36+ Things You Didn’t Know About The Great Lakes

antique map of the great lakes

Well, maybe unless you’re one of the 34 million people in the U.S. and Canada that live in the Great Lakes basin. (That’s 8% of the U.S. population and about 32% of Canada’s population!)

The Great Lakes are a geological marvel, a defining North American natural formation that plays home to millions of Americans and Canadians and hosts a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna. With rich cultural history, amazing sights, and a wide range of exciting buried treasures, these lakes are hotspots for beachcombers from around the world. 

Great Lakes fun facts

  1. Want to guess how many gallons of water the Great Lakes hold? Combined, it’s six quadrillion gallons. That’s six with 15 zeros, or 6,000,000,000,000,000. The 3.2 quadrillion gallons contained in Lake Superior alone make up 10% of the world’s total fresh surface water, and the lakes combined contain more than 90% of the United States’ surface freshwater. 
  1. The Great Lakes aren’t just deep—if you stretched the shorelines of all five great lakes, you could wrap them halfway around the world. That’s a lot of beaches to comb!
  1. The Great Lakes are a colossal shipping hub, with 125 million tons of cargo transported each year, including mined products like iron, coal, and stone, and agricultural products like wheat, oats, and soybeans.
  1. At least 17 different indigenous tribes originated around the Great Lakes Region, some of them with histories in the area as far back as 10,000 BC. Lake Erie: From the Erie tribe, taken from the Iroquoian word erielhonan “long tail.” Lake Huron: Named after the Wyandot tribe, called “Hurons” by early French explorers. The Wyandot named the lake karegnondi, translated as “Freshwater Sea,” “Lake of the Hurons,” or simply “lake.” Lake Michigan: From the Ojibwe word mishi-gami “great water” or “large lake.” Lake Ontario: From the Wyandot word ontarí’io “lake of shining waters.” Lake Superior: From the French term lac supérieur “upper lake.” The Ojibwe named it gichi-gami, translated as “big/large/great water/lake/sea.”

lake superior

Lake Superior, aka Big Papa, aka seriously it’s really, really big

  1. Lake Superior is so massive that it’s technically not a lake at all, but rather an inland sea. 
  1. Using the water in all four of its sibling lakes, you still wouldn’t be able to fill Lake Superior. With the water in Superior, you could cover all of North and South America with 1 foot of water (but why would you want to?).
  1. Isle Royale is a giant island resting in the middle of giant Lake Superior. Remarkably, inside this island, there are other, smaller lakes. Is there a word for a lake inside another lake? Why, yes there is: a recursive lake. Though not all feature this fascinating lake-ception, there are a total of 35,000 islands in the entirety of the Great Lakes.
  1. Considering Lake Superior’s awe-inspiring size, you’d think it’s been here for millions and millions of years, but it’s actually only about 10,000 years old—extremely young by Earth standards.
  1. Though the lake is young, Lake Superior agates found on the beaches here are perhaps some of the oldest agates in the world, formed about a billion years ago. When the North American continent split, lava welled up in the area of what is now Lake Superior. Bubbles of air were trapped in the lava and when it cooled, water seeped into the bubble holes and deposited colorful layers of mineral-rich water.
  1. There are only small outlets by which Lake Superior disposes of its water—so small that it takes about two centuries for all of the water to replace itself.
  1. The deceptively treacherous Great Lakes have been home to thousands of shipwrecks with nearly 30,000 deaths. But at the south end of Lake Superior rests a particularly deadly stretch of shallow waters—Shipwreck Coast. It’s alleged that more than 300 ships have fallen prey to the vicious winds and rocky 
shallows of this area.

lake erie beach

Lake Erie, aka Eerie Erie, aka Bessie’s Lair, aka fish heaven, aka has a Napoleon complex

  1. Though Erie has the second smallest surface area, least volume, and shallowest depth of all the Great Lakes, it is still the 11th largest lake by surface area in the world.
  1. In the (embarrassingly shallow) depths of Erie, there lives a rumored 40-foot-long serpent-like monster named Bessie. The earliest recorded sighting happened nearly 50 years ago, and intermittent sightings of Bessie since then have sparked many wild theories.
  1. Unlike Lake Superior, the water in Lake Erie replaces itself every two and a half years, a huge contrast to the former’s two-century water retention duration.
  1. Lake Erie is one of the more densely populated Great Lakes. It’s surrounded by the most industry, along with the most metropolitan areas—with 17 cities including Cleveland, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York.
  1. For centuries, the household waste from these cities was discarded into the lakes, and beachcombers still find the smoothed remains on Lake Erie beaches. 
  1. Industrial waste from the manufacture of light bulb insulators was discarded into the lake for years. Softened by years in the waves, this purple and blue beach glass is found on the southern shores of Lake Erie.
  1. Humans aren’t the only ones that have made Erie their home. Lake Erie alone contains about half of the total Great Lakes fish population. 130 different species of fish thrive here due to Erie’s mild temperatures and the massive population of the foundational-food-chain building block, plankton.
  1. The remains of ancient life are also found on Lake Erie’s beaches, where beachcombers find fossils of animals and plants that lived in the area when it was an ancient sea.

