Friday, July 22, 2011
Next week, I'm leaving for a bicycle trip around Lake Huron. This the start of my plan to circle all five of the Great Lakes over the next few years, in a kind of research project that tracks much of deindustrialized America (and some of Canada), including cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, Sault St. Marie, Duluth, along myriad small towns, reasonably in tact northern forests, and vast stretches of agricultural lands.
I will, of course, see only a small sliver of it, moving at slow pace of about 12 miles per hour. I have few preconceptions about what the trip may hold. It's a plan, in other words, but a pretty open-ended one. I'm not even sure which route I will take around Lake Huron, whether I'll cycle around Georgian Bay or cut underneath it on the way back (saving a few hundred miles).
The Great Lakes region encompasses layers of history that stretch back several millennia. It was a primary battleground in the colonial expansion of North America, as Dutch traders, French trappers, and English settlers, began the process of interacting with and then displacing the native people that occupied the area thousands of years before their arrival. Clearly one of the attractions for both Native residents and European colonists was the presence of a vast and complex network of waterways that facilitated transportation, communication, expansion, warfare, and economic development.
In other words, the same natural features that facilitated the growth and development of native societies also made their removal an apparent necessity for colonizing forces. As industrialization began to expand in the 19th century, the Great Lakes waterways facilitated the growth of large manufacturing cities along the shores of these lakes, and outward, like radiating spokes, to other town and cities that could be easily connected to them via barge and river traffic.
When the manufacturing base of the U.S. began to decline in the 1970s, this was the part of the country that was often hit first and hardest. Many of the cities along the Great Lakes have never fully recovered. Thus, the Great Lakes region offers an epic tale of settlement, cultivation, colonization, industrialization, deindustrialization…and perhaps reindustrialization (as is attested to by a nascent tech and automotive renaissance in the city of Detroit).
With the intensification of climate change and predicted global water shortages, the Great Lakes, as a natural resource, will, if anything, expand ever further. If the South and Southwest begin to lose their allure (which is not completely out of the question, given recent weather trends), the North, including the Great Lakes region, may even see population growth.
This bicycle trek, in other words, is an attempt to get some sense of the sweep of history and culture in a part of North America which has had more than its share of drama, to imagine its possible futures, and to have a little bit of fun while doing that.