Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Personal Connection

When you learn about the Great Lakes in school, teachers often use the mnemonic device HOMES to help remember the names of the lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. The order of that little memory jogger has no relationship to any properties of the lakes, such as depth, size or location. It’s just a way to remember their names.

Scientists often think of Lakes Michigan and Huron as one body of water because they are about the same elevation and are connected by a strait. Their water patterns are similar, too. When you look at a map of the Great Lakes, that connection is easy to see. There is another connection via the land mass known as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. To most of us, it is surprising that the UP is part of the state of Michigan rather than Wisconsin, especially the western part of the UP where there are more Packers fans than Lions fans. That’s no surprise, especially this year.

This morning I have a more personal connection between these two lakes on my mind. Until a last winter, our son, Ben, lived here in Kenosha on the shores of Lake Michigan. Two months ago, he moved to St. Clair Shores, Michigan, very close to Lake Huron. A few days ago, he drove from Lower Michigan, over the Straits of Mackinac Bridge, to the UP where he and his companion visited her family and where she grew up. On Monday they drove south through Wisconsin to Kenosha. Early this morning, they left here to drive across Michigan back home. As I write, they are somewhere mid-state, completing their circle tour.

Ben drove part of this route about a month ago when he came back to Wisconsin to take care of some personal business. That day he left here in perfectly clear weather, but was caught in lake effect snow in Indiana and had to stop overnight. What should have been a six hour ride, became an over night trip. So today, even though it is clear and sunny here (bitter cold, too, I might add) I will worry until I hear from them that they have reached home.

The lakes are connected by a strait and the landmasses by a bridge. I am connected by family. When I get the call that they are home safe and sound, we will be connected by phone. Strong connections all the way around. Someone might call it the circle of life tour. Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Great Weather for What?

The weather here has been bizarre. Friday morning it was near zero; the winds were howling and it was snowing. Saturday afternoon it was over 55 degrees F, and raining. In three days, we have seen snow, rain, fog, thunder, and lightening. Finally, today we see the sunshine, and the temperatures are more normal for this time of year at about 26 degrees.

Burlee, the pug, is happy to see grass (he much prefers it to snow) and I can see open water again. This is a picture taken today from my third floor balcony over looking Southport Marina ( to the left), Eichelman Park and then the open waters of Lake Michigan. Some snow remains, but most of it is gone.

Crazy weather? Yes, but ideal for pothole formation, or as I heard someone on the radio today call them – pavement eruptions. Deep pits already plague the roads- or maybe the potholes I am seeing are the ones left over from last year, or even the year before. It happens every winter in these northern climates. The roads freeze, thaw, and the pavement buckles, leaving big pits, small holes, deep valleys, and shallow ruts. Then the snow melts and fills up the potholes. Needless to say, I am not fond of potholes. Last year, both Michael and I had flat tires because of them. They make driving difficult, and take a toll on your car. I suppose they are good for tire sales and wheel alignment specialists, but not too many others.

This freeze-thaw cycle is nothing new. Between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, toward the end of the last Ice Age, fluctuations in temperature occurred as the glaciers retreated from what is now the northern United States. The ice didn’t disappear all at once, and the effect on the landscape of the northern part of this continent was much more dramatic than that a few potholes could produce.

When the glaciers retreated, they left identifiable geological formations. Rocks, boulders and other materials were carried along with the retreating ice and left in strange places. I love the name given to these – they are called erratics. So erratics aren’t just eccentric folks. They are actually rocks and boulders, and glacier debris, which scraped along the land and left visible striations in the bedrock. Kettles and moraines, depressions and hills left behind by the retreating ice, were also formed. Those are great terms - much more poetic than calling the crevices potholes.

Lakes and rivers were created, too. They filled up with glacial meltwaters, and although their forms shifted and modified, changes in climate and temperature were responsible for the formation of the Great Lakes and the surrounding basin. In Wisconsin, the Ice Age Trail, a National Scenic Trail of the National Park Service, is a great way to actually see what the glaciers left behind. Michael and I have only been on a few sections of it – nowhere near the 1,000 miles that meander through the state.

There is no question that hiking on the Ice Age Trail is much more fun than driving through streets full of potholes. Somehow, I don’t think 10,000 years from now people will be hiking the Pothole Trial –although unfortunately it may be that some of those potholes will be around that long.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Where’s the Water?

I can’t see the lake again today. As I look outside all I see is gray mist. Temperatures have risen way above freezing, a huge contrast to yesterday morning when it was near zero. Today the foot and a half of snow that has been on the ground is putting lots of moisture in the air and fog shrouds everything.

I know the lake is there. I know it is only hidden, not gone, and that tomorrow, or even later today, I will see it again. I trust that will happen. Yet water can disappear permanently. So today, if I cannot see the water to write about it, I can spend a few minutes reflecting on how large bodies of water might disappear.

When I do interpretative tours the Dinosaur Discovery Museum here in Kenosha, which I have been doing for grade school children for about a year now, we show the kids pictures of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. That’s a geological area where students and professors from Carthage College dig every summer, and where Little Clint (a young T. Rex) was found. Hell Creek is a popular site for digs, as it is a fossil rich area.

According to it is a series of fresh and brackish-water clays, mudstones, and sandstones deposited during the Maastrichtian, the last part of the Cretaceous period, by fluvial activity in fluctuating river channels and deltas and very occasional peaty swamp deposits along the low-lying eastern continental margin fronting the late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway.

Those are lots of technical terms to tell me that the Western Interior Seaway was a huge inland sea that split the North American continent and covered almost half the continent. At its deepest, it may have been 600 to maybe 900 meters deep. Although that may not be deep for a sea, that’s a helluva lot of water. Now, about 100 million years later, it’s gone, and some of the portions of the Hell Creek Formation and the rest of Montana, The Dakotas, and Wyoming are among the driest places in this country in the summertime. So where all that water go?

It didn’t disappear in an instant. A plane didn’t crash into it. A bomb didn’t explode nearby. No one siphoned off a billion gallons and piped it south to our southwestern states. However, it did disappear.

My superficial research did not give me a good reason why the water is no longer there. I did learn that temperatures in that region used to be sub-tropical and that the water eventually “shrunk” or “retreated”. That’s about all I could find, but the fossil record and the geology of regions confirm that the water was there, and it supported a huge variety of life forms.

So could Lake Michigan – and all the Great Lakes –shrink, retreat or “permanently” disappear? Well, sure. Not today, and probably not soon, but eventually it might happen. If the Aral Sea in eastern Asia is used an example it CAN happen. I will write more about the Aral Sea another time, and how it has significantly shrunk in only one generation.

For today, I will be content knowing that tomorrow when the fog clears up Lake Michigan will be back in view. At least for this decade.

As an aside – something I learned along the way. When I goggled the Western Interior Seaway, one of the more informative websites was that of the U-Haul moving truck company. I thought it was a mistake, but the U Haul site has a section called Supergraphics. I am sure you have noticed those great pictures from different states that decorate the sides of their trucks. Well, their website not only has the graphics for each state and Canadian province, but good information including history, geology, botany, and more about each. In addition, you can buy tee shirts with those graphics on them, too. Pretty cool.

Check it out at

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tall Tales and a Few Facts

I figured a good place to start learning about the Great Lakes is to research their origins. I picked up a book about the natural history of the Great Lakes, and read about the geology of the region. I got more than a little bogged down keeping the eras, periods, and epochs of geological events straight. My mind wandered and I started to think about something Michael said a few days ago.

A flock of geese was sitting on the frozen harbor, huddled together. Michael recalled a folktale, which he thought was a Paul Bunyan tale. In the story, Bunyan was asked to free a flock of birds that had been frozen to the water. Bunyan, with his legendary strength, lifted the whole flock of birds still attached to the ice, and carried them many miles away. He set them all down and formed one of the Great Lakes.

I went looking for that story but couldn't find it. Maybe it isn’t Paul Bunyan; maybe it’s Michael Remson, but it is a good tale. I did find one Bunyan tale that has him digging a drinking hole for Babe, the Blue Ox. That hole made Lake Michigan. And there is the famous story of how Babe trampled all over Minnesota, leaving deep footsteps and creating 10,000 lakes. These stories are much more amusing than geological formations, escarpments, Precambrian igneous rock, and Cambrian sandstone conglomerates.

However, I did learn something about the origins of the lakes. They lie on a foundation of stone that was formed by shifting tectonic plates over a billion years ago. I admit that I respond to the thought of billions of years ago much the same way I do to billions of dollars, an amount of money frequently talked about these days. What I feel is disbelief. I can’t get my mind wrapped about a billion of anything, but I am trying. A second shift of plates occurred about 570 million years ago, which is only slightly more comprehensible, to create another section of the region.

Easier to grasp is that the Great Lakes were formed at the end of the last ice age, about 10-15,000 years ago. With this fact, I was surprised to learn that the Great Lakes, as they now exist, are among the youngest natural features on the North American continent. Who knew? Actually that seems kind of recent, given that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. These lakes are just babes with woods, so to speak.

Of course the Ice Age has its own stories, the most recent depicted in several animated movies. I have seen none of these, but I do have a neighbor who is from the last ice age. Really. He is a wooly mammoth, and stands in the window of the Kenosha Public Museum. He was found in Kenosha County and is significant in tracing the history of humans and animals in North America.