lake michiganLake Michigan, aka the all-American, aka the popular one

  1. If it weren’t for the shallow Straits of Mackinac separating them, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron would be actually considered one single lake, with the same mean water level.
  1. Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is the only one to be completely within U.S. territory, bordering eight states. Take that, Canada!
  1. The Lake Michigan Triangle is a supposedly cursed area historically plagued with mysterious events, starting with the inexplicable disappearance of a three-masted Schooner in 1891. There have also been alleged UFO sightings.
  1. In the 1800s, Lake Michigan played host to an unexpected intruder: pirates. These timber thieves contributed to rapid deforestation in the area and even influenced the fall of Singapore, Michigan, a notorious sunken ghost town that was completely abandoned in 1871.
  1. Lake Michigan is home to the Petoskey stone, a highly-sought-after beachcombing treasure that is both a rock and a fossil. These prehistoric beauties are fragments of a Devonian period coral reefs, and can be found on beaches and sand dunes along the shore, along with many other fossils of prehistoric sea creatures.
  1. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is home to Yoopers (from the “yooper” peninsula, get it?) as well many beautiful beach rocks, including the glowing Yooperlite, a rock that contains fluorescent sodalite. You can find them with a super-strong UV blacklight flashlight on a nighttime beachcombing adventure. 

lake huron

Lake Huron, aka snakey shoreline aka the one with secrets 

  1. The USS Keystone State, a large and luxurious wooden steamship operating during the Civil War, mysteriously disappeared after leaving the Lake Michigan shores of Chicago in 1861. Incredibly, it was rediscovered eight years ago in Lake Huron under 175 feet of water.
  1. The trade of the Great Lakes began in 1615, when French explorers reached Lake Huron and encountered native peoples who were economically self-sustaining and complete masters of their environment. The French explorers traded needles, fish hooks, hatchets, traps, and guns for furs and skins from the indigenous peoples.
  1. Though Lake Huron is filled with fresh water, more than 500 meters underground, beneath the floor of Lake Huron, you can find part of Goderich Mine, the largest salt mine in the world.
  1. Seven years ago, an incredibly complex caribou hunting site was found almost 40 meters below the surface of Lake Huron. The 9,000-year-old camp was found on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, a once-dry land corridor bridging Michigan and Ontario.
  1. At the bottom of Lake Huron there are massive sinkholes with high sulfur, low oxygen, and unique ecosystems that bear remarkable similarity to Earth’s oceans over 3 million years ago.
lake ontario

Lake Ontario aka the spaceman aka bigger than you thought

  1. Though Lake Ontario has the smallest surface area of all the lakes, it is actually remarkably deep, holding four times more water than Erie, which is slightly bigger on the surface.
  1. The Lake Ontario we can see is actually one of two Lake Ontarios—to see the second, you’d have to travel 930 million miles away to Saturn’s moon Titan. Ontario Lacus has a very similar surface shape to its Earthling twin, and its surface area is almost identical as well.
  1. While its siblings all sit at an elevation of about 175–185 meters, Lake Ontario rests at an elevation of 75m. Since it acts as the outlet for every other Great Lake, Ontario is, unfortunately, likely the most polluted of the Great Lakes.
  1. Lake Ontario is home to the Thousand Islands region, a sprawling archipelago of 1,864 islands of varying sizes between the U.S. and Canada.
  1. Lake Ontario is bordered by over 100 beaches, including the massive Sandbanks Provincial Park, the largest freshwater dune system in the entire world.
  1. If you’re hungry after beachcombing for fossils and rocks found on the shores of Lake Ontario, don’t try the puddingstones. Though they may look (and maybe taste) like fruitcake, they’re actually sandstone embedded with colorful pieces of jasper and granite.

triscuit cracker ad

Bonus wacky fact: You may recognize Niagara Falls for its awesome beauty and astonishing power, but what you may not know if that it’s also the origin of a popular snack cracker. In 1903, the Shredded Wheat Company in Niagara Falls, New York, began to sell crackers they proudly proclaimed had been “baked by electricity.” These elec-TRI-ity bi-SCUITS still go by the same clever name they did back then—Triscuits.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2021 issue.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published