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Reflections: Lake-effect snow just part of Great Lake's impact

A 1968 U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorated Father Jacques Marquette upon the 300th anniversary of his exploration and establishment of missions in the Great Lakes region.
A 1968 U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorated Father Jacques Marquette upon the 300th anniversary of his exploration and establishment of missions in the Great Lakes region.

You can’t get through a winter in the upper Midwest without frequently hearing about “lake-effect” snow.

Here at the western end of the Great Lakes, lake-effect snow is most frequently dumped on our neighbors to the east in Michigan and Indiana when the prevailing westerly winds pick up moisture as they blow across Lake Michigan and then dump it in the form of snow – and lots of it – on those living near the lake’s eastern shore.

When this happens, as it does every year except the extremely cold ones when Lake Michigan freezes over and seals off the supply of moisture, we get yet another reminder of how much effect on our lives the great lake that is so close to us has.

Lake Michigan has always been instrumental in the lifeways of those living here in the Midwest, starting with the earliest prehistoric inhabitants who arrived following Ice Age game animals as the glaciers covering the area slowly melted. And it was the transportation route – the “Voyageur’s Highway” as fur trade historian Grace Lee Nute so memorably christened it and its siblings – the first explorers of northern Illinois used to penetrate the rich, and then unknown, Midwest.

Like a spearhead, Michigan stabs straight south from Lakes Huron and Superior deep into the old Northwest, penetrating from northern pine and birch forests into the tallgrass prairies that would one day become the richest farmland in the United States.

When the very first Native People arrived here several thousand years ago as a long period of glaciation drew to a close, Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron formed one huge body of water, called by geologists Lake Nipissing. As the climate gradually warmed and the glaciers slowly retreated northward, the land literally began to rise as it was freed of the tremendous weight of thousands of feet of ice. At a rate of about a foot every 100 years, land around the western Great Lakes ascended, creating the boundaries of the individual lakes we know today.

The primitive hunters who followed the retreating ice north, hunting the mastodons and other huge Ice Age mammals then living in the area, slowly gave up their purely hunting culture as the big animals died out. Today, many paleontologists believe those over-sized Ice Age mammals were hunted to extinction by efficient groups of Paleo-Indians.

Thousands of years passed, during which the Native Peoples’ cultures underwent numerous and extensive changes, during which entire civilizations rose and fell. By the time the first white Europeans arrived in the early 1600s, the Great Lakes Indians had developed into a great many tribes with traditions and cultures that ranged from primitive hunter-gatherers to large-scale farmers to maritime traders.

Those early Europeans were out to make a buck and quickly realized the Great Lakes were a wonderful water highway from the Atlantic Coast all the way into the deep interior of North America. Adopting the excellent birch bark canoes invented by the Chippewas and used by the related Ottawa Tribes’ far-flung trading networks, French traders and trappers penetrated far into North America, all the way to the western shore of Lake Superior and even paddling up the Missouri River well into the Great Plains.

The first Europeans to legally travel through Illinois, Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., and Louis Jolliet, both remarked on the rich land lying on both sides of the Illinois River. And as the era of the fur trade east of the Mississippi River ended, European farmers moved into the area to exploit the rich land that had been observed by the two explorers a century and a half before.

Here in Kendall County, the first white settlers came by land from southern and central Illinois, following the Illinois and Fox Rivers north. But as word got back east about how rich the prairie land in the Fox Valley was, setters by the thousands began using Lake Michigan as their main transportation route to their new homes.

The early settlers who decided to take the water route rather than travel overland utilized the Erie Canal to get to Lake Erie from their former homes. From Buffalo, New York, on the shores of that lake, they traveled west by lake schooner or steam ship past Detroit (another old French trading settlement) through Lake Huron and south on Lake Michigan to Chicago.

In its early years, the old fur trading post of Chicago was a low, muddy, swampy place where disease was rampant. Those sturdy New Englanders wanted to have nothing to do with such a dismal place and moved west onto the prairie as quickly as possible.

During the Black Hawk War of 1832, the U.S. Army used the lake to transport troops from back east to the “front” at Chicago. The troops, who were supposed to kill hostile Indians, ended up eliminating far more settlers than the hostile tribesmen did by bringing the dreaded Asiatic cholera with them, infecting the entire region.

In the decades following, Lake Michigan became the major transportation route of the upper Midwest, and when the lake was connected to the Mississippi via the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Illinois River, northern Illinois became an economic power that even today outranks many of the world’s sovereign nations.

The economic benefits of the big lake to our east do not leave off with its transportation value, however. The climate of Northern Illinois is heavily influenced by the effect of the lake’s waters. On quiet summer evenings, lake mist can be seen and smelled here in Kendall County if the breeze is in the right direction. And as noted above, in winter, the lake can have a major impact on travel all over the upper Midwest.

It would have been interesting to have been one of those Paleo-Indian hunters following the giant herds around the base of the glaciers 10,000 years ago in the Kendall County area. As those glaciers retreated, the giant lakes that formed dominated the land much the way the ancestral glaciers did. It would have been quite a sight.

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