Photo credit: Dave Dempsey
The idea that Lake Huron is an overlooked or forgotten lake has even seeped into our government. A report issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality posed the question whether Huron is a victim of amnesia.
It’s not the biggest Great Lake, the dirtiest, the most populated or the purest. It’s just unlike any other lake on earth.
It’s probably most forgotten because relatively few people surround it and therefore are closely associated with it. If there were such a statistic as person-hours of remembering, Huron would score low.
Even the most spectacular features of Huron can be easy to overlook. Twenty years ago, I spent considerable time with a friend searching for the dwarf lake iris at Thompson’s Harbor State Park. An exquisite miniature, the iris grows in all the world primarily on the shores of northern Lower Michigan and richly deserves its title as the official state wildflower.
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
It benefits from Huron and the cool, moist lakeshore air, and sand or thin soil over limestone-rich gravel or bedrock. Like any plant or animal whose prime habitat is the shoreline, the subtle dwarf lake iris is threatened.
More people should know Lake Huron, enjoy it and respect it. It need not be the best kept secret in the Great Lakes.
During this week including Thanksgiving, FLOW staff are reflecting on their thankfulness for water. Whether it’s the vast and variable nature of Lake Huron or the water running from a household tap, water is at the center of our lives and our gratitude. We hope our writings inspire your reflection as well. Happy Thanksgiving from FLOW!
I am thankful for Lake Huron, sometimes called the forgotten Great Lake. It’s not the biggest, the most popular or the most celebrated Great Lake. But during the three years I lived on its shore, I came to know and appreciate its subtleties and charms.
Lake Huron was patient in winter. Ice clotted the creeks and drains that ordinarily contribute to it, but they would soon resume their flow; of course, they were already flowing under winter’s glassy surface.
Lake Huron was resilient. A storm would thrash it, but a day or two later, the lake would rest contentedly, a match for any tempest.
Lake Huron was a changeling. One day the blue of a child’s lake drawing, one morning silver; one day muddy brown, one evening gold.
Lake Huron was vast. Gazing out over its open waters, I felt a connection to the thousands of years it has endured, the 23,000 square miles it occupies, its 3,827 miles of shoreline.
Living next to Lake Huron was like living next to a mountain. The lake was always in my consciousness. Often that was because of the beat of the waves. The repetition was comfort, the way a rocking cradle is to a baby.
The second largest of the Great Lakes, Huron is the fifth largest lake in the world. It doesn’t boast. It just is. I am thankful that it is. I highly recommend it to others.
Fort Gratiot County Park north of Port Huron bustles for a little more than three months of the year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Large groups occupy the gazebos, families snatch up all the picnic tables, teens play Frisbee in the sand while kids rule a small playground, and the smell of cooking meat is inescapable. These are all fairly typical of Great Lakes shoreline parks.
What distinguishes the park is a memorial. It commemorates not a politician or general but 22 men who died for water, Lake Huron water specifically. While honoring the dead, it expresses ambivalence inherent in the fulfillment of an institutional dream that has unintended consequences.
The project that took the lives of the 22 men on December 11, 1971 had been a dream of the Detroit water department since the late 1800s. The water supplied by the utility’s intake in the Detroit River was adequate to meet the city’s needs, but even then, there was thought of population growth to the north. That would require more water. By virtue of both proximity and quality, Lake Huron was the choice for the new water source. A point five miles offshore from what is now the county park was chosen for the intake.
The memorial consists of three features: a plaza of bricks etched with the names of the loved ones who perished in the disaster and other individuals and groups who purchased and contributed them; the statue of a symbolic project worker; and a state historical marker. The last is especially noteworthy. It is literally two-faced. The two sides of the marker could not be more different in tone.
One side stresses the tragic human losses and the terrible power of the explosion: “… [A] shotgun-like blast claimed the lives of twenty-two men working on a water intake tunnel beneath the bed of Lake Huron. A pocket of methane trapped within a layer of ancient Antrim shale fueled the explosion. An exhaustive inquiry determined that drilling for a vertical ventilation shaft from the lake’s surface had released the trapped gas…The blast created a shock wave with a speed of 4,000 miles an hour and a force of 15,000 pounds per square inch. Witnesses reported seeing debris fly 200 feet in the air from the tunnel’s entrance.”
The other side emphasizes the project itself as a triumph of humankind: “In 1968, to serve the water needs of a growing population, the Detroit Metro Water Department began work on the Lake Huron Water Supply Project. This massive feat involved erecting a submerged intake crib connected to a six-mile intake tunnel beneath Lake Huron. The mechanical mole that dug the 16-foot wide tunnel bored through the bedrock beneath the lake at a rate of 150 feet a day. The project excavated more than one billion pounds of rock. The water treatment plant pumped clean water into an 82-mile system of water mains supplying Detroit and Flint. When finished in 1973, the $123 million system boasted a capacity of 400 million gallons a day.”
One has to wonder whether this mentality was partially culpable. Pride in a monumental public works project may have promoted hubris, or contributed to denial by the managers if someone pointed out the danger. Carelessness or ignorance may also have been to blame. Whatever the cause, 22 people tragically lost their lives in the public service of providing clean drinking water.
Natural forces always surprise us, be they large lakes or ancient methane.