A look down at the Great Lakes from outer space shows off these oversized bodies of water the way nature created them. The border between the United States and Canada just doesn’t exist. At night the bright lights of city centers belie the millions of people that live on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, all sharing these waterways with their equally lit-up neighbors.
During the last ice age, roughly 20,000 years ago, the area that would become the Laurentian Great Lakes was covered by a glacier that in some places was nearly two miles thick. When that chunk of ice retreated, the weight gouged out deep cavities that would gradually fill with melt water. It wasn’t until about 4,000 years ago that the lakes achieved the look we are familiar with today. Much of the water in the Great Lakes is fossil water, left over from the retreat of the glaciers. Rain and melting snow account for less than 1 percent of renewable water volumes each year.
Five freshwater lakes make up the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan , covering 22,316 square miles, is the only lake that is completely within the United States. The rest are shared with Canada. Lake Superior is the largest, covering 31,698 square miles, followed by Lake Huron and its 23,011 square miles. Lake Erie comes in with an area of 9,222 square miles and Lake Ontario, the smallest, covers 7,320 square miles. Nearly 9 million Canadians depend on the lakes for drinking water and agricultural needs. All the lakes are part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an important marine waterway that runs from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Atlantic Canada to Lake Superior.
Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System
The creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway System (greatlakes-seaway.com) was a joint effort between Canada and the United States. A number of canals on the Canadian side were already in operation, some dating back to the late 1700s. Increased marine traffic brought pressure on both countries to create a more navigable waterway and to sign the Great Lakes – St Lawrence Deep Waterway Treaty in 1932. That was followed in 1941 by the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Basin Agreement. Work was delayed by World War II, but finally, on June 26, 1959, the seaway was officially dedicated by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II.
Seven locks lift vessels traveling between Montreal and Lake Ontario, some longer than football fields, as much as 246 feet above sea level. Five of those locks are on the Canadian side; two belong to the United States. The Welland Canal runs between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and was first built by Canada in 1829. It’s on its fourth renovation. All eight locks are on the Canadian side and help ships over the Niagara Escarpment, a lift of 326 feet.
Niagara Falls (niagarafallstourism.com), one of North America’s prime vacation spots, is also part of the Great Lake Basin. The Niagara River flows from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, with a drop of 326 feet between the two lakes, most of that happening at or near the falls. The U.S.-Canada border follows the river, separating the Ontario side of the falls from New York. The Canadian side is home to Horseshoe Falls, aptly named because of the shape. Technically roughly one-third of Horseshoe Falls belongs to the United States, but each side claims to have the best view. On the American side are American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, not as curved but equally dramatic. The twin cities of Niagara Falls, one on each side of the border, provide accommodations and easy access to area attractions for what some call the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
Great Lakes Recreation
In addition to Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes provide a number of recreational opportunities on the Canadian side. Point Pelee National Park (pc.gc.ca) near Leamington, Ontario, provides swimming, canoeing and kayaking opportunities. The Welland Canal and the town of Welland are on the Niagara peninsula. The Welland Historical Museum (wellandmuseum.ca) offers vintage marine and terrestrial artifacts. Welland is also home to the Niagara Motorcycle Speedway and the Welland Canal Memorial Monument, honoring those that contributed to this bit of Canadian ingenuity. Divers flock to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (noaa.gov) to explore the countless wrecks that lie beneath Lake Huron’s waters, some remarkably preserved because of the freshwater environment. Dive buoys mark locations of the wrecks and provide a place to safely tie up while exploring. The buoys are available between May and September. The sanctuary straddles the Michigan-Ontario border.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: About Our Great Lakes: Background
- Niagara Parks: Welcome to Ontario’s Niagara Parks: Niagara Falls Geology Facts and Figures
- World Atlas, Explore Your World: Great Lakes
- Environment Canada: Great Lakes Quickfacts
- Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System: The Seaway, Seaway History
- Parks Canada: Point Pelee National Park of Canada
- Welland Museum
- Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Shipwrecks of the Thunder Bay Region
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images