The Living Great Lakes, by Jerry Dennis

The Living Great Lakes, by Jerry Dennis

“This lake without sails, this shore which does not yet show any trace of the passage of man, this eternal forest which borders it; all that, I assure you, is not grand in poetry only; it’s the most extraordinary spectacle that I have seen in my life.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1831)

Jerry Dennis is a Michigan native and author living in Traverse City, Michigan. He is a prolific and talented writer who, in “The Living Great Lakes,” brings to life the awe, expansiveness, and turbulent nature of the Great Lakes. 

It’s hard to appreciate the Great Lakes, one of our planet’s most impressive and important natural resources, without seeing them firsthand. 

In various conversations throughout the years, for example, I’ve had numerous people express surprise that you cannot see across, say, Lake Michigan, while standing on the shore. 

The Great Lakes aren’t truly appreciated for their scope and power. 

Neither is the danger. The lake bottoms are littered with the remains of ships with crews who challenged the lakes, and lost everything. Some were simply swept under in the powerful storms that arise quickly, from seemingly nowhere.

Dennis takes us on his journey through the lakes—and beyond—from Chicago all the way out to the Atlantic. Along the way, he shares the history and science behind the Great Lakes, while also illustrating why is it so important to protect them.

And while we are getting better at keeping the lakes clean (it’s been a long time since Lake Erie caught fire …) pollutants and invasive species still threaten the Great Lakes’ natural balance. 

Dennis sails with different vessels to complete his journey through the lakes. First, he boards a sailboat for the Chicago-to-Mackinac Sailboat Race, blending in with a private crew trying to grab its first victory. But sailing the lakes is a unique challenge:

We were in open water now, exposed to the biggest waves. They were typical of the Great Lakes—not rollers, but steep, short-period wind waves. Freshwater is less dense than salt water, so lake waves rise quicker and run faster and can be harder for a boat to negotiate than the long rollers of saltwater seas.

Dennis brings the lakes to life with his writing:

From the Gauntlet that morning we watched the sun rise slowly, an orange glow in the whiteness, as the fog disintegrated a droplet at a time.

Following the race, Dennis boards the Malabar, a cement-hulled schooner sporting two sixty-foot masts. We sail with him through trials--on the water and amongst the crew--learning about the history and perils of Superior, Huron, Erie, Ontario, and the Erie Canal, before traveling down the Hudson and out to sea. 

The Great Lakes are underappreciated and misunderstood. Their ecological, historical, and meteorological impacts are far larger than people who haven’t spend time around them can appreciate. In The Living Great Lakes, Dennis takes us on an interesting and enlightening journey, and it’s time well spent on the high (freshwater) seas.