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'The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes': Precious Resources In Peril

The sun sets over the Mackinac Bridge and the Mackinac Straits as seen from Lake Huron. The bridge is the dividing line between Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Huron to the east. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
The sun sets over the Mackinac Bridge and the Mackinac Straits as seen from Lake Huron. The bridge is the dividing line between Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Huron to the east. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

With David Folkenflik

Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior. We’ll explore the allure of the Great Lakes – and the perils facing them.


Dan Egan, reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Senior water policy fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. Author of “ The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” ( @danpatrickegan)

You Submitted Your Great Lakes Stories, And We Listened

The Great Lakes constitute 20 percent of the globe’s fresh water. They provide drinking water to 40 million people. And they’re now infested with invasive species, brought in by the global shipping industry.

To get to the heart of this conversation, we wanted to hear from listeners about their stories and memories of the Great Lakes. Here’s a selection of what we heard.

From Karen Glosser: “I have lived near Lake Erie my whole life. As a fine art nature photographer, I find this lake so inspiring. My work centers around expressing the emotions I feel as I sit at her shore, whether it be the calm serenity of a sweet summer day, or the wild intensity of a November gale. (Which, incidentally, is happening as I write this. Today was one the most intense days I’ve ever spent shooting out there!) I use my camera as a tool, as a painter would use a paintbrush, pushing myself to capture the moment in a unique way, in the hopes that the viewer will feel, and learn to appreciate and love this lake the way I do.

“Through my work at Lake Erie, I have become a Bluemind Ambassador, sharing the message of how important clean, heathy, accessible water is to us, and that being near, in, on, or under water relieves stress, and is healing to our mental and emotional state. (The bluemind movement was initiated by marine biologist, Wallace J. Nichols. You can learn more in his book of the same name, Bluemind.)

“I also work with WildBlueSea, an organization that brings awareness to the problem of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic Watershed. As a site host at Barcelona Beach, in Westfield NY, on Lake Erie, I host quarterly beach cleanups and work to bring awareness to this environmental problem that affects all of us.

“Lake Erie is not only my physical home (I live about 15 minutes away), but more importantly, this lake is my heart’s home. My soul’s home.”

From John Hermanson: “Here I sit looking out my window overlooking Sturgeon Bay’s (Door County, Wisconsin) channel connecting Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay. I see rafts of Canada geese and groups of bufflehead, diving ducks, congregating on the water as winter gains a foothold.

“I feel gratitude to be able to watch daily events unfold out my window including Thursday night sailboat races, soaring pelicans and an occasional Great Lakes freighter seeking repairs at Bay Ship.

“I feel grief for all that has been lost as highlighted in Dan Egan’s, ‘The Death & Life of the Great Lakes’ and angst since today is November 6th, Election Day and returns are just coming in. This highlights the need to create the political will to protect the Great Lakes.

“I also feel hope do to nature’s resilience as supported by a whitefish comeback. This fish has evolved to eat invasive round gobies and invasive mussels. Another ray of hope locally is a promising restoration of wild rice to the Lower Green Bay.

“An incredible local opportunity, and recently resurfacing proposal, is the creation of The Grand Traverse Islands National Lakeshore. This proposal would include islands connecting Wisconsin’s Door County to upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula. What also adds to the intrigue is that these islands are part of the Niagara Escarpment, a prominent geologic feature. The Escarpment forms a great arc stretching from eastern Wisconsin through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across Ontario, Canada and on through the Niagara Falls in New York.

“Our local challenges in Northeastern Wisconsin include farming’s excess nutrients (dead zones), climate change and invasive species along with concerns of smart development in Door County.

“My personal strategy is to get involved by joining local, regional and national groups to educate myself and amplify my wishes for Great Lakes supporting policies.

“I also support research science focused on the Great Lakes and attempt to listen and build relationships based on a common love of this place.”

From Carolyn Shimek: “While in grad school in the late 1970’s, I interned for a summer with the Evanston Environmental Association (Illinois), which included serving as assistant lighthouse keeper at the Grosse Pointe lighthouse on the Lake Michigan shore. This summer also gave me the opportunity to paddle with a group of hearty locals in 26-foot and 32-foot canoes. These fiberglass boats are replicas of the French voyageur watercraft that plied the waters of the Great Lakes and surrounding rivers, essentially the long-haul truck drivers of the 1800’s. We paddled twice a week on Lake Michigan, launching from the beach below the Grosse Pointe lighthouse, for exercise, good company and the wind-in-you-hair feeling on the open water. The group took a week long “expedition,” launching at the tip of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and ending at Mackinac Island. We were a sight to see, both trailering these “freighter” canoes on the roads, and paddling the big waters along the north shore of Lake Michigan. I still canoe today: my husband and I are still backcountry canoe people, including two trips in the backcountry of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Minnesota), where those voyageurs haunted the many lakes and rivers and swamps that thread that area.”

From Brian Hanson: “I have a somewhat unique perspective on this issue. My dad was the Chief of Environmental Resources for the Corps of Engineers – North Central Division from the mid 50’s to the mid 70’s. We stayed with the chief engineer for the Mackinac Bridge while it was being built. (I can’t remember his name, but he was also the chief engineer for the Soo Locks at the time when we stayed with him for the Soo Locks centennial in 1955.) Dad was also instrumental in putting coho salmon in the Great Lakes to control invasive sea lampreys. My dad would be spinning in his grave for what the current administration is doing to allow damage to our environment.

“I now live just across the street from Little Bay de Noc at the extreme northwest corner of Lake Michigan. Just looking out my window at that water is good for my soul.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” by Dan Egan

Reprinted from THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT LAKES by Dan Egan. Copyright © 2017 by Dan Egan. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

PBS NewsHour: “ How journalist Dan Egan wrote the life (and death) story of the Great Lakes” — “Dan Egan likes to say that he may be the only journalist in America whose beat is the Great Lakes. A daily reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Egan reports on everything from invasive species to oil spills to algae blooms. Much of that work — reported for the paper over the course of a decade — made itself into ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.’

“Below, Dan Egan shares more about his inspiration for the book, including his daily writing routine, favorite childhood book and the best bit of writer’s advice he’s ever received. He also shares where he thinks the most interesting and overlooked stories can be found — in your local paper. Here are five questions with Egan, in his words.”

The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, and they define life for 40 million people who live nearby. Its story is one of exploration, innovation, piracy, wrecks and one iron-clad law — the law of unintended consequences. The lakes look healthier than they had in decades. But that’s a mirage — thanks to the arrival of marauding sea life.

This hour, On Point: the death and life of the Great Lakes.

—  David Folkenflik

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.