Shining Big Sea WaterFrom Norman K. Risjord’s Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior

Lake scientists estimate that it takes about four hundred years for a drop of water entering the western end of Lake Superior to reach the St. Mary’s River at its eastern end. Thus, some of the waters passing through the Soo locks today, though depleted by evaporation and supplemented by rain and snowfall, began their passage across the lake about the time that the English were settling Jamestown and Plymouth.

The journey of one such dropletslipping into the lake out of the St. Louis River and drifting slowly on a gentle current and west windwould have been a very lonely one for the first century or so. Its first contact with something solid might have been a birch canoe, paddled by a pair of Ojibwe and loaded with wild rice from the sloughs around Chequamegon Bay. Perhaps fifty years later it was part of a giant wave that drove a fur-laden schooner onto Keweenaw’s rocky shore. Another century passed, and it was whipped into a froth of air bubbles by the screw propeller of an ore boat off AuSable Point. Then, after another half century that could be only yesterday, the droplet encountered its first pollution as it drifted into Whitefish Baya drop of oil and a collection of coliform bacteria from a freighter inbound from Europe with a rusty engine and no onboard sanitary facility. Here was the first indication of the perils to come on its journey through the lower lakesencountering silt, industrial chemicals, agricultural pesticides, and humanwastesbefore, after several hundred years more, flowing down the St. Lawrence River into the chill waters of the North Atlantic.

Lake Superior today is actually cleaner and clearer than it was at the end of the Ice Age, when it was so clouded by glacial drift that it could not even sustain fish. It is far less polluted than the lower lakes because its cool climate and infertile environs discourage commercial agriculture and because its lake ports have not gown into densely populated metropolises. Politicians and scientists, moreover, have profited by troubles in the lower lakes, and they are better prepared to combat pollution in the largest of the world’s freshwater lakes. To be sure, Lake Superior has had its share of problems in the past hundred yearssome that have confounded both scientists and politiciansbut, with vigilant guard against alien invaders and regulations to prevent human pollution, there is reason to be optimistic about its future.


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