A history written in stone: Cruising the Great Lakes of North America

The USA and Canada’s Great Lakes region is bigger and older than most countries. Now a newly launched cruise is squeezing its billions of years of geological history into just eight days…

Mark Jones
15 March 2023

The Great Lakes. Even its name conjures something vast and brooding. Yet my first encounter with a region that spans the US-Canada border showed it to be far from what I’d imagined. Its waters slid between a rich caramel and a deep turquoise colour, while chalky-white rocks dusted the shoreline. The landscape, like the sun, felt almost subtropical – it couldn’t have been any more perfect. In spite of this, I was about to leave it all behind as I squeezed inside a metal hatch that clanked shut above me, blocking out the surface world.

Inside the submarine, my Welsh helmsman, Aled, was in charge. The control panel lit up in front of him in a way that I had always imagined one might: like a cross between a supercomputer and some kind of electronic whack-a-mole. With a few flicks he equalised the pressure and we descended gently to the bottom of Lake Huron – one of the shallower lakes in the region but still deeper than 200 metres in places.

Beneath the water’s surface, the tropical overtones faded. There are shipwrecks to be found in this area, but not here; and as I peered out of the window during my ten-minute ‘voyage’, I saw little other than the swill of sediment and a few minnows. Yet it set the tone for a trip where I would find myself exploring the Lakes region in ways few others had.

I had signed up to be among the first people aboard Viking’s newest cruise ship as it embarked on its inaugural tour of the Great Lakes. Here lie some of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet; places where the cognitive difference between ‘lake’ and ‘sea’ disappears as quickly as the shoreline. And while taking a ship built to withstand Antarctic seas might seem like overkill, this was far more than just a quick jaunt. Taken together, the combined shorelines of lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior, Erie and Ontario stretch for over 15,000km. Their shared water basin is larger in size than the UK. So, when we were bussed from our downtown Milwaukee hotel to the quayside and I first glimpsed the
Octantis, rising from Lake Michigan like a modernist boutique hotel with a Polar Class 6 hull, I could only smile.

Over the following week we made our way out of Lake Michigan and into Huron, exploring where Georgian Bay lies smuggled behind the largest freshwater island in the world. The final couple of days took us into Superior, the big daddy of the five lakes. By car – how most people travel the area – this journey would have taken weeks, but we crossed huge expanses in days, the Octantis’ slim design able to navigate canals and locks with ease. And as I learned more about the Great Lakes’ glacial beginnings, its wildlife and its colonial history, I started to realise why a cruise was the only way to experience them properly.

The expedition cruise ship Octantis has six decks, 189 staterooms and was launched in early 2022, having spent late winter in the Antarctic before taking the journey north to meet us (Viking Cruises)

Thinking big

We were the sole vessel of our size in the area. There are no cargo ships or tankers on the Great Lakes. Aside from ourselves, we glimpsed only the occasional fishing boat or pleasure craft when the ship hugged close to the wooded shores and lakeside villages. We were a big fish in an even bigger pond, but we did have an evolutionary trick or two.

In the corner of our hangar was a filtration system designed to measure and report on the intrusion of microplastics into the lakes, and above it was a laboratory to process the information. Weather balloons were launched for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; wildlife and bird migration patterns were being studied. Cruise life and science seemed to go hand in hand – and that went for the passengers as well.

One night, I observed a man’s 60th birthday party in the ship’s Italian restaurant. The eight people around the table were doing their best to reverse the ageing process through wine and laughter. After dinner, I bumped into the birthday boy again, still cradling a glass of red; only this time he was sitting quietly with his friends in Aula, the ship’s on-board events space, as geochemist Dr Brandi Revels opened a presentation entitled, ‘Isotopes and What They Teach Us’. This wasn’t just a leisure cruise; we had come to learn.

Our journey began in Milwaukee, as the Octantis made its way up Lake Michigan to the US island of Mackinac (pronounced ‘Mack-in-awe’), where the waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan met like two giant wings stretching from America’s far north-east into Ontario, Canada. It was there that I got my first glimpse up close of lakeside life.

Mackinac crams a lot into its shores. The busy downtown was lined with shops selling T-shirts and fudge, while horse-drawn carriages took daytrippers up to the two main attractions: the British-built fort and the late-19th-century Grand Hotel, which looks like a cross between a Riviera palace and the White House.

