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Lake Superior Profiles

People on the Big Lake

John Gagnon

Publication Year: 2012

Like Lake Superior itself, the communities of people surrounding the “Big Lake” are vast and full of variety, spanning state and international boundaries. In Lake Superior Profiles: People on the Big Lake, author John Gagnon gives readers a sense of the memorable characters who inhabit the area without attempting to take an exhaustive inventory. Instead, Gagnon met people casually and interviewed them—from a tugboat captain to an iron ore boat captain, Native Americans, and fishery biologists. Different though their stories are, all share a steadfast character, an attachment to the moody lake, and a devotion to their work. Lake Superior Profiles combines biography, history, folklore, religion, and humor in fifteen diverse chapters. In Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Gagnon visits the rivers, bays, small towns, larger cities, and nature preserves that surround Lake Superior to meet the people who make their homes there. Among those he meets are several fisherman, a botanist studying arctic wildflowers on Isle Royale, a former lighthouse keeper on a remote reef on the lake, a voyageur reenactor from Duluth, a woman who harvests wild rice each August in the Bad River Sloughs, and a monk living on the Keweenaw Peninsula. He also writes about three of the lake’s major fish species, a rock formation steeped in lore called the Sleeping Giant, and the current fragile ecology of the Big Lake. Engaging in style and varied in content, these profiles display Gagnon’s natural curiosity and storytelling acumen in illustrating the many ways the lake shapes the lives of those near it. Residents of the Lake Superior region and readers interested in the area will enjoy Lake Superior Profiles.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series Page

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Title Page

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xiii

I grew up on the Keweenaw Peninsula in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Keweenaw pokes a gnarled finger northeast into Lake Superior, which locals call “the big lake.” We kids visited a camp at Little Traverse Bay, on the south shore of the Keweenaw, where we smoked driftwood—the size of crayons, with dry, punky hearts that burned like tobacco—and thought we were...


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p. xv-xv

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Prologue: Shining Big-Sea-Water

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pp. 1-4

Lake Superior is not as old as the hills. The hills around the lake date back 1 billion years, while Lake Superior dates back just 9,500 years—to the last thrust of a 2-million-year-old ice age, when glaciers advanced and retreated across much of North America. When the ice moved south from Canada for the last time, it gouged out a basin which, when the glaciers...

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1. Paddle, Pipe, and Portage

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pp. 5-34

Natives called Lake Superior “the water too far to see across.” White explorers braved this water in birch-bark canoes, paddling while singing songs to bolster their spirits and pace themselves. They were called voyageurs, or travelers. Indians described them as “men with hairy faces who have no women.” In their heyday in the late 1700s and early 1800s, these hardbitten

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2. A Work Farm

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pp. 35-51

It’s five thirty in the morning, and I make my way from the main street of Grand Marais, Minnesota, down a sloping driveway to a pier behind the Dockside Fish Market. An invisible dog barks at me. About a hundred feet from the road, a fisherman named Harley Toftey, and his helper, Marty, wait for me by a fish boat with no name. We get on board, throw off the lines, ease...

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3. Sturgeon

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pp. 52-59

Not long before he died, Jacques Cousteau went to the bottom of Lake Superior at its deepest. What might he have seen? “Probably a whole lot of not much,” says biologist Nancy Auer. The reason? The big lake is nutrient poor and fairly sterile. What nutrients enter the lake, Nancy says, are dispersed and quickly diluted. “We wouldn’t expect to come up with huge numbers...

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4. The Fable and the Fate of la Truite de Lac

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pp. 60-69

Lake Superior, like other northern waters, is so cold that a unique species of fish has evolved: the fur-bearing trout. The fish has a normal head and fins; the rest of its body is covered with hair as white as that of a snowshoe rabbit in winter. According to one account, “The creature is sometimes referred to as the Beaver Trout, or (incorrectly) as the Sabled Salmon.”

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5. Coaster Brook Trout

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pp. 70-76

Bill Deephouse, a retired fishery biologist, has a friendly, forthright bearing that is true—not at all like the compass that he pins to his chest when he wanders to brook or bush. “It’s not the best of compasses,” he says. “You can almost find any direction you want.”...

