Get to know a Great Lake: Superior

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on October 3, 2016
A late 19th-century watercolour rendering of Otter Head on Lake Superior (William Armstrong/Toronto Public Library).



As the Great Lakes Public Forum takes place in Toronto this week, profiles each of the Great Lakes. Today: Lake Superior.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy.

— Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” 1976

Large, remote, otherworldly and wild: Lake Superior has long stimulated the imagination. Early Indigenous peoples depicted their lives in pictographs on its cliff walls. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” cast the lake as “shining Big-Sea-Water.” The Group of Seven captured the essence of the raw wilderness and rocky landforms, as recently seen in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Lawren Harris exhibition. The legacy of shipwrecks, which prompted Rudyard Kipling to call the lake “a hideous thing to find in the heart of a continent,” echoed through singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s chronicle of Superior’s most recent major disaster, the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, in which all 29 of the American ore freighter’s crew were lost.

Superior’s vast size — 82,100 square kilometres of surface area (the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area), 12,100 cubic kilometres of water (more than the other Great Lakes combined), depths as great as 406 metres — has inspired intimidation and wonder since Indigenous people arrived on its shores around 8,000 years ago. Like its four smaller siblings, Superior owes its existence to glacial movements which scraped the rift that formed its basin. The scratches the ice sheets left behind on the north shore helped scientist Louis Agassiz during the mid-19th-century develop his theories surrounding ice ages. The lake assumed its current shape around 4,000 years ago, but its post-glacial recontouring continues: it is estimated that Superior’s basin is rising 53 centimetres per century. Superior flows into Lake Huron to the southeast via the St. Mary’s River, with the Soo Locks providing access for ships.

A mid-19th-century engraving shows explorers resting on the heavily wooded shore of Lake Superior's St. Ignace Island. (Credit: Louis Agassiz/Gould, Kendall & Lincoln/British Library)

The lake is bordered by Ontario on its east and north, and the states of Minnesota to the west, and Michigan and Wisconsin to the south. Its largest city is Thunder Bay (population 108,359), followed by Duluth, Minn., (86,110) and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (75,141).

Though the Ojibwa referred to Superior as Gitchigami, or “great lake,” it earned its modern name from its geographic position at the top of the chain. It sits at the edge of the Canadian Shield’s boreal forest, which covers over 90 per cent of Superior’s basin. The thin, acidic soil in the region supports trees such as fir, paper birch, pine and spruce. Wildlife includes black bears, grey wolves, ruffed grouse and woodland caribou. Native fish species include northern pike, sturgeon, trout, and whitefish. Of the five Great Lakes, it is the least affected by aquatic invasive species, though creatures such as sea lampreys have made inroads.

Natural resources brought Europeans to the lake, beginning with the fur trade. Copper and iron booms in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the 1840s all but provided investors a licence to print money. At its peak, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company issued $27.7 million in dividends between 1871 and 1886. When prices collapsed, so did the towns that housed miners, leaving a string of ghostly ruins.

The mining industry was no match for the raw power of the area’s natural elements. Silver was discovered in 1868 at the end of the Sibley Peninsula, east of present-day Thunder Bay. While the Silver Islet mine produced an impressive 17,000 ounces of silver per ton of ore at its peak in the mid-1870s, officials vainly strove to keep the lake out of the mine. Whenever the breakwater was rebuilt, storm waves knocked it out. By 1876, with the escalating expense of running pumps, the mine was abandoned.

Perhaps Silver Islet’s investors should have heeded an Ojibwa legend surrounding the peninsula. The story goes that the trickster Nanabozo introduced the Ojibwa to the rich silver reserve, but warned that if white men learned about the mine, he would turn to stone. The silver ornaments the Ojibwa produced provoked jealousy among Sioux warriors. Sure enough, they passed along the secret. A Sioux scout led white men to the site, but a storm arose, during which Nanabozo’s warning was realized. Nanabozo’s solidified body gave the peninsula its current name, the Sleeping Giant.

The supernatural quality of that story is echoed in the otherworldliness of accounts by visitors to Superior. Travelling on the lake during the 1760s, explorer Jonathan Carver noted that the water was “as pure and transparent as air,” causing his canoe to seem “as if it hung suspended in that element.” The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 came during the lake’s most treacherous month, November, when the risks of high winds, tall waves and dropping temperatures sent many ships to their doom. The shipping industry has been vital to the region’s economy, transporting grain, minerals and timber. The lake’s major port, Duluth, handles 38 metric tons of cargo per year.

Superior’s remoteness has allowed the creation of parks at its lake edge on both sides of the border, such as Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, and Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park in Ontario. Travellers weren’t able to fully drive the northern shore until Highway 17 was finished in 1960. Compared to its southern siblings, Superior’s rugged allure and barely spoilt beauty hint at mysteries waiting to be explored.

Tomorrow: The shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect.

Read more: The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

Thinking of your experience with, how likely are you to recommend to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Politics