I’ve been around a lot of water lately.
We traveled to the mouth of the Mississippi River, where sometimes there’s too much water and humans have tried to tame its power and flow. Just two months later, I was more than 1,000 miles to the north, near the headwaters of that same river, where Indigenous voices are trying to stop an oil pipeline from passing underneath. And then to Bayfield, WI, on the edge of the greatest freshwater lake on earth (by surface area, for the statisticians in the crowd) where people are working in various ways to preserve the resource that holds ten percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
The stories are all connected. The world is smaller than you might imagine.
Lake Superior is vast. It’s easy to see it as invincible, but it’s size is what makes it vulnerable. With 2,726 miles of shoreline, it draws from an enormous watershed and is governed by the rules of multiple states and nations.
We once thought the great clouds of passenger pigeons were too large to go extinct. Until they did. Enormous herds of bison were wiped out for sport—or worse—to deprive indigenous people of their food for survival.
The world is smaller than you think, and now traveling back in the southwestern corner of our country, water is scarce. Again. Still. Populations grow as water resources shrink. Innovation and conservation can only go so far in responding to a deepening drought and increasing demands on water resources.
My friend Jeff Rennicke is the Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He has a boat. As luck would have it, he is also a remarkable photographer, and he likes to go out early, to chase the good light.
As Jeff says so well, photography can do two things:
-It can help you see new things.
-It can help you see old things in new ways.
So we had the chance to do that. We boarded his 16-foot C-Dory at about 4 am and motored across a smooth lake to see what we could see.
“The lake is the boss,” Jeff said.
“And you are the captain,” I replied. I am not a nautical man. I was along for the ride.
You could fill a page with stats. Lake Superior covers 31,700 square miles. The deepest point is 1,333 feet deep. The largest wave measured was 31 feet tall. If you spread out all the water in the lake, it would cover all of North and South America with a foot of water.
You can talk about the stats. The science. The history. The ecology. The policy. Those things are important. But when you go out on the lake, it’s visceral. To float on the surface as you watch the first light fall across the red rock. To look out at the horizon and see nothing but blue water. To hear the gentle lap of the boat’s wake bounce off the rocky shore. To see the ripples of the sandy bottom through 20 feet of clear water. It gets into your soul and sticks.
There are things that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Power and whimsy and wild abandon can’t be put on a spreadsheet. And they are some of our most precious things.