizon: it is quite another to actually see it, beyond the colorless winter weeds at the bluff's edge, beyond the cut-up, mangled waterfront, a restless blue plain – blue, though the sky was gray – running north, running east, running west, beyond sight, beyond knowledge, beyond imagination. Gulls swooped above it, crying. I felt a click and shift in my life, and I knew it would never be the same.

Since that moment in Pulaski Square I have visited the Great Lakes many times. I have toured their coastlines, walked their woods and beaches, waded in their waters, and sailed upon them in vessels ranging from canoes to ocean liner-sized ferries. I have come to know them in storm and sunlight, by day and night, in fog and smog and morning dew. I have photographed them, researched them, and written about them. And I have watched them change.

It is the changes I wish to address in this book. There have been many of these during my long acquaintance with the Lakes: changes in water transparency, changes in contaminant levels, changes in species composition, changes in shoreline development. Changes in attitudes. Governments have changed the way they manage the Lakes; scientists have changed the way they study them. Parks have changed the way they protect them. About the only thing that hasn't changed is the basic shape of the Lakes themselves, and there are detail differences even in that.

We North Americans are uncomfortable to the point of irrationality with change. This applies equally well to developers, whose madness is to try to deny the existence of change, and to environmentalists, whose madness is to try to stop it. But change is funny: it gives the illusion of being easily stopped or denied, but it is actually not possible to do either. You can manage it, to an extent, but you cannot control it. Like fate, it will sneak up on you.

In the summer of 1983, still in the first flush of the epiphany that had struck me in Pulaski Square, I took a long trip by car through the Great Lakes Basin. Coming in through the Door – Wisconsin's Door Peninsula – I looped south around the bottom of Lake Michigan and loitered up its eastern shoreline to the Strait of Mackinac. I skirted Lake Huron's North Channel, passed through Sudbury, headed south through French River and Parry Sound to Toronto. Swung around the eastern end of Lake Ontario, through the Thousand Islands. Came on west through Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland and Toledo; north through Detroit and Saginaw and Alpena and St. Ignace; then west again, through Pictured Rocks and Marquette and the Keweenaw and the Apostles to Duluth and the North Shore, which I followed as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario. When I got home to Oregon I put what I had found into a book. It was called The Late, Great Lakes, and it told of the Great Lakes' past and present and some of their uncertain future.

In the summer of 1998, fifteen years after the first trip, I toured the basin once more. I followed much the same route, went to most of the same places, and talked to many of the same people. This book is a report of what I found the second time around.

--from the Prologue