Dispatch from the Field: The Big Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

-Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald


Lake Superior or Gitchigumi (meaning Great Water or Great Lake) is the largest lake in the world, containing an eighth of the world’s fresh water. At its deepest point, it measures 1,333 feet in depth, with an average water temperature of 34 degrees F. Around two hundred rivers and thousands of streams feed into it. (chi-manidoo.com)


The Niagara of the North, Kakabeka Falls, is one of the waters that ultimately feeds into Superior. Legend tells of a 17 year old Ojibwa princess who was captured, and then led invading Sioux warriors over the Falls under the ruse that she was guiding them to her tribe. One version holds that at the last possible moment, she swerved to the bank, saving herself. The warriors were caught off-guard and went over the Falls to their deaths. Another version states that she perished over the Falls too. I think I prefer the former version.


One of the landmarks along the northwestern reach of Lake Superior is the Sleeping Giant, now a provincial park and one of Canada’s seven wonders. Another Ojibwa legend holds that the giant, called Nanabijou, was turned to stone when the secret location of a rich silver mine was disclosed to Europeans. So, leaks have been a problem for centuries.

Another landmark:


Paul Shaffer, musical director for David Letterman and The Blues Brothers (my favorite cult movie) was born and grew up in Thunder Bay. Like me, he played in a rock band while in junior high.

John Mason

John Mason who also grew up in Thunder Bay and heard Paul and his band, the Fabulous Fugitives, play for school assemblies. My junior high band was called the Blackouts. I will leave to my readers which was the cooler band name. No need, however, to opine as to who is the better musical talent.

Thunder Bay is also – puzzlingly – the current home of a traveling exhibit called “My Story, My Tattoo.”


Ryan McTaggart’s tattoos reflect his love of the fire department for which he works. He has a small fire helmet inked on his shoulder, as well as a Maltese cross from his fire department belt buckle. The large tattoo over his heart is the paw print of his late dog, Rescue. “Memorial tattoos really help me therapeutically.” Rescue’s ashes are mixed into the ink.

tattoo mother

Debbie Shortread had complications with her third child, a baby girl who died within an hour after her birth. Her tattoos are an art piece that tell her story as a mother, and the story of her deceased daughter, Ava. The woman in the tattoo holds an empty heart, “because that part of my life is empty; my daughter isn’t with me anymore. The flowers around the base of the tattoo were the most beautiful flowers I could find and reminded me of how beautiful her face was.” The tattoo took 26 hours. “The pain of getting the tattoo was an emotional outlet for me. All the emotional and mental pain that I had, I was channeling it out through the pain of getting inked.”

factory worker

David Hofman couldn’t picture himself without tattoos. “They are a part of me.” The skulls represent the friends that he has lost. They remind him that life is short and to enjoy it. “I used to be afraid of a lot of things including heights, so I got tattooed on my chest to help me conquer those fears. I like to think now that I’m not afraid of anything.”

all tattoos

Kirsty Todd is a tattoo artist herself. “I have too many tattoos to count.” That pretty much sums it up.

Mmmm, that cheese is gouda:


Erica, who had no visible tattoos, snuck me into the warehouse of the Thunder Oak Cheese Farm to see all 22 varieties of Gouda that they make and sell there.

“Don’t forget the Swiss cheese too” said Dana, giving me a thumbs up for promising not to:


To get from Superior to the other Great Lakes, large ships use two HUGE American ship canals, and smaller boats use this modest Canadian ship canal. That was kind of a metaphor for the US and Canada generally.

Chris at the locks

Chris operates the locks and makes sure no pedestrians fall into the channel. A local boy, he splits his time between running the locks, and operating the city Hockey rink, which opens next week. Part of the lock system has been upgraded but another part is the original from 1895. Guess which part hardly ever needs work? The 1895 part of the system. The newer part breaks all the time. I asked if ships ever bang into the sides of the canal. Occasionally, he said, but the canal always wins.

2 thoughts on “Dispatch from the Field: The Big Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s