10 Deep Facts About the Great Lakes

NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN
NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Great Lakes of North America, which span 750 miles from east to west, form the largest fresh water system on Earth. Here are 10 facts about Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

1. LAKE SUPERIOR IS BY FAR THE BIGGEST AND DEEPEST.

The numbers for the world’s largest freshwater lake (in terms of surface area), which straddles the U.S.-Canada border and touches Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are staggering: 31,700 square miles of surface water; 350 miles wide and 160 miles long; 2,726 miles of shoreline; an average depth of nearly 500 feet, with a maximum depth of 1,332 feet; and a volume of 2,900 cubic miles, more than enough to fill all the other Great Lakes combined.

2. ONTARIO AND ERIE ARE THE SMALLEST.

Lake Erie, which borders Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, measures 241 miles across and 57 miles long, larger than Lake Ontario’s 193-mile-by-53-mile footprint. But Erie’s average depth is just 62 feet and has a volume of around 119 cubic miles, much smaller than Ontario’s average depth of 283 feet and volume of 395 cubic miles. The two lakes are connected by the 35-mile long Niagara River.

3. ONLY ONE OF THE LAKES IS LOCATED ENTIRELY IN THE U.S.

As its name suggests, Lake Michigan and its 1180 cubic miles of water, 22,300 square miles of surface water, and 1600 miles of shoreline is the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within American borders. It is the second-largest of the Great Lakes by volume and is connected to Lake Huron by the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

4. YOU CAN TAKE A 6500-MILE DRIVE AROUND THE LAKES.

The Great Lakes Commission established the Circle Tour in 1988 as a scenic tourist drive around the five lakes and through the eight states (and Ontario) that make up the GLC. Just to navigate Lake Michigan’s 900-mile Circle Tour alone would take approximately 14½ hours without any stops.

5. A FIRE PAVED THE WAY FOR MASSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS.

A fire on the Cuayahoga River in June 1969, and the iconic image that was published thereafter, helped spur a number of environmental regulations aimed at cleaning up the waterway that feeds Lake Erie, as well as America’s lakes and rivers in general. Amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known as the Clean Water Act, were enacted in 1972 regulating water pollution and discharge, and gave the Environmental Protection Agency broader pollution control powers. In addition, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Act in 1972 to “restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes.”

6. THE LAKES CONTAIN MORE THAN 35,000 ISLANDS.

Of the thousands of islands scattered throughout the lakes, the largest is Manitoulin in Lake Huron. It is the largest freshwater lake island in the world at 1068 square miles and has a population of around 12,600. Georgian Bay, also on Lake Huron, includes about 17,500 islands, while the archipelago in the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands actually houses around 1,800 islands.

7. EACH LAKE NAME IS DERIVED FROM EITHER NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGES OR FRENCH.

Lake Erie is named after the Erie Tribe, which occupied the southern shores of the lake. Michigan comes from a French version of the Ojibwa word michigami. Huron is named for the Huron tribe. The Iroquois lent their language to the naming of Ontario, which means “beautiful lake.” French explorers called the great body of water above Lake Huron “le lac superieur,” or upper lake.

8. SHIPPING STILL DOMINATES.

The Canadian and U.S. lake fleets, made up of carriers, tankers, bulk freighters (“lakers”), tugs, and barges, haul upwards of 125 million tons of cargo a year. About 40 percent of the cargo is iron ore and other mined products like coal, salt, and stone, while another 40 percent is wheat, corn, oats, soybeans, and other agricultural products. Other cargo includes steel, scrap metal, iron products, fuel, and chemicals.

9. THE LARGEST FISH IN THE LAKES CAN WEIGH OVER 200 POUNDS.

Fishing is a revered pastime on the Great Lakes, one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. Some of the most common catches include trout, salmon, walleye, perch, herring, and bass. Lake sturgeon are the biggest species of fish found in the lakes, and they can weigh over 200 lbs. 

