Get to know a Great Lake: Huron

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on October 5, 2016
Lake Huron was a crossroads for Indigenous confederacies and nations. (Lake Huron Beach, Southampton/Toronto Public Library)

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As the Great Lakes Public Forum takes place in Toronto this week, TVO.org profiles each of the Great Lakes today, Lake Huron.

This is called “The Bluewater Country,” and certainly the waters of Lake Huron are amazingly blue, every shade from robin’s egg to ultramarine, with a touch of cobalt and a dash of navy. Its fascinating colour is its greatest charm.

– John and Marjorie Mackenzie, Ontario In Your Car, 1950.

The pristine blue waters of Lake Huron were called Gichi-aazhoogami-gichigami, or "great crossway sea" by the Ojibwe — appropriate given its role as a crossroads for Lakes Michigan and Superior. The lake was also a crossroads for Indigenous confederacies and nations, and by the 17th century it had also become a conflict zone between Algonquin and Iroquois groups. Agrarian settlements emerged in areas like the modern Huronia region of Ontario, which were occupied on 10-to-20-year cycles based on soil fertility. Among the peoples who lived along Huron’s shores were the Fox, Huron Wendat, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Sauk.

When Samuel de Champlain arrived on the south shore of Georgian Bay in 1615, he dubbed the lake La Mer Douce (“the gentle sea”). In 1639, a French Jesuit mission was established at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, where cooperation with the Huron Wendat allowed the priests to create a self-sufficient community far from the rest of New France. After a decade, attacks by rival Iroquois nations prompted residents to burn down the mission, leaving the ruins undisturbed for nearly 300 years.

Huron’s 59,600 square kilometres make it the second largest Great Lake and the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world. It boasts the most shoreline (6,157 kilometres, including its over 30,000 islands) and largest bay (Georgian) among its siblings, as well as the world’s largest freshwater island (Manitoulin). Water flows in from Lake Superior via the St. Mary’s River and Lake Michigan through the Straits of Mackinac. It flows out to Lake Erie via the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River. On average, it runs 59 metres deep.

What exactly constitutes Huron is a subject of longstanding disagreement. Some explorers considered Georgian Bay a lake on its own, separated by the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin, while modern hydrologists consider Lakes Huron and Michigan one body of water, as they are separated by a strait instead of a river.

The lake is bordered by Ontario to the east and north, and Michigan to the west. Its largest city is Sarnia, Ontario (72,366), followed by Port Huron, Michigan (29,330) and Collingwood, Ontario (19,241). Overall, the Lake Huron basin is home to 3 million people, split evenly between Canada and the United States. At its south end, the Bluewater Bridge links its two largest municipalities. It is Canada’s second busiest border crossing for commercial traffic, seeing over 1.5 million truck journeys and $42.2 billion in trade annually.

About 68 per cent of the Huron basin is forested, containing trees such as ash, aspen, birch, cedar, cottonwood and maple. Wildlife includes cormorants, ducks, great blue herons and gulls. Manitoulin Island is home to 1,200 of Canada’s 5,000 vascular plant species. Around 90 species of fish reside in the lake, including carp, cisco, northern pike, smallmouth bass, trout, walleye and whitefish. As with Superior, the north end of Huron experienced a mineral boom in the 1840s when copper was found at Bruce Mines, though most mining activity evenutally moved further inland towards Sudbury.

The volume of shipwrecks in Huron has resulted in the creation of five bottomland preserves in Michigan (DeTour Passage, Sanilac Shores, Straits of Mackinac, Thumb Area, Thunder Bay) and Fathom Five National Park in Tobermory, Ont. These protected areas draw divers eager to discover the remains of lost ships.

Beyond diving, the blue waters have helped Huron develop a thriving tourism industry. In the north, Mackinac Island evolved from an Indigenous settlement to a British fort during the Revolutionary War to a Victorian-era summer resort. Today, it includes the only Michigan state highway where motorized vehicles are banned, and lends its name to the fudge found in every touristy site across the state. On the Canadian side, Manitoulin Island developed into a destination for travellers catching the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory. Beaches from Grand Bend to Wasaga fill up on hot summer days with partying crowds. Cottagers try to find rest along the Bruce Peninsula and all along Georgian Bay.

But Mother Nature isn’t as restful. Winter brings lake effect snowstorms and squalls which reach deep into western Ontario, producing treacherous driving conditions. One of the deadliest weather events ever experienced across the Great Lakes was the Great Storm of 1913, where two storms combined over five November days to produce hail, sleet, snow, and hurricane-strength winds. It hit Lake Huron particularly hard,as eight freighters were lost, killing around 200 people. For days afterwards, bodies washed up in Goderich, five of whom would be buried under a tombstone simply marked “sailors.”

Tomorrow: Lake Michigan

Read more: 

Get to Know a Great Lake: Superior

Get to Know a Great Lake: Erie

The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

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