How the Great Lakes were Formed

Great Lakes Glacial LakesIn the last ice age a mile thick ice sheet covered most of Canada and the northern part of the United States. The massive weight and movement of the glacier gouged the ear to form the lake basins. When the climate warmed about 20,000 years ago the ice sheet retreated and water from the melting glacier filled the basins.

The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. From the westernmost tip of Lake Superior at Duluth, Minn., to the easternmost tip of Lake Ontario at Watertown, N.Y., the Great Lakes stretch a thousand miles across both the U.S. and Canada, creating nearly 9,500 miles of ocean-like shores.

Did you Know?

  • That Michigan has more miles of freshwater shoreline than any other state in the nation? About 3,000 Miles, to be exact. Most of those miles are in Northern Michigan.
  • That Michigan is the only state that touches 4 of the five Great Lakes? Northern Michigan touches Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. In SE Michigan it touches Lake Erie. Lake Ontario is bordered by Canada and New York.
  • That the Great Lakes contain over 20% of the fresh water in the world? At an estimated 24,000 cubic miles of surface freshwater on the earth, the Great Lakes at over 5,400 cubic miles accounts for more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater.
  • That the Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world? The five Great Lakes span a total surface area of 94,600 square miles and are connected by a variety of lakes and rivers.
  • Great LakesThat The Great Lakes contain more than 35,000 islands? The largest is Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. This Canadian island is 1068 square miles. Georgian Bay, also in Canada has about ½ the islands.
  • That if all the water from Great Lakes were to spread across North America, the entire continent would be under 5 feet of water? Spread across the United States and it would cover the lower 48 states in 9.5 feet of water.
  • That the Great Lakes has ice volcanoes? These are unique to the Great Lakes and occur when waves under the ice force water or slush out through cone-shaped mounds of ice.
  • That over 200 million tons of cargo are shipped through the Great Lakes every year? This includes 50% of the Canada-US Trade
  • That the only floating zip code in the U.S. delivers mail to ships traveling the Great Lakes? The J.W. Westcott Co has been delivering official USPS mail to sailor on the Great Lakes since 1948. They have been delivering messages and goods to ships in the Great Lakes since 1874. To get mail to a merchant marine you would address it to: vessel name, Marine Post Office, Detroit, MI 48222.
  • That the Largest Fish in the Great Lakes are Sturgeon? They can weigh up to 300 pounds and measure up to 10 feet.

Lake Superior

Lake Superior Pictured RocksLake Superior is located above the Upper Peninsula. The Ojibwe called it Kitchigami which means “great lake”. The French missionaries noting its location at the top of the Great Lakes regions call it Le Lac Superior (upper lake). 

  • Lake Superior’s shoreline is 2900 miles. This would connect Duluth and Bahama Islands if straightened out?
  • Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. The lake is 380 miles long (east to west) and as much as 160 miles.
  • The largest freshwater lake in the world by Surface area is Lake Superior. Not only is it one of the largest by surface area, but it is the second largest lake in the world, second only to the Caspian Sea.
  • 10% of all the fresh water in the world is in Lake Superior. The only other lake that contains a larger volume of fresh water is Lake Baikal in Siberia.
  • Lake Superior has ½ of the water that is in all of the Great Lakes. It can hold all the water in Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie? And still have some room to spare!
  • Pouring 500 BILLION galls of water into Lake Superior it would raise the water level barely an inch. Lake Superior has about 3 quadrillion gallons of water!
  • At the deepest point in Lake Superior the Empire State Building would be entirely under water (except for the antenna peeking out). The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet from ground to roof, Lake Superior’s deepest point is 1,330 feet. The roof  line would be about 8 stories underwater!
  • Lake Superior has only frozen over 4 times in recorded history. Complete freezing happened in 1962, 1979, 2003 and 2009.
  • The largest wave ever recorded on Lake Superior was more than 30 feet tall. Because of its huge surface it can raise very large and dangerous waves.
  • There has been an estimated 550 shipwrecks in Lake Superior. Most are undiscovered and at least 200 of them lie along Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast. And 80 mile stretch of shoreline call “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” has no safe harbor between Munising and Whitefish Point.
  • The bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald is on display at the Great Lake Shipwreck Museum. The ship sank in Lake Superior in 1975 northwest of Whitefish Point. It was made famous in the Gordon Lightfoot song “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. The bell and more information can be found in the museum at Whitefish Point Lighthouse.

