Three Books On The Great Lakes

Before the season ends I am sailing solo from Chicago to St. Joseph, Michigan. It’s about a ten-hour trip (if all goes well) and I want to devote some of the time to talking about three books I have read that address an important theme: stewardship of the Great Lakes. Western Europeans have actively shaped the region for four centuries, and the current pace and magnitude of that change demands a sober assessment of ongoing strategies.

Dan Egan‘s new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, is an engaging biography of the lakes that looks at the structural, biological, and political forces that have altered and threatened one of the largest and most secluded freshwater ecosystems in the world. Since the 1634 voyage of French explorer Jean Nicolet, Egan notes that “we are still treating the lakes the same way, as liquid highways that promise a shortcut to unimaginable fortune.” Our desire to mine these resources led to the construction of the Erie Canal and the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway, two pathways that opened the heretofore isolated ecosystem to the global community. Not only were commodities brought out of the Great Lakes, but as we now know all too well, many invasive species were brought in. Egan does an excellent job describing the effort being made to control creatures like the sea lamprey, the zebra mussel, and the less known but more destructive quagga mussel. This development has provided opportunity — if somewhat unbalanced — but there have been unplanned costs: while the lakes are a substantial part of the North American economy, the effort to keep the ecosystem from collapsing negates much of the extracted wealth.

Reading Egan’s book took me back to an environmental history classic, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. I first read this history of Chicago in graduate school, and returning to it did not disappoint me. Cronon, a professor at University of Wisconsin – Madison and MacArthur fellow, asserts that Chicago surpassed other competitors in the region (like my hometown of St. Louis) by extracting from and serving the hinterlands of the Great Plains. In almost mercantile fashion, resources were brought into the metropolis where they were processed and pushed back to the frontier. Value often pre-existed in the old-growth forests, the fertile prairies, and the aquatic life of the lakes. Mining these resources created tremendous wealth for those in the metropole, but only transient income to those in the hinterland. No better example of this is the logging of the white pine forests in Wisconsin and Michigan, which created fortunes for mill owners and commodity traders, but were quickly exhausted and left local economies to collapse.  Cronon’s story of Chicago is a nineteenth-century tale but it resonates in the current age.

Finally, Peter Annin’s The Great Lakes Water Wars was published in between the two others, and it addresses probably the most valuable resource in the Great Lakes basin: fresh water. Annin gives us a geological summary of the basin before diving into climate issues, politics, and engineering. As the title suggests, he asserts that water will become an economic and possibly geopolitical flash point in the [near] future, and there is no greater freshwater cache on the planet than the Great Lakes basin. Although agreements have been signed to regulate water usage in the basin, their legal status is questionable and they remain in place by the good graces of the signatories (and not all the time at that.) The threat stems from a growing population and uneven distribution of freshwater across the globe. Large sections of Africa and Asia have lower water reserves per capita, while the United States obscenely wastes and mismanages its water. Add to that a capitalist desire to privatize the distribution of drinking water and you have the makings of a resource catastrophe (Annin’s chapter on the Aral Sea provides a stark warning.)

From the days of Nicolet, the Great Lakes have been viewed as wealth to be extracted. Click To Tweet

Although these books were written with different perspectives, one theme that weaves through them is the embrace of resource colonialism. Cronon acknowledges this in the title of his book, and his thesis that Chicago acts as a metropole to the surrounding hinterland. Value is added late in the supply chain, which means wealth never accumulates at the point of extraction. This has held true with logging and mining, and now the threat is to water. Lending credence to these fears is a recent comment by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — a Great Lakes state — who told a constituent that essentials like food, shelter, and health care were privileges, not rights. This list certainly includes water. The fundamental shift of removing water from the commonwealth and placing it in the hands of Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi perpetuates the practice of removing wealth from the hinterland. That these products are then sold back to the people they were removed from echoes mercantilism.

The early decades of the 21st century will surely be a crucible for the lakes. Having nearly destroyed the ecosystem in the previous century, it is still not clear if the lessons learned will be enough incentive to protect one of the greatest resources on the globe. Threats from sulfide mining, water mismanagement, agricultural waste, and invasive species could quickly render the ecosystem “dead” once again. Hubris and greed are powerful forces that often overwhelm good sense. The history and analysis presented in each of these books cannot foretell the path we will take, but they do describe a detailed image of the game board, and warn us of probable consequences. The past attitude of treating the Great Lakes as a treasure trove is simply incompatible with maintaining an environment that can support the lives of millions of people in the region. Whether reading one or all three, I believe you will gain much knowledge that transcends the local region and speaks to humanity’s ecological, economic, and political future. Enjoy.