10. LAKE SUPERIOR HAS CLAIMED A NUMBER OF SHIPS AND LIVES.

While the wreck of the famed SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior has generated a hit song, memorials, and conspiracies surrounding its sinking, a number of other commercial ships have sunk and perished through the years in the area around Whitefish Bay near Whitefish Point, Michigan. A wooden steamer called the Vienna of Cleveland sank in 1892 on Lake Superior and is a popular spot for divers; the Comet also sank on Lake Superior and took 11 lives with it in 1875; the John M. Osborn collided with the Alberta in 1884 and drowned four men; and on just its second voyage, the SS Cyprus sank near Deer Park, Michigan in 1907, killing 22 of its 23 crewmembers.

The dangerous stretch of water on southern Lake Superior between Munising, Michigan and Whitefish Point has been called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” and “Shipwreck Coast,” as hundreds of ships have been lost in the area. It is estimated that 6000 ships have sank in the Great Lakes, with a loss of nearly 30,000 lives.

Note: The piece has been amended to include lake sturgeon as the Great Lakes' largest species of fish.

This Outdoor Lantern Will Keep Mosquitoes Away—No Bug Spray Necessary

Thermacell, Amazon
Thermacell, Amazon

With summer comes outdoor activities, and with those activities come mosquito bites. If you're one of the unlucky people who seem to attract the insects, you may be tempted to lock yourself inside for the rest of the season. But you don't have to choose between comfort and having a cocktail on the porch, because this lamp from Thermacell ($25) keeps outdoor spaces mosquito-free without the mess of bug spray.

The device looks like an ordinary lantern you would display on a patio, but it works like bug repellent. When it's turned on, a fuel cartridge in the center provides the heat needed to activate a repellent mat on top of the lamp. Once activated, the repellent in the mat creates a 15-by-15-foot bubble of protection that repels any mosquitos nearby, making it a great option for camping trips, days by the pool, and backyard barbecues.

Mosquito repellent lantern.

Unlike some other mosquito repellents, this lantern is clean, safe, and scent-free. It also provides light like a real lamp, so you can keep pests away without ruining your backyard's ambience.

The Thermacell mosquito repellent lantern is now available on Amazon. If you've already suffered your first mosquito bites of the summer, here's some insight into why that itch can be so excruciating.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

13 Facts About Robert E. Peary, North Pole Explorer

Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Robert Edwin Peary, called "one of the greatest of all explorers," claimed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. But from the moment his achievement was announced to the world, Peary was mired in a controversy that overshadowed his other accomplishments as a skilled civil engineer, natural historian, and expedition leader. Here are a few things you should know about this daring Arctic adventurer.

1. Robert Peary was extremely close to his mother.

Robert Edwin Peary was born May 6, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania, an industrial town in the Allegheny Mountains. His father died when he was 3, and his mother, Mary Wiley Peary, returned with her son to her home state of Maine. As an only child, Peary formed a close bond with his mother, and when he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, they lived together in rooms off campus. When Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, Mary accompanied the couple on their honeymoon on the Jersey Shore and then moved in with the newlyweds, to Josephine's utter surprise. The explorer confided all of his aspirations to his mother throughout his life. In one prophetic letter to her following his first expedition to Greenland in 1886, he wrote:

"I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will ... remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now."

2. Robert Peary had a side hustle as a taxidermist.

Peary enjoyed a childhood spent outdoors playing sports and studying natural history. After graduating from college with a degree in civil engineering, Peary moved to his mother's hometown of Fryeburg, Maine, to work as a county surveyor. But the county had little need for a surveyor, and to supplement his income, he taxidermied birds. He charged $1.50 for a robin and $1.75 to $2.25 for ducks and hawks.

3. Before he went to the North Pole, Robert Peary went to Nicaragua.

Portrait of Robert Peary
Robert Peary in his naval uniform
The American Museum Journal, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Copyright Restrictions

In 1881, Peary was commissioned by the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, which made him a naval officer with a rank equivalent to lieutenant. Three years later, renowned civil engineer Aniceto Menocal picked Peary to lead a field party to survey an area in Nicaragua for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Peary's ability to hack through thick jungle and scale mountains impressed Menocal enough that he hired Peary for a second survey of Nicaragua in 1887, this time with a well-funded, 200-person operation.