The Straits of Mackinac

In the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are at the same elevation. Technically they could be considered one lake, but the separate names are part of history. Lake Michigan is totally in the U.S. it is treated as American. Lake Huron is bisected by the international boundary between the United States and Canada.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Mackinac BridgeLake Michigan is located along the western coast and shares its shoreline with Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Its name is from the Ojibwa word Michi Gami which means “large lake”

  • Lake Michigan’s Shore has the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world. Protected dunes along the western coast of Michigan, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore make up the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes.
  • That only one of the Great Lakes is entirely in the United States. Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake with shores entirely in the U.S., the other 4 Great Lakes touch Canada.
  • That Lake Michigan has a “Bermuda Triangle” called the Michigan Triangle.  Occurrences that have happed include unexplained ship disappearances and missing planes. Near Traverse City, north of the triangle is a Stonehenge-like rock formation below the lake’s surfaces. Some speculate that the two phenomena are connected.
  • The largest lake entirely in the United States is Lake Michigan. It is also the world’s largest freshwater lake that is in only one country. Lake Michigan is the 4th largest freshwater lake in the world.
  • Lake Michigan was once known for its pirates. Their treasure was timber in the early days of logging.
  • The only freshwater underwater shrine in the world is in Northern Michigan. Located 800 feet offshore in Little Traverse Bay in Petoskey is an 11 foot crucifix that sits in over 20 feet of water. It was placed there in 1962 to honor a local diver who drowned, but was later expanded to memorialize all who have died in the water.
  • You can see the freshwater underwater shrine once a year in the dead of winter. A portal is cut through the four-foot-thick layer of ice to showcase the giant statue. Over a thousand people will walk out to see the shrine.

Lake Huron

Lake Huron BeachLake Huron is along the eastern coast including the “thumb” of Michigan and shares its shoreline with Canada. French Explorers originally named it La Mer Douce which means “the freshwater sea” It was later renamed after the Huron people who lived along the shores. 

  • Lake Huron has massive sinkholes. They contain microbial conditions similar to the oceans 3 billion years ago.
  • The nation’s only freshwater national marine sanctuary in located in Northeast Lower Peninsula. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron spans 4,300 square miles. You start your visit/exploring at the Great Lake Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena.
  • Lake Huron has the longest shoreline of the Great Lakes. The shoreline is over 3,800 miles and the lake is home to 30,000 islands.
  • That there have been over 1,000 shipwrecks on Lake Huron. Many are still on the bottom.
  • Along the northwestern shore of Lake Huron you can find the Puddingstone (Jasper Conglomerate). English settlers gave the stone its name because it looked like pudding with currants and red cherries.
  • Lake Huron experienced a cyclone (Hurricane Huron) that formed over the lake in 1996. Satellite images show that it resembled a tropical hurricane, complete with an 18-mile eye.
  • Alpena, Michigan and Ambersley, Ontario were once connected by a land bridge. In 2014 an ancient land bridge was discovered underwater that joined these two cities. They found an ancient caribou hunting blind that dates back to nearly 9,000 years.

Lake Erie

Lake ErieLake Erie is the smallest of the 4 Great Lakes that touch Michigan’s Shores. The lake was named for the Erie people that lived along its southern shores.

  • That Lake Erie has its own Loch Ness Monster that was first sited in 1793. Though not confirmed there are reports of people seeing a “large creature moving in the about 1,000 feet from their boat” as late at the 1990s. It was described as black in color and about 35 feet long. It had a snakelike head and moved as fast as a boat. This has been reported 3 other times by 5 people in modern history. In the 19th century there were reports of people seeing a sea creature. It was referred to as Bessie or South Bay Bessie.
  • The shallowest Great Lake is Lake Erie. Its deepest point is 210 but has an average depth of only 62 feet.
  • Lake Erie freezes over more than any other Great Lake. It freezes most winters due to its shallow depth.
  • The Walleye capital of the world is Lake Erie. It has the highest fish production of all the Great Lakes.
  • The largest vine culture in North America, outside of California is on Lake Erie’s shores. The area grows concord grapes and has earned the nickname “The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt”

Lake Ontario

Lake OntarioLake Ontario is between Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. It is the only Great Lake that does not border the State of Michigan, it is bordered by Canada and New York.

  • A creature has been sited in Lake Ontario too. In the 17th century there were reports of a green creature with a long neck that would break the surface.
  • Lake Ontario is the last chain in the Great Lakes. You can leave by way of the St. Lawrence River and go out into the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The Canadian Province was named after the lake not the other way around. Lake Ontario was originally call Cataraqui, a French spelling of the Mohawk Katarokwi. The lake is name from an Iroquois word for “a beautiful lake”.
  • A lake on one of Saturn’s moons is name Ontario Lacus after Lake Ontario. It is on the moon called Titan.
  • According to a legend, Babe Ruth’s first home run was sank into Lake Ontario. It is said to have landed right next to Toronto Island and has never been found.
  • There is an archipelago of approximately 2,000 islands on Lake Ontario. It is a popular destination call Thousand Islands. The islands line the boarder between Canada and the United States.

Watch for more facts and adventures in Northern Michigan!