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6. The Wildflower Child

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pp. 77-91

You can tell Joan Edwards by the flowers in her eyes. They grace her labor, life, and spirit, and she feels fortunate that they do. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I feel privileged to do the work I do.” A botanist, Joan studies wildflowers, including Sagina nodosa, the knotted pearlwort. She tracks a community of them on a rocky stretch of shoreline on Isle Royale. “They’re so...

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7. Rock of Ages

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pp. 92-100

Lighthouses have been called “America’s castles.” Thirty-three of them were built on Lake Superior. The first two, at Whitefish Point and Copper Harbor, date back to 1849. Five more are near Isle Royale. One of these, Rock of Ages, was first manned in 1908. Rock of Ages is about two and a half miles west of Isle Royale and was one of four lighthouses on Lake Superior...

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8. The Lakehead

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pp. 101-126

“Lake Superior truly is an ocean,” says Bill Dunlop, who knows what he’s talking about, for he has crossed and recrossed the big lake for sport and recreation, and has sailed five thousand miles on the Atlantic Ocean.
If Dunlop can say that about Lake Superior, then I can say the hills along Highway 17 between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, Ontario, are mountains. They remind me of Colorado, minus only the bare peaks...

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9. The Start of Something Big

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pp. 127-132

It is early January 2006, a mild winter that was preceded by a hot and dry summer. From the bluffs overlooking Duluth Harbor, Lake Superior is flecked with whitecaps, what oceanographer Jay Austin calls “lots of cotton.” “We’re in the ice season, supposedly,” he says...

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10. “Madmen, Mysteries, and the Pursuit of Jacques Cousteau"

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pp. 133-140

When I was a greenhorn backpacker in Colorado, I tested my equipment half a mile from a dirt road, on a small creek no bigger than a borrow ditch, at an elevation of about eight thousand feet. I dug up a worm, as flat and flaccid as a wet egg noodle. I put it on a hook, tossed it in the water, and promptly caught a small brook trout. It was about five inches long, and its...

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11. Looking for the Edmund Fitzgerald

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pp. 142-147

On the night of November 10, 1975, on the way from River Rouge to Duluth to pick up a load of iron ore, Don Erickson, captain of the SS William Clay Ford, reached Whitefish Bay at about four o’clock in the afternoon and hunkered down in the lee of Whitefish Point. This is the gist of his story, related over three interviews.

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12. “This Is Home Now"

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pp. 148-157

Gilmore Peterson, seasoned and savvy, navigates the restive waters of Lake Superior in search of a livelihood. Day after day, he plumbs the depths to net fish to sell in his market on the hilltop above Hancock, Michigan. He deals with the vicissitudes of his trade stoically, the weather bravely, the routine doggedly. He has two boats, oilcans both—stocky and unhandsome...

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13. The Ricer

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pp. 158-167

According to Ojibwe oral history, five hundred years ago the spiritual leaders told their people, who lived on the Atlantic Ocean at either Hudson Bay or the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, to move west for survival—as far west as “where food grows on water.” That food was the wild rice of the Lake Superior basin, including northern Wisconsin west of Ashland—an area called...

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14. “The Blood of Our Earth"

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pp. 168-182

It was on the shores of Lake Superior, in 1968, that Jim St. Arnold, an Ojibwe who had wandered a lot in his youth, experienced an epiphany and discovered a haven. Eighteen, he was visiting his grandparents in Baraga, which sits on the north side of the head of Keweenaw Bay, near where he was born. “I got up and was going to go out for a walk in the woods. It was...

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15. A Small Place by a Waterfall

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pp. 183-201

It is a warm day in early October. Autumn has been mild, and the colors that will burn across the forest are late—there is just a blush of the splendor to come. I am at a place called Jacob’s Creek, where a small building called the Jam Pot is tucked into the trees, beneath the bewhiskered hills that spill down to the lake. The Jam Pot is a store owned by the Society of St. John, a small...

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814336298
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814336281

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 36
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1