Today’s Lesson: Jacklines

As I continue to gain experience sailing solo and prepare Ikaros for the endeavor, I have decided to install jacklines this winter while she’s in storage. This short post from BoatUS Magazine raises some good issues echoed in previous readings:

Many sailors like to use stainless-steel wire for jacklines, which, although undeniably strong, can roll underfoot, potentially throwing the sailor off balance.

Instead, try using 1-inch-wide nylon webbing. It’s plenty strong enough, won’t roll underfoot, and best of all won’t make a noise or scratch your deck like stainless-steel wire can.

One drawback is durability from UV exposure. Plastimo, one manufacturer of nylon webbing jacklines, recommends replacing them after a cumulated period of two years of outdoor exposure.

While I knew nylon webbing deteriorates in the sunlight, I didn’t know that the recommended replacement period was two years of accumulated UV exposure (in Chicago that is approximately four years.)

Happy sailing!

The Nevers

I’m beginning to plan an overnight trip from Chicago to Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Michigan. It is a trip across Lake Michigan that addresses some of my nevers. The thing about the nevers is that we all have them; they always exist. I’ve never had a child, I’ve never been from Tucson to Tucumcari, and I’ve never been to heaven (but I’ve been to Oklahoma.) In my boat Ikaros I’ve never sailed so far, never sailed away from shore, and never spent the night on it.

Everyone has to face the nevers. For a relative novice such as myself, sailing for ten hours across open water is a big step forward, but one that I must take in order to walk down the street. And my ultimate goal is to not just walk down the street, but leave town.

By leaving the shore I will not be able to rely on coastal navigation techniques, I cannot dismiss weather forecasts, and I will have to prepare for the unlikely event that I will ditch twenty-five miles offshore. I’m cautious each time I leave the harbor — especially when I’m sailing solo — but this trip will require an extra bit of deliberation. It’s a great opportunity to practice skills I will use in difficult situations on the Great Lakes and eventually in blue water.

Toward Benton Harbor

My destination is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it can be reached from Chicago in a single day. With a bit of luck I will arrive under sail before sunset. Second, St. Joseph is the site of Fort Miami, established by Robert de La Salle in order to explore what is now southern Michigan and northern Indiana. It is believed that La Salle built canoes there to continue his journey. While nearly 340 years ago, I shall make a point of toasting him with my evening martini.

The Great Lakes will help me overcome many nevers. I have not sailed overnight. I have not sailed in difficult weather. While I consider myself a cruiser, I want to solo sail on a multi-day trip, perhaps to Mackinac Island. Still called the Mediterranean Sea of North America, the Great Lakes are beautiful, formidable, and challenging. The more nevers I can face on them the better prepared I will be to explore the rest of the world.

Every Sail is a Lesson Learned

I subscribe to Christian Williams on YouTube. Williams is a solo sailor who recently published a book titled, Alone Together: Sailing Solo to Hawaii and Beyond. It was the associated video that first got my attention. Yesterday, before my sail, I sat with my coffee and watched his video about preparing to sail in high winds.

I am new to solo sailing and everything that I read or hear about the topic begins with, “prepare for the unexpected before you leave the dock.” It may seem like an obvious point to make but putting it into practice requires considerable deliberation. It seems (to me at least) that the most important characteristic of the exercise is that it is perpetual — no matter how long you have sailed or what type of experience you have there will always be new scenarios you can imagine. It is that imagination that allows you to visualize successfully overcoming problems when they occur.

Problems turn up not just when you least expect them, but where. Click To Tweet

After sailing last week in high winds I wanted to see Williams’ message. His focus on fouling is great advice for any sailor, especially one who goes solo. Even the most seasoned sailor (which I am not) needs the humility and sobriety to prepare for unexpected conditions. And given the fact that conditions can change so quickly, there is never a day when you can ignore the practice.

The lesson I learned on yesterday’s sail is that problems turn up not just when you least expect them, but where.

I must admit it was just a stupid mistake, the kind that I don’t like to admit. I’m actually writing this post because I feel like I should call myself out. We had a perfect sail on a southeast tack in moderate northeast winds. Chicago faded in the distance and we enjoyed a little picnic lunch. The trip home was equally uneventful.

