- Historic Sites
The Legend Of A Lake
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
The lake was liberated from glacial ice ten thousand years before Babylon was built. Thus, it had more than fifteen thousand years in which to transform from an almost sterile, ice-gouged river valley into fecund, prosperous Lake Erie.
In fifteen millennia the lake received more than ninety species of fish and immense and varied populations of insects, worms, and crustaceans, and built up the largest concentrations of freshwater fish in the world.
However, the real story of Lake Erie is always overwhelmed by the many superlatives surrounding it. The lake exemplifies a great theme: man taming nature. It is the dramatic centerpiece of awesome industrial power. It is the reason for a great gathering of human beings— from a few-score thousands in 1800 to more than thirteen million today. Its history is filled with tales of great disasters, of shipwrecks and vicious storms, of murderous fogs and floods, while its waters have yielded more than a million tons of fish. It is, most recently, the publicized victim in a story of human sewage and industrial poisons.
None of these stories, separately or in concert, make real sense of the lake. To do so, it is necessary to invoke the legendary lake—a lake that cannot be truly measured or recorded—and watch its transformation, its many biological agonies, as it passes from the primeval to the civilized. This is the real story, hidden from the view of most men, and it ends in the most revealing of all superlatives.
Erie is a young lake, born of the last ice age, which began its retreat about twenty thousand years ago. The melting ice filled the basin, and the surrounding drainage system sent in phosphorus and nitrogen, which provided a setting for aquatic plants and animals. Aquatic insects followed close behind the retreating ice.
The larval forms of these insects thrived in icy-cold water. They fastened eggs to stones in brooks tumbling with ice pans and found refuge in gravel or in mud. The greatest of these insects were the mayflies. They had a long history of success, dating from before the arrival of grass or flowering plants. Their night-dancing hordes blotted out the moon’s light, and rains of eggs dropped into the lake, creating an almost-unlimited supply of larval food for the fish that were coming.
The migrants poured into the lake and the rivers and streams around it. Brook trout, lake trout, and northern suckers found the cold water ideal. Following them came yellow walleyes and blue pike, drums and carpsuckers, saugers and ciscoes, lake sturgeon and muskellunge. Each fish found its special place in the lake. The sturgeon prowled the bottom and grazed on mussels and snails. The giant muskellunge, cut off from the Mississippi drainage system, frequented shallow aquatic plant meadows along the lake’s shores and swam up rivers to spawn in swamps. The ciscoes hunted microscopic plants and animals below the surface and along the bottom. The pike and sauger chased the ciscoes. The yellow walleye hunted in shady shallows and spawned in rushing streams or the lake itself.
The immigrant fish found an exceptionally hospitable home in the nearly ten thousand square miles of Erie. The lake was shallow throughout its 24O-mile length, averaging less than sixty feet in depth. A flat-bottomed central basin was separated from a shallow western basin by a rocky island chain. The deepest basin, in the east, was separated from the central basin by a ridge of sand and gravel. These basins were great places for spawning, and the fish gathered by the millions. Their eggs dropped into holes in the dolomitic and limestone rock or lodged amid the gravel at the bottom, secure from egg-hunters.
Unlike Lake Superior to the north, which lay in a tough bowl of very ancient rock, Erie sat uneasily in a shifting disintegration of its shores. Instead of rock strands, it was surrounded by silty clay, and much of its shoreline was so weak it was constantly collapsing. Quick-rising western winds whipped up waves that nibbled away fifteen hundred acres of land every year. But for the lake creatures this was ideal. The collapsing shores created marshlands and shoreline havens of wild rice and aquatic plants. Great plant growths choked estuaries and bays. Fish bred there, too, and wildfowl came to mate and rest. The fish bounty of Lake Erie and its environs was a legacy of the withdrawn ice. Ohio, in particular, abounded with springs, some bubbling from the tops of hills. From these springs spread a network of deep, narrow, clear-water streams and rivers winding away toward the Ohio and the Mississippi river systems, running into the Maumee and the Sandusky, the Vermilion and the Cuyahoga, and all the other rivers linked, one way or another, with Lake Erie.
The first Europeans watched, disbelieving, as the fish hordes rushed upriver to spawn, teemed in the lake shallows, and collected by the thousands in pools and lagoons. They hunted them with spears, pitchforks, axes, nets, guns. The soldiers of a fort built on the banks of the Maumee fished each afternoon, and it was a poor day when they did not get a thousand fish. The fish collected so thickly in pools below some rapids that it was said a blindfolded man could toss a spear and get a fish nine times out of ten.