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Great Minds, Great Lakes


Social Studies

The Journey of the Great Lakes



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A sailor's life journeying the five Great Lakes sounds romantic, but not all the journeys have been smooth sailing. The Great Lakes have seen their share of shipwrecks over the years.

Explorer Robert de LaSalle's ship, the Griffin, one of the first large ships ever to sail the Great Lakes, was launched in 1679 and carried a load of furs out of Green Bay on its maiden voyage. She was never seen again and no splinter ever washed ashore. The Griffin leads the long parade of ghost ships that provide us with the great mysteries of the Great Lakes.

In 1871 alone, 1,167 disasters were recorded. In the two decades between 1878 and 1898, the United States Commissioner of Navigation reported 5,999 vessels wrecked on the Great Lakes and 1,093 of these were total losses. 1905 was a particularly bad year on the Lakes with 271 vessels damaged, 54 of which were lost through the stress of weather.

Whereas luck and intuition were the tools available to early skippers, today's captains have the finest and most sophisticated navigational aids available. Ships are equipped with weather warning systems, radios, direction finders, and depthometers. Careful study of previous shipwrecks has taught us how to improve ship construction and methods of navigation.

Despite all that modern technology can offer, surviving a Great Lakes storm is still a challenge. The storms of the Great Lakes have been compared with a witches brew,” and a devil's harvest. Storms can explode across hundreds of miles of open water with little or no warning. Storms on the Great Lakes often can be more difficult to navigate than ocean storms. Waves on the Great Lakes jump and strike quickly compared to the lethargic rolling and swelling of ocean waves.

Just as there are comparisons to be made between ocean storms and lake storms, there are differences in the way each of the Great Lakes reacts in a storm. Most veteran captains and crews find Lake Erie the least agreeable in either fair or foul weather because of its shallow depth and muddy bottom.

Lake Superior is a favorite among mariners because its large size affords the greatest amount of room for maneuvering during a storm. However, it too poses a challenge to navigate with its rocky coastline, cold temperatures (40 degrees in summer or winter), and huge waves that develop because of the Lakes depth. An ancient Chippewa legend warns that Superior never gives up its dead.

Lake Michigan commands the greatest respect among seafarers for several reasons. Prevailing winds sweep its length and the currents caused by wind shifts around the Straits of Mackinac cause it to be the trickiest of the Lakes to keep on course. It also has a scarcity of natural harbors and human-made places of refuge.


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