4. Robert Peary met Matthew Henson in a Washington, D.C. hat shop.

Though some details of the encounter differ, Peary met his eventual polar partner Matthew Henson at B.H. Stinemetz & Son, a hatter and furrier at 1237 Pennsylvania Avenue. Peary needed a sun helmet for his second trip to Nicaragua. He also needed to hire a valet. The shop's owner recommended his clerk, Henson, who surely impressed Peary with his years of experience on ships. Henson accompanied Peary to Nicaragua and on every Arctic expedition thereafter, including the successful North Pole excursion in 1908-1909.

5. Robert Peary made seven trips to the Arctic.

Peary's first trip to Greenland occurred in 1886 between his two trips to Central America. With a Danish companion, he trekked 100 miles across the Greenland ice cap but had to turn back when food ran low.

During his second and third expeditions (1891-1892 and 1893-1895), Peary, Henson, and company traversed the northern end of the ice cap and established that Greenland's land did not extend to the North Pole. On his fourth trip (1896-1897) [PDF], he brought back meteorites for the American Museum of Natural History. Peary's fifth and sixth expeditions (1898-1902 and 1905-1906) tested a feasible route to the North Pole and established relationships with Inughuit communities on which Peary would rely for assistance and supplies. Peary and Henson finally reached the North Pole on the seventh expedition in 1908-1909.

6. Robert Peary's successes in Greenland contrasted with two previous polar disasters.

Robert Peary in furs
Robert Peary, in fur clothing, stands on the deck of the Roosevelt.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1879, newspaper mogul James Gordon Bennett and Navy commander George Washington DeLong organized an expedition to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait in a reinforced ship, the Jeannette. After months of besetment, ice crushed the ship and the crew made a desperate escape to Siberia, where all but two members died. Then, Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely led a 25-member magnetic survey expedition to the Canadian high Arctic in 1881. Relief ships failed to reach them for three years. By the time rescue arrived and they returned home, only Greely and five other men had survived starvation. The public's appetite for polar adventure waned until, a few years later, Peary's triumphs in Greenland earned him a heroic reputation and revived interest the quest for the North Pole. 

7. Robert Peary lost eight toes to frostbite.

On the grueling march to establish his camp at Greely's abandoned Fort Conger on the 1898-1902 expedition, Peary suffered a severe case of frostbitten feet. When they reached the hut, Henson took off Peary's footwear and revealed marble-like flesh up to his knees. As Henson removed the commander's socks, eight of Peary's toes popped off with them. As Bradley Robinson writes in the Henson biography Dark Companion, Peary reportedly said, "a few toes aren't much to give to achieve the Pole."

8. Robert Peary's wife Josephine accompanied him to the Arctic when she was eight months pregnant.

Josephine Diebitsch Peary was a formidable adventurer as well [PDF]. Her father Hermann Diebitsch, a Prussian military leader who had immigrated to Washington, D.C., directed the Smithsonian Institution's exchange system. Josephine worked at the Smithsonian as a clerk before marrying Peary in 1888. Bucking social convention, she insisted on accompanying his second expedition in 1891-1892, and in Greenland she managed the day-to-day operation of the base camp, including rationing provisions, bartering goods, hunting, and sewing furs. She even helped defend the men from a walrus attack by reloading their rifles as fast as they shot them.

She also went on Peary's third Greenland trip when she was eight months pregnant, and gave birth to their daughter Marie Anighito—dubbed the Snow Baby by newspapers—at their camp. In total, Josephine went to Greenland multiple times, wrote three bestselling books, gave lecture tours, was an honorary member of the American Alpine Club and other organizations, and decorated the family's apartment with narwhal tusks, polar bear skins, fur rugs, and other polar trophies.

9. Matthew Henson saved Robert Peary from a charging musk ox.

Cigarette card featuring explorer Matthew A. Henson
A cigarette card for the American Tobacco Company's Hassan Cork Tip cigarettes shows a portrait of Matthew Henson in a fur parka. The card belongs to the "World's Greatest Explorers" series.
American Tobacco Company, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1895, Peary and Henson scouted a route toward the Pole over the northern edge of Greenland’s ice cap, just as they had done on their previous trip in 1891-1892. They reached a promontory called Navy Cliff, in extreme northeastern Greenland, but could go no farther. On the way back to their camp on the northwestern coast, they suffered from exhaustion, exposure, and hunger. Their only chance to make it back to camp was to find game.