Just outside of Belmont harbor we turned into the wind and furled the sails. Everything was neat and tidy and I started the engine. After a few seconds it seized and I realized that the bow line had slipped overboard and gotten tangled in the prop. The price of my inattention was a dip in Lake Michigan in order to free the line from my prop.

There were several layers of stupid here. First, the line should have been tied down. It was coiled on the deck but that was inadequate. Second, I should have paid attention before starting the engine. I hadn’t gone forward earlier so I didn’t include that on my mental checklist. Totally my fault. Third, the line was too long. A shorter line might have gone overboard but not been able to reach the prop. The worst part was that I bought a new, shorter line but hadn’t swapped them yet.

In the end all is well. It smarts a bit to admit my mistake, but it was one more lesson learned during another day of sailing. We learn by doing and that means (hopefully) that every time we do we will learn. I can’t think of a better reason for trying again.

Rediscovering the Craft of Maintenance

For those who follow me on social media, you have no doubt discovered that I purchased a sailboat last winter, a 2003 Beneteau 331. I have been sailing for many years but reached a point where renting sailboats, especially cruisers, was unsatisfying. If your goals include sailing any day the wind is good or crossing Lake Michigan for the weekend, then taking the plunge into boat ownership is essential.

Not having unlimited cash on hand, I bought the nicest used boat I could afford. This necessitates a certain amount of minor maintenance. So, when I’m not enjoying a day on the lake, I’m on the boat repairing or upgrading everything that will provide me with a project.

Eventually, working with my hands surrendered to the concept of economic specialization. Click To Tweet

As a kid I never hesitated to learn as I went. After I got my first car I installed a stereo, amplifier, and new speakers, boldly cutting holes in the dashboard and rear deck to receive the new equipment. I wired new fog lights. I upgraded the driver’s seat (this was the late 70s, after all.)

Eventually, working with my hands surrendered to the concept of economic specialization. I began a career in Information Systems and paid other people to do the wiring and the plumbing. By the time Ikaros arrived at its new home in Belmont Harbor, my confidence to perform a lot of the maintenance needed a boost.

Choosing what seemed to be the most straightforward task, I decided to rebuild my winches. Depending on the amount of use, winches need to be rebuilt every year, so it’s something I needed to learn. During the sea trial two of the four were performing poorly, which made me think it had been a long time since they had been cleaned. One morning I sat down with my coffee, searched YouTube, and watched a Lewmar video on cleaning winches. I downloaded the manual and ordered a parts kit. I thought I was ready to go.

The first snag I encountered was finding the right degreaser. Lewmar recommended the use of white spirit, and no matter where I went no one had heard of it. The day was slipping away as I got back to the house and sat down at the Google machine. It was with a bit of chagrin that I discovered white spirit to be the British term for mineral spirits (Lewmar being a British company.) Laura and I had a laugh at my expense over cocktails that evening.

The next day I got the job done. By the time I reached the third winch I was moving like a pro. The work was really nasty — it had clearly been years since the previous maintenance — but things went back together cleanly and quickly. My winches are now good as new.

Gross and gunky

Clean and smooth

While it seems like a simple task, it got me excited to tackle the pump on my marine sanitation device (toilet.) Well, maybe excited is not the right word. I did feel a sense of pride when the new pump was installed and the system was working. Along the way I learned about every aspect of the MSD, from the bowl to the holding tank vent, and every hose, valve, and gasket in between. I only hope I never have to use that knowledge while I’m out on the water.

I am not sure what it is about adulthood that breeds caution in us. Ikaros is certainly important enough to me that I could avoid using it as a learning tool for fear of “breaking something.” On the other hand, if things aren’t working there is little I can do to make them worse. If I fail to fix something I can always call an expert. Having that safety net is important to regaining my confidence in the craft of maintenance. Becoming intimately knowledgable about my boat and competent in making repairs is crucial if I want to realize my sailing goals. It is therefore important that caution be a warning but not an obstacle.

As I sail beyond the Chicago shoreline and explore the Great Lakes, I must both nurture and temper my caution. While there can be no destination I avoid, the lakes can be a formidable environment, rivaling the oceans in many cases. Gaining confidence and knowledge through maintenance is one part of knowing that I can learn to handle situations I confront on the water.