Mackinac Island’s Main Street is lined with bicycles (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Bruce Peninsula (Alamy Stock Photo)

This tiny spit of an island now bustles with tourists, but in the early 1800s it was fiercely fought over by British and American forces. Its position, as a gateway between lakes Superior and Huron, made it more than just another stop on the area’s once-busy fur trade routes, and it remained in British control more than 50 years after US independence was declared. The site of its most famous battlefield (when the British forces repelled US troops in 1814) might now be Michigan’s oldest golf course, but a visit to the well-preserved fort offers a tangible glimpse of this past.

What you can’t do here is drive. Cars (except for emergency vehicles) are not allowed on Mackinac, but you can cycle. If you have the leg power, you can pedal the entire 13km perimeter of the island and still have time for a beer and a fish taco on the lakeside terrace at The Pink Pony before the ship departs. From the landing stage we pedalled up the west coast, skimming past Arch Rock, a limestone formation that spans the forest 45 metres above the shore road. Hidden away from most visitors’ eyes was also a little wetlands trail that showed what an unusual island this was. Mackinac is an ecological transitional zone, meaning you can see plants you might encounter in, say, California, such as striped coralroot orchid, alongside northern species like the eccentrically named bastard toadflax.

Rock of ages

It was mid-August, well after nesting and breeding season, yet above the tree canopy we still spied the odd red-tailed hawk from the ship. There were sizable colonies of double-crested cormorants too, though the latter, I was told, have a difficult relationship with locals. They were nearly wiped out here by the use of DDT insecticides on farms, then recovered in such large numbers as to threaten other bird species and fish stocks in the lakes. Their population is only now recovering from the most recent cull.

After the ship anchored at Georgian Bay, we took a Zodiac dinghy to where a strange yellow shape lay visible just above the waterline. This was John, the submarine that I later boarded. Viking had spent several million pounds on four well-equipped and very yellow submersibles. (The three others in the fleet are, inevitably, called Paul, George and Ringo.) They offered an opportunity for both marine biologists and passengers to go poking around the waters, which can drop to over 400m in the deepest parts of Lake Superior. They were not, as far as I knew, commissioned to hunt for the Snow Wasset, a fearsome and legendary sea serpent which is said to inhabit these waters and can swallow ships whole.

Kayaking is a popular way to explore the Great Lakes and its weather-sculpted coast (Viking Cruises)

Our next stop was Frazer Bay, on the Canadian shoreline of Lake Huron. It was here that a tanned, moustachioed man helped me into a Zodiac, arranged us all on the rubber seats, then gunned the engine, thrusting the boat out into the bay.

Our guide for the day was Dr Richard Bates, professor of applied geophysics at the University of St Andrews, whose main preoccupation was with the lakes’ geological history and climate. We cruised close to the near-vertical walls of rock, which rose no more than a few metres above the water’s edge. They were marked with horizontal fractures and topped with small pine trees, some of them burrowing at crazy angles as close to the water as they could get. Pines are the great invading armies of these landscapes, finding a niche wherever they can and then preventing other trees from growing.

As the boat chugged along, Dr Bates explained that we were looking at the Canadian Shield, an expanse of bedrock that covers much of Canada as well as Greenland and a chunk of the USA. It was “old,” he said. But if you have ever spoken to a geologist at any length, you will know that you need to readjust your sense of what that word means. The granite of the Canadian shield is Precambrian, the earliest (and longest) period in Earth’s history, beginning around 4.6 billion years ago. The rock we observed that morning, with its seams of feldspar glinting in the sun, was a comparative youngster at just 1.5 billion years old.

Sunset over the Precambrian rock of Georgian Bay (Alamy Stock Photo)

The journey these rocks had been on – dwelling deep underground, beneath seas and parts of continents that then formed, broke away and travelled from pole to pole – is scarcely imaginable. But the story of the Great Lakes themselves is no less dramatic.

In geologist’s terms they were created yesterday. The lakes were formed towards the end of the last Ice Age and what more exacting scientists call the Pleistocene glaciation, an era that ended a mere 11,700 years ago. Back then, instead of coasting along on these deep blue waters, we would have been buried under the huge slabs of ice that had slid down from the Gulf of St Lawrence, scouring deep gouges in the land where they met the least resistance.

