Canada’s Five Great Lakes: Their histories and attractions 

By: Vivian Nguyen

Published on: December 12 2022

Photo: Berkay Gumustekin (Pexels) 

According to a 2020 report, the most desired place where people want to live abroad is Canada. The report credits the North American country’s appeal to its “friendly locals and beautiful scenery.” The latter comes to no surprise considering Canada is home to the largest freshwater system on Earth—the Great Lakes.  

From west to east, the Great Lakes comprise of lakes Superior, Michigan (which is entirely in the United States), Huron, Erie, and Ontario. They are located south of the Canadian Shield, a large horseshoe-shaped rock formation that makes up around 50 per cent of the country.  

The most spectacular drop in the lakes occurs at Niagara Falls, making the Great Lakes popular tourist destinations. In this article, we will go over the five Great Lakes and some of their must-see attractions. 

Lake Superior: The largest lake in Canada 

Including its American part, Lake Superior is the largest body of freshwater in Canada, covering a surface area of 82 100 km². In fact, the lake contains more water than all the other Great Lakes combined. Its north shore touches Ontario while its south shore borders the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

It was originally called the Kitchi-gummi meaning, “great lake” or “great water” in Anishinaabemowin, an Indigenous language primarily spoken from Manitoba to Québec. The lake was later dubbed Lac Supérieur (meaning “upper”) by the French, translating to English well as it is the most northern of the Great Lakes. 

Also considered the “Niagara of the north,” Kakabeka Falls is a must-see attraction when exploring Lake Superior. As the second largest waterfall in Ontario, this location has hiking trails, breathtaking scenery, and opportunities for camping and swimming. 

The Great Lakes Aquarium is another one of Lake Superior’s most popular attractions. The aquarium’s live animal displays and interactive areas make it the perfect location for families and schools. There are also art galleries and exhibitions. Be sure to check out the Great Lakes Aquarium’s “Know before you go” webpage before planning your visit. 

Lake Michigan: The Great Lake of the United States 

Deriving from the Ojibwa word Michi Gami, or “large lake,” Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes located entirely in the United States. It is the third largest of the Great Lakes and stretches over the entire west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. 

Located on a pier attached to the lake, Navy Pier is a great destination in Chicago for dining, shopping, cultural events, and free year-round programs. Such programs include concerts, outdoor movies, dance performances, and more. You can also find the Chicago Children’s Museum here for interactive workshops, art studios, and various exhibits for different age groups. 

Additionally, the Illinois Beach State Park, located just south of Lake Michigan shores, is the perfect place for picnicking, bicycling, camping, and boating, just to name a few. 

Photo: Nathan Rose (Unsplash) 

Lake Huron: As illustrated in famous paintings 

Lake Huron is made up of four bodies of water: the main lake, Saginaw Bay, the North Channel, and Georgian Bay. It is the second largest of the Great Lakes and fifth-largest freshwater in the world, spreading 59 600 km². In Canada, Lake Huron is part of the traditional territories of the Tionontati (Petun), Neutral, Huron-Wendat, and Anishinaabe. 

The Canadian side of the lake is also best appreciated for its beautiful beaches. Its scenery often appears in many artworks by Canadian artists, including the painters of the Group of Seven—a renowned group of landscape painters. 

The Lake Huron basin is safe for swimming, boating, and camping, (or fishing for leisure/competition). Remember to check Ontario’s fishing regulations before fishing in the province. 

Explore above and beneath Lake Huron in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary where you can visit museums, fishery trails, and more. To learn about the lakes’ history, visit the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center

Lake Erie 

Lake Erie is the southernmost and the shallowest of the Great Lakes. It was declared dead during the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement helped restore the lake, but there remain reports of dead zones—places in which no life exist. 

Despite this, the lake has the largest commercial fishery among the Great Lakes—mostly yellow perch—as well as gorgeous beaches. Meanwhile, its marshes serve as an important aspect of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, Canada’s international waterway. 

Walk on the pier yourself or join guided tours to the Point Abino Lighthouse, located on the north shore of the lake. You can also learn about Niagara’s role in the War of 1812 at Fort Erie National Historic Site. The historic site offers tours and other interactive exhibits, including theatre showings. 

Lake Ontario 

Lastly, with a surface area of 18 960 km², the smallest of the Great Lakes is Lake Ontario. This might come as a surprise considering its proximity to major metropolitan areas, including St. Catharines-Niagara, Hamilton, Toronto, and Oshawa. These cities form what is called, “the Golden Horseshoe.” About 55 per cent of Ontario’s population lives near Lake Ontario. 

The name of the most easterly lake has Iroquoian origins: Ontarí’io, meaning “beautiful lake” or “sparkling water.” 

Explore Niagara Falls State Park for its restaurants, thrilling attractions, hiking trails, and more. Get up close and personal to the Falls with the Maid of the Mist boat tours or enjoy a delicious meal at the Top of the Falls Restaurant where you have views of the glorious waterfall scenery. 

Southeast of the lake, you can learn about the area’s geography and wildlife at the Derby Hill Bird Observatory. As the birds of prey migrate north every spring, April is the best time to visit the hawk-watching site. 

An honourable Great Lake is Lake St. Clair. Also known as the “Heart of the Great Lakes,” Lake St. Clair is bordered by Ontario and Michigan and hosts one of the largest sport fisheries in the world. Due to its size and shallowness, it is not considered a Great Lake, but remains one of the most heavily used areas of the Great Lakes, primarily for recreational fishing and boating. 

Photo: Chris Chan (Unsplash) 

In addition to providing stunning scenery, attractions, and food and water, the Great Lakes supply transportation to North America’s interior. In 1959, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway—also called Great Lakes Waterway—established the Great Lakes as an international watercourse. This waterway connects the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River with the Atlantic Ocean. 

From transportation to fisheries and their beautiful landscapes, the Great Lakes truly are great! They are amazing hubs for learning about Canadian history, geography, art and culture, and lifestyles. Each Great Lake is worth experiencing in person when you get the chance!  

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