From canals to carp–a book about the Great Lakes

I wanted to share a quick post about a book I finished reading this week, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. In 2017, Milwaukee journalist Dan Egan wrote a compelling “un-natural history” of the Great Lakes, chronicling the shifting relationship modern human society has built with these giant inland seas. Balancing stories of history, technology, wildlife management, and ecology, Egan paints a compelling portrait of the importance of the freshwater bodies of water in our midst, as well as the lakes’ (and our own) vulnerability to the ideas we humans have dreamed up in recent decades.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. Why did I read a book about the Great Lakes?

I live in Indiana. A small corner of the northern edge of the state near Chicago, Illinois features a stretch of coastline at the bottom tip of Lake Michigan. By geography, then, Lake Michigan has always been the most accessible of the Great Lakes system to me. Its glinting waters provide a striking and somewhat foreboding, abrupt eastern boundary to Chicago. Meanwhile, the lake’s eastern shoreline along western Michigan has provided me and my family with many summers of memories made in the waves and beaches and lighthouses found among the small towns along the coast. Stories of fishing and sailing, shipping and shipwrecks also have filtered down to me through the years. I have a t-shirt that reads: “Lake Michigan: Unsalted and Shark-Free.” It is an impressive freshwater sea offering hypnotic waves and striking sunsets. And yet I knew so little about it.


Sunset over Lake Michigan. By Ian Rastall [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago, I read about concerns about Asian carp, an aggressively invasive non-native fish species, potentially making their way into Lake Michigan from the south, via their continuing journey up the Mississippi River. As a biologist, I’m well aware of the threat to natural food chains that invasive species pose. Indeed, local freshwater lakes for years have endured the scourge of the zebra mussel, an invader that hitches a ride on boats and coats (and clogs up) lakes, rivers, human-built structures (pipes, boats, piers) for years. When the food chain is disrupted, life goes on, but it continues down a different trajectory, one that may not be as diverse or as pleasant to people as the prior condition. The zebra mussel entered the Great Lakes on or in ships traveling from far across the globe and has spread across North America on watercraft and by other means. It has provided valuable–but painful–lessons about the problems exotic species can pose to ecosystems.


Zebra mussels take over human structures. Photo credit: Retrieval of zebra mussel-encrusted Vector Averaging Current Meter near Michigan City, IN. Lake Michigan, June 1999. Photo by M. McCormick.<br> Obtained from 


Meanwhile, scientists, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others have been working on ideas about how to try to halt the entry of the latest invasive threat, the Asian carp, from rivers feeding into Lake Michigan. If this hungry fish makes its way into Lake Michigan, it could spread well beyond its boundaries to the other lakes in the Great Lakes system, since they’re interconnected. Currently, barriers are in place near Chicago to try to keep the fish out. But new and improved designs continue to be discussed among various states and constituencies in the Great Lakes area. Will they be implemented? Will they even work? Time will tell.

This ecological backdrop–plus a vague awareness of the history of pollution, shipping, fishing, and tourism on the lakes–constituted my paltry prior knowledge of Lake Michigan. When I saw the title of Egan’s book mentioned somewhere (or was it just perched on the library shelf?), I hoped I would become a bit more enlightened about the Great Lakes. I learned much more than I expected in this well researched book: international shipping and the St. Lawrence Seaway, sea lampreys and quagga mussels, the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal, alewives and chinook salmon, the direction and amount of water flow into and out of the Great Lakes, the scope of water usage across the United States, and many stories of interesting people past and present who care for and about the lakes.

Before reading Egan’s book, I knew practically nothing about the Great Lakes. But now I feel smarter. Lifelong learning is a wonderful thing. It was also a real pleasure to read about science (did I mention the DNA analysis of fish?) intertwined with history and sociology. A science story deeply rooted in a series of decisions by individuals and communities over time requires broader context and a willingness to consider ideas from different angles. The Great Lakes story impacts more people, places, and issues than we might initially think, no matter where people live and whether or not they think about lakes or fish or container ships on a regular basis. I recommend the book if you’re looking to understand the world around you a little bit better and see things in a new way. Isn’t that what learning is all about?


  • Find out more about Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes:


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