977 The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis (2003).
As a child, I loved the north shore of Lake Superior. Driving north to go canoeing in the Boundary Waters with my dad, we’d pick our way up the shore, passing familiar landmarks that always felt, to me, like coming home: Duluth, where the air would cool suddenly; Two Harbors, which always felt like the first true northern town; Gooseberry Falls, with great scrambling on the rocks; Lutsen, where we stayed overnight and I always tried to wade in the lake but was driven out by the frigid waters. My concept of the Great Lakes basically began and ended with this one shore of Lake Superior.
When I moved to Ontario as an adult, I had to relearn all of the lakes. My vantage point shifted from Lake Superior= north to Great Lakes= south, west, southwest. Sometimes I still mutter the mnemonic “Super Man Helps Every One” when I’m trying to remember which one is Huron and which is Erie. Plus, there’s that enormous Georgian Bay, which would be a lake in its own right anywhere else.
When I saw The Living Great Lakes, I was immediately drawn to it. The core of the book is the six-week journey of the Malabar, a schooner that Dennis helps to crew from Lake Superior to its new owner on the East Coast. He learns the ship’s routine and gets to know the captain and crew (which seemed surprisingly small to me– just 3-4 people), all the while mixing in stories relevant to each lake, or each location. Many of the tales are of shipwrecks and heavy weather; some are of environmental disaster and a few of heartening environmental recovery. There are close calls when the Malabar is run aground, doses of French explorers, and fascinating boat-centered accounts of Detroit (it’s so easy to forget that it even has a waterfront).
I quite enjoyed the book, though it does have two distinct flaws. The first is that it centers mostly on Lake Michigan, and especially on the area of the northwest Michigan coast where the author lives– fair enough, but I wish he’d had more on all of the Great Lakes. The second flaw is a point of style. The book reads like a loose collection of anecdotes, without any real coherent central thread, despite the idea of using the Malabar‘s journey as the link. The best example of this is a chapter where he tells a truly moving story from his childhood of watching fishermen capsize and drown within sight of shore, unable to make it through the pounding waves to safety. It’s the best piece of writing in the book and is, not coincidentally, rewritten from a previously published standalone magazine piece.
All of the stories, anecdotes, and tidbits are interesting, though, and they make for an enjoyable read if you’re willing to just take them as they come. I suppose it’s rather like any rambling trip across or around the Great Lakes: best undertaken with only a loose agenda and plenty of time for diversions along the way.