Burlee, my pug, and I often see him on our afternoon walks. After the holidays, I think I will go over and pay him a visit inside the museum. He is really, really big. I imagine he and Paul Bunyan could have seen eye to eye. In fact, instead of being the Schaefer mammoth, maybe my neighbor is really Babe, the Blue Ox. Now wouldn’t that be a good story?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Winter officially arrived this morning about 6 AM. I was not up to greet it. Today is the shortest day of the year, barely nine hours from sunrise to sunset. With temperatures hovering around zero, winds gusting to about 28 miles per hour and 12-14 inches of snow on the ground, how can I not write about the weather?

According to this morning’s newspaper, the average low temperature for this date is 19 degrees F; the average high 33 degrees F. The record high was -14 F; the record high was 62 F. Although we are nowhere near the average, and it may be cold, this is somewhat normal for December in Wisconsin.

The harbor is frozen (that's ice and snow in the foreground of the picture) and the lake is, too, at least near the shore. It seems early to me for the lake to be frozen, so I looked around for data to support that claim.

What I found was a graph showing average Lake Michigan surface water temperatures. Data on the website are available from 1994, and the graph is current up to today. Yes, the water temperature this year is a little lower than normal, but in 2004, it was a little higher. I know five years isn’t much by way of statistical analysis, but if you just look at averages, we are in the right ballpark. There is still plenty of the lake that is not frozen, and just from my own observances in the past, as soon as the temperature goes up, the ice will disappear, and water will be visible again. The cycle repeats itself all winter, and so even without a thermometer, I can tell when the water is above or below 32 degrees F.

With all this cold, will I stay inside today? Yes, more than usual but not completely. I will walk the dog and then go to celebrate the first night of Chanukah. It’s one way to shed some light and warmth on a cold, short, wintry day.

Websites with maps of Great Lakes water temperature:

Friday, December 19, 2008

No Lake View Today

There is no lake view today. The forecasters were right. The snow is coming down fast and hard, and the winds are whipping it around to obscure everything further than a few feet from my windows. I am snug inside with fond recollections of winters in Buffalo, where mornings such as this were spent anxiously listening to the radio for the school closings. After the closing was announced, we would bundle up and go out to play.

But not me, not today. This is a good day to sit at my computer, still in my robe at 10 AM, with a cup of coffee and a purpose.

I have charged myself with learning more about the Great Lakes, hydrology, and anything else related to the water outside my door. The first place one goes these days to learn is to the internet. That’s what I did this morning and it is quite remarkable what I learned in only an hour of surfing. I found so many websites I don’t know where to begin. It makes me realize that I will have to choose a focus for each entry because if I let myself meander through topics as I did this morning, from one site to the next, clicking, scrolling, and connecting, all I will come up with is a mish mash of ideas.

Among the things I found this morning were websites on these topics:
• Maps of the Great Lakes. Besides geography, there are maps showing water surface temperatures, lake depths, location of lighthouses, geological surveys, shipwreck sites, and on and on and on
• Great Lakes related-organizations, including government, universities, museums, privately funded foundations, environmental groups, organizations promoting tourism, or education, and again on and on and on
• Great Lakes politics- not meaning the politics of the individual states and provinces surrounding the lakes but joint efforts
• Marine life, botanical species, and bugs
• Weather including ice coverage, lake effect snow, prevailing winds, etc
• Watershed issues
• Shipping on the lakes – both as transportation and recreation
• Air and Water quality, general information and tons of numbers
• Data, data, data on all kinds of things

My list could be much longer, but that just gives an idea of the breadth - and complexity -of topics. And that says nothing of my own observations, which I also want to include here. I want to tell you what kinds of wildlife I see – besides the gulls, geese, ducks and other birds that are always around, the other night I saw a red fox near the lakeshore. I want to record moods – both the lakes and mine. I hope I can visit some of the wonderful facilities around the lakes and write about those, too. There is SO much to write about.

Here’s a good place to start. It’s not about the Great Lakes or what I see out my window, but it is a general knowledge quiz about water. It is only ten True and False questions. I took the quiz and missed two. I suppose that’s not bad, but as a person educated in the sciences I should have gotten them all right. I hope to do better in the future.

The questions – and answers – can be found at:

Let me know how you do.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three Days Until Winter

This picture of one of the channel markers at the end of the harbor was taken today – three days before the official start of winter. It is almost the identical view shown earlier, but that picture was taken in the fall. Today there is ice on the harbor and chunks in the lake. It seems too early for this. We have already had several inches of snow and more is on the way tonight, with predictions of 6-12 inches. At this rate, it’s going to be a very long winter.