As described in Dark Companion, Peary and Henson stumbled upon a herd of musk oxen. Henson and Peary killed several, but in his weakened state, Peary shot and missed one. The animal turned around and charged Peary. Henson picked up his gun and pulled the trigger. "Behind [Peary] came the muffled thud of a heavy, fallen thing, like a speeding rock landing in a thick cushion of snow," Bradley Robinson writes in Dark Companion. "Ten feet away lay a heap of brown, shaggy hair half sunken in a snowdrift."

10. Robert Peary absconded with a 30-ton meteorite.

In 1818, explorer John Ross wrote about several meteorites near Greenland's Cape York that served as the Inughuit's only source of metal for tools. In 1896, Peary appropriated the three huge meteorites from their territory. (By the late 19th century, Inughuit had obtained tools via trade and no longer needed the stones for that purpose.) The largest of the three weighed 30 tons and required heavy-duty equipment to load it onto Peary's ship without capsizing the vessel. 

Josephine Peary sold the meteorites to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 (nearly $1.2 million in today's money). They remain on display in the museum's Hall of Meteorites, where custom-built supports for the heaviest one extend into the bedrock of Manhattan island.

11. Theodore Roosevelt was one of Robert Peary's biggest supporters.

Robert Peary and Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt (left) greets Robert Peary on the deck of the S.S. Roosevelt on July 7, 1908. Peary stopped at TR's home in Oyster Bay, New York, before departing on his North Pole quest.
George Borup, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries // Public Domain

Peary and President Theodore Roosevelt shared a dedication to the strenuous life, and TR—who had served as the assistant secretary of the Navy—helped Peary obtain his multi-year leaves of absence from civil engineering work. "It seems to me that Peary has done valuable work as an Arctic explorer and can do additional work which entitles him to be given every chance by this Government to do such work," Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody in 1903. Peary repaid the favors by naming his custom-built steamship the S.S. Roosevelt.

In 1906, TR presented the explorer with the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, for Peary's attainment of farthest north. Roosevelt also contributed the introduction to Peary's book about his successful quest for the North Pole.

12. Robert Peary met his nemesis, Frederick Cook, more than a decade before their feud.

Frederick Cook, a New York City physician, signed up as the surgeon for Peary's second trip to Greenland in 1891-1892. Neither Peary nor Matthew Henson was very impressed with his wilderness skills. Afterwards, Cook joined an expedition to Antarctica and claimed he summited Denali in Alaska, though his climbing partners disputed that feat.

So when Peary and Henson arrived back in Greenland in September 1909 after attaining the North Pole on April 6, they were shocked to hear that Cook had supposedly reached the Pole in spring 1908 and had announced it to the world just five days before Peary had returned to civilization. "[Cook] has not been at the Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time," Peary told newspapers. "He has simply handed the public a gold brick."

From then on, Peary and his family strenuously defended his claim to the Pole. Cook had left his journals and instruments in Greenland in his dash to announce his discovery to the world, and Peary refused to transport them aboard his ship to New York, so it became Cook's word against Peary's. Peary also had the backing of wealthy funders, The New York Times, and the National Geographic Society, who eventually decided the matter in Peary's favor. But the controversy never went away; as late as 2009, the centennial of Peary's claim, historians and explorers were reexamining Peary's records and finding discrepancies in the distances he traveled each day on his way to the Pole. Cook's journals were lost in Greenland, and he spent time in jail for mail fraud. The jury is still out.

13. Robert Peary advocated for a Department of Aeronautics.

Peary was an early proponent of aviation for exploration as well as military defense. As World War I engulfed Europe, he argued for the creation of an air service, the Department of Aeronautics, that would operate alongside the Army and Navy and could then be used for lifesaving coastal patrol. Peary embarked on a 20-city tour to drum up public support for the Aerial Coastal Patrol Fund and raised $250,000 to build stations along the U.S. coast.

The Navy later implemented many of Peary's suggestions, but the tour left the explorer in frail health. He was diagnosed with incurable pernicious anemia and died on February 20, 1920. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his gravesite is adorned with a large granite globe inscribed with a motto in Latin, Inveniam viam aut faciam—"I shall find a way or make one."

Additional sources: Dark Companion, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole