Today I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see an intimidating, mercurial freshwater ocean. I see a lake the Ojibwa called Gitchee Gumee—“Big Sea”—and revered like no other. I see a lake whose average annual temperature is just 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Forty degrees. A shipwrecked person floating in such water would be dead in just a few hours. I see a lake whose violent temper sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot freighter that disappeared in 1975 in hurricane-force winds and twenty-five-foot waves, sending twenty-nine humbled men to a watery grave. I see a lake so large that she creates her own weather—often changing without warning, catching even the most seasoned sailor off-guard. I see a lake that is no place for charlatans—where there are old sailors and there are brazen sailors, but there are no old, brazen sailors.
Today I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see a unique, fragile, cold-water ecosystem. I see the largest surface area of delicious freshwater in the world. I see a lake so deep (more than 1,300 feet) that her steepest underwater canyon is the lowest spot on the North American continent. I see a lake so large that she could swallow all four of the other Great Lakes and still have room to spare. I see the mother of all lakes, the headwaters of a great basin that holds one-fifth of all the fresh surface water on the planet. I see a five-lake ecosystem that contains enough water to cover the Lower 48—every American acre south of the Canadian border—with 9.5 feet of crystal clear Great Lakes water. I see an ecosystem that quenches the thirst of billions of creatures and some forty million people in eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.
Today I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see a naïve innocent, a voluptuous bounty on the verge of violation. I see millions of angry, parched people from far-flung venues who view “undeveloped water” as a wasted opportunity. I see dryland farmers clamoring with sharp spigots, claiming they can’t feed the world without more irrigation. I see thousands of massive supertankers lining up on behalf of millions of thirsty Asians. I see endless Ro- manesque canals carrying water to manicured lawns in a burgeoning, unsustainable Sunbelt. I see anxious scientists who worry about the transformations that climate change could bring. I see Great Lakes politicians destructively bickering among themselves, ultimately threatening the lakes they hope to save. I see urban voters—with no connection to land, water, or wildlife—who elect their dilettante peers to public office, affecting water policy everywhere. I see countless people inexplicably bypassing cold, refreshing water from the tap, so they can spend more money on water in a bottle. I see subsidized farmers who waste water on inefficient irrigation by growing surplus crops that the nation doesn’t need. I see international entrepreneurs rubbing their hands with the thought of getting rich from something that comes out of the ground for free. I see wasteful water practices throughout the Great Lakes Basin that historians will look back upon with scorn. I see water—clear, cold, luscious water—that most see the value in taking, and few see the value in leaving. I see millions upon millions of Great Lakes residents who underestimate the struggle that awaits them.
Today, when I stand on the shores of Lake Superior, I don’t see
a lake. I see a sprawling deep blue battleground that stretches from
Duluth, Minnesota, to Trois Rivières, Québec—and
I wonder, who will win the war?