Although I like winter, and had a great walk this afternoon along the lake, I wondered if winter is the right time to start a blog about lakes known for fishing, recreational boating, and beaches. Winter can be hard here in Wisconsin, and even harder in many of the Great Lakes communities, like in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where snow can average 100 to 300 inches a season. Certainly Western New York, the land of my birth, has a reputation for snow, wind and cold, much of it the result of lake effect snow.

But maybe winter is the right time to begin. I am inside more, have more time to read and research topics. Besides, there is activity around here in the winter. I am never outside, summer or winter, when someone else isn’t out there, too. Sometimes it’s only another dog-walker bundled up, but often there are people taking a brisk walk or taking a car ride around the lakefront to see the view. Soon there will be ice fisherman on the marinas. Fishermen line up all year long along the harbor walls. And January 1 there will be the crazy polar bear people jumping into the lake to celebrate the new year. It always makes for some good pictures – but trust me, I will only be an observer that day. I like winter, but not that much.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Great Lakes Gal

I live one block from the harbor in Kenosha Wisconsin. It’s only a few blocks more to the Lake Michigan shore. I can see a sliver of the Simmons Island beach from my kitchen window. From my back balcony, I can see the Southport Marina and further south I see the open waters of Lake Michigan. On a clear day, I can see Chicago.

In the summer, all kinds of boats dot the waters. A few commercial fishing boats are even out in the winter, as long as the harbor isn’t frozen solid. Wind surfers come out on windy days, and kites are often seen sailing at the shore. On occasion, especially in the late fall, large cargo ships are visible on the horizon. I keep a pair of binoculars handy so I can get a better look at whatever is passing by.

I am outside every single day, thanks to my eight-year-old pug, Burlee. My husband walks him in the morning and at night, but I provide the afternoon relief. I am out when it is hot, when it is cold, when it is windy, and when it is calm. Every walk includes at least some notice of the lake – and I take special note of the wave action and the color, which are both constantly changing.

We moved to Kenosha to be near the lake. My husband and I and our children lived here many years ago, then we moved to a landlocked town in northern Illinois. For the next twenty some years, whenever I got the opportunity, I would visit Lake Michigan. I was happy to come back to the lake in 2004 and one of the main requirements for housing for us was that it be must be near the lake.

In a way, I am a Great Lakes gal. I grew up in Buffalo and although we did not live near Lake Erie, summers were spent swimming in its waters and playing on its beaches. My mother’s family was in Hamilton, Ontario, and many summer days were spent at Lake Ontario. The Niagara River and Niagara Falls, which connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, were in our backyard. The Falls is still one of my most favorite places. I have camped and hiked on the shores of Lake Superior. The only Great Lake I don’t know is Lake Huron. I expect to correct that soon, as my son has recently moved to Michigan.

In addition to being a lake watcher, I am interested in water as a natural resource. Perhaps that interest started years ago when we lived in Israel, a country where water is not taken for granted. It was fed one summer in the 1990’s when I was at Niagara Falls. We had taken the Cave of the Winds tour, where you go down under the Falls in yellow slickers and blue boots, and get soaking wet. One of the people in our group was from an arid country and he was in awe of all the water. “The next war will be fought over water,” he told us. His prophetic statement has remained with me to this day.

I come to the topic of water and the Great Lakes knowing just a little, wanting to learn more. I want to read and gather facts, but also to reflect on what the lakes mean to me. I want to observe and report what I see. And I want to share what I learn with others so that we can help protect these precious waters.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's Day One

I have been thinking about writing about Lake Michigan for some time now, and I am finally ready to start. In my postings, I plan to explore, learn, share and just reflect on what it means to live in sight of one of the largest bodies of fresh water.

I have been aware for some time now that I am a little obsessed with my lake view. Lake Michigan is, except when I am away from home, the first thing I look at in the morning. It is the view from my bedroom window. A small piece of it is visible from my kitchen window. I see this lighthouse every day and observe the mood of the lake every time I walk my dog. It is why I live where I live. And that's why I want to write about it.

I am new to blogging and today am testing its waters - no pun intended. Perhaps my entry into blogging can be compared to the way I go swimming in the lake. As you probably know, the water in our lake stays cold for a very long time, and it is not uncommon for it to freeze toes well into July. But by late July it's usually warm enough to go in. My husband, Michael, tends to jump right in. Not me. I am a wader. I get my toes wet first, then go in up to my knees. When it touches my bathing suit, I often pull back to my knees again. Eventually I do take the plunge, but it is always, always slowly.

And that's probably how I will start blogging, too. Today my toes are in. Tomorrow it may be my knees. But even if it takes me a week or two, I will get in. I know I will. I love to swim.