As the glaciers retreated, the lakes filled and became some of the largest reservoirs of fresh water on the planet. The hard rock, which stood firm against the incredible energy of the ice flow, survived in the 35,000 islands we saw dotted throughout the region. These became home to black bears, white tailed deer, beavers, and now cruise passengers.

Buried secrets

We moored back at the quay, removed our life jackets and baseball caps and mopped our brows. You tend to think of Canada as a land of snow, but in a list of the world’s cities by latitude, Toronto is paired with Central Italy at 43.7 degrees north. The sun was positively Florentine.

However, as our journey neared its end, the Great Lakes finally became the dark, brooding expanse I’d imagined. After days of clear blue skies, we awoke to some proper northern meteorology: dense fog, clumps of firs, hints of islands looming beyond our prow. Superior it was, but eerie it seemed.

We anchored at Silver Islet and the mist dissipated a little. A rainbow of light encircled the fleet of kayaks that were towed out to meet us, and as I paddled my way to the shore, it felt like a gateway to the north proper. Thus far, the pine woods and cliffs along the coast had not risen higher than 20m or so; now we were looking up at 50m bluffs and towering firs.

Silver Islet is a wonderful place, yet its air of remoteness is deceptive. In 1868, a rich vein of silver was discovered here. Victorian-era engineers descended on the area and swiftly increased the island to many times its natural size using crushed rock. They then built a town and a general store and extracted over $3 million-worth of precious metals.

Flowerpot Island in Georgian Bay (Shutterstock)

Beavers play a vital role in the eco-system of the Great Lakes (Alamy Stock Photo)

Today, the houses of those who grew rich from its silver are much coveted as holiday homes, and the trails the miners utilised every day are now gentle paths through mature woodland. I followed one, taking a sign marked ‘Sea Lion’ and expecting to see a resident pinniped, except sea lions don’t live in lakes – the clue is in the name. Sure enough, I arrived at a large sedimentary rock formation eroded by the waves into a sea-lion-ish shape. To me, it looked like a dachshund poking its nose into the water, but I guess that sounds less impressive.

They’ve left well alone at Silver Islet. That includes the general store. Emerging from it with a T-shirt and a jar of maple syrup, I felt like I’d just visited granny’s for tea – in around 1930. It just rammed home to me something that had been on the edge of my thoughts the last few days of the trip. Most people take cruises for the stops that they make; with the Great Lakes it was more the environment – the water, the shoreline, the skies – that was the star. You live within its confines 24 hours a day, and after a week you start to notice things that you just wouldn’t have if you had been travelling in any other way.

I began to appreciate even the changes in weather. In these climes you can forget what night looks like during summer. In the evenings, I stood on the deck drinking in luminescent layers of icy blues, peaches and tangerines as slate-coloured cirrus clouds traced a kind of Chinese calligraphy in the skies. One night, a shower came in at around 6.30pm. There was a rainbow, but no one was looking at that. Instead, we all stopped what we were doing and gazed as the rain fell like diamond hail. “Well, that was pretty magical,” said Professor Bates as the shower passed. Not an especially scientific word, but an accurate one all the same.

On the last evening, we faced the shock of seeing houses and roads and factories as we approached Thunder Bay. I felt like I had stepped out of a summer dream and back to a land of clocks, leaving behind a place that felt timeless.

Hidden caves found around Apostle Islands of Lake Superior (Shutterstock)

About the trip

The Viking expedition ship Octantis was launched in 2022 to (in the words of Viking’s CEO) ‘reinvent the cruise’. The Great Lakes Explorer is a seven-night, eight-day voyage, beginning in Milwaukee (where you spend the first night) and ending in Thunder Bay. Excursions and activities include kayaking, wildlife-spotting, a mini-submarine dive and the chance to take part in and learn about the ship’s scientific research programme.

Book your trip with Viking. A trip includes return flights from selected UK airports; in-destination transfers; eight days on board Octantis in a Nordic Balcony stateroom; all on-board meals in restaurants, plus wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner; wifi; gratuities; access to The Nordic Spa and fitness centre; evening entertainment and enrichment talks; and excursions on kayaks, Zodiacs, Special Operation Boats and on the submarine.

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