March 18, 2017

Glaciation and us! The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes

{The following talk was presented at the monthly Ontonagon County Historical Society membership meeting held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mass City, MI  on March 16, 2017 (St. Urho’s Day for you Finns out there).  The talk was a prelude to the screening of Bill Mason’s 1968 film The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes}.


    Before we get to our featured presentation, we are going to travel back and forth in time a bit to set the scene for the short film you are about to see.  Technically, it is a story whose beginnings we can only speculate about because we were not there all those eons ago when it began.  If this was a crime story, it would be handled like detective  analysing the evidence from a cold case.  My connection to the story requires a much shorter trip through only 43 or 44 years, so that is where we will begin our little trip through time and space.

    During my undergraduate years at NMU, I had an item on my list of ‘must take classes’ called Geomorphology to be taught by the head of the Department of Geography, Earth Science, and Conservation, Dr. John D. Hughes.  Having never had a class from Dr. Hughes, I inquired from the upper level and grad students who would congregate in the department coffee lounge what I might expect from Dr.  Hughes.  Suffice to say I was a bit alarmed when the nicest thing uttered about the class was, ”I am glad they only teach that one every other year because I was able to dodge it in my schedule.”

    Armed with this unsettling mental picture, I entered class on the first day just a little apprehensive.  According to the syllabus,  we were there to “the study of the physical features of the surface of the earth and their relation to its geological structures”.  The biggest surprise for me was Dr. Hughes – he was an engaging lecturer with a wicked sense of humor.  The subject matter was fascinating and the good Dr. was a wonder to behold when diagramming features with chalk.   I absolutely loved the course!  In that Dr. Hughes cut his PhD teeth on the topic of glaciation of the Great Lakes region,  we spent a fair amount of class time and a good deal of field study on that very subject.  I entered almost completely ignorant of the Great Lakes glacial past and left wondering, “Why did I not learn any of this before I was a Junior in college?”

    Fast forward to 1975.  I arrive in Ontonagon to teach seventh grade Geography/Earth Science and I am itching to resolve the lack of knowledge being imparted to Michigan public school students on the topic of glaciation.  I spent a good deal of time that first year scanning the local landscape for examples of Michigan’s glacial past and was sorely disappointed by the lack of visible evidence I found.  I made it a point to visit Dr. Hughes the next summer to find out why.

    He peered over his glasses as only learned men can do when confronted by a pupil who had an important piece of information sail over their head.  This is a look that took me years to master, but I have gotten pretty good at it by now.  “Well,” he began, “the difference lies in the manner that the glaciers retreated and the bodies of water they left behind.  Unlike the eastern and central U.P., the western end of the peninsula was submerged under hundreds of feet of early Lake Superior right after the ice melted back, thereby obscuring many of the more identifiable glacial features we can see in other parts of the UP and Wisconsin.”

    He may not have known it at the time, but he had thrown down a challenge that I immediately began working on:  how does one teach glaciation in an area where most of the glacial features are not easily seen?  It dawned on me soon after that the parent material of the soils that cover Ontonagon County were deposited by the retreating glacier, so if we studied the soil patterns, we could tie that into the area’s glacial past!  I began sending students into their own back yards so they could connect these glacially deposited soils with their glacial origins.  

    Oh, how the kids south of Mass City toiled to sample the soil their ancestors had farmed on. That string of islands in the early lake that make up what we now know as The Ridge acted as a natural breakwall allowing the thick clay deposits to collect there.  The deep, calm waters stretching south to the early lake shore near present day Bruce Crossing conspired with this island chain to deposit heavy clay soils that were not fun to dig up.  It was hard as concrete when dry and unbelievably sticky when wet.  Rumors spread that Raisanen was torturing his students with dirt!  Those living on old beach deposits  farther inland and around the islands fared much better.  

    Another small skip in time up to 1977 found me doing my own summer project east of Munising and just south of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  The central goal  of the project was to estimate the amount of virgin White Pine timber that had been growing on a 4 mile by 7 mile plot of land known as The Kingston Plains before logging and extensive burning commenced in the 1880s.  Of course, part of this project would include writing a geological the history of this flat, sandy glacial outwash plain.  I went to see my old friend, Dr. John Hughes again.

    I stepped into his office and announced why I was there – to pick his brain about the glacial history of the Kingston Plains.  He was holding a 4 foot long, 4 inch diameter piece of wood and countered my volley with, “How old do you think this is?”  Judging by the diameter, I guessed 30 years.  “No, no, no . . . how OLD do you think it is?”  Ah . . . ‘old’ as in ‘ancient’ – so I took a stab at 4,000 years.  He sighed.

    He tossed it to me and got up to point at the map on the wall.  The wood is as dry and light as balsa.  “Cleveland Cliffs is digging a new tailings basin near Gribben Lake and they uncovered these black spruce trees  30 feet underground,” he explained.   “We carbon dated them to 9,300 years ago give or take a hundred years.  The ice had melted back far enough from the Marquette area that there was soil formation and plant growth taking place for some time.  These trees were about 30 years old when the glacier readvanced to a point about where the Marquette Mountain Ski hill is today.  When the melt back began again, these trees were first buried, and then there must have been a massive deluge that ripped the tops off them.  There is a whole forest there and we have two more weeks to get out as much of it as we can before they resume digging.”  If you have a chance to stop in at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum near Negaunee, there is a display case of pictures and a sample of one of these tree stumps.

    Don’t get me wrong.  I was fascinated by the story but  being a relatively young, impatient grad student, I tried to direct him back to why I was there:  “That is really interesting Dr. Hughes, but I came to talk to you about the Kingston Plains.”  Then he did it to me for the second time.  The look over the glasses.  My mind was reeling:  what did I miss here?

    He pointed at the Marquette moraine on his wall map and then to the Gribben Basin where the sample had been unearthed.  He tapped the moraine and basin a couple of times before his finger began to trace the moraine to the east.  “Note the interruption here where the Au Train River drainage breached the terminal moraine to the south toward Bay de Noc.”  He kept tracing until his finger landed on the northern edge of the Kingston Plains.  He tapped the map a few more times to make his point clear.  The same ice sheet that had buried the Gribben Basin forest 9,300 years ago was the same one that had created the outwash plain where I was measuring 90 year old White Pine stumps.  I stopped believing the myths of the absent minded professor at that moment because what I took to be his excited explanation about the Gribben Basin was actually the answer to the very question I had asked when I walked in.  

    By now, you may be asking yourself, ‘What does this have to do with tonight’s program?”  You see, I was feeling a little deflated after my second stare down, so I had to save face after getting ‘The Look’.  All I could think to say was ‘Dr. Hughes – have you ever seen a film called “The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes”?”  Ontonagon elementary teacher Mark Bobula had introduced it to me when he found out I was teaching about glaciation and I have used it in class religiously for the past 40 years.  The film was written and produced by Canadian Bill Mason in 1968 and I instantly felt a pang of regret for bringing it up because Dr. Hughes was also Canadian.  Of COURSE he would have heard of it!  I was pleasantly surprised when he said, “No, I am not familiar with it.”  I left with a little more spring in my step because I had recovered a bit of my dignity by teaching the teacher in return for what he had taught me.  He thanked me for the information, I thanked him for his help and that was the last time I asked him a question without really focusing in on what he told me in return.  I owe my interest in the subject of glaciers to Dr. Hughes and pity all of those poor students who avoided his class because they had heard that it would be brutal!

    I have now come full circle – I started showing The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes on real film, eventually trading that in for videotape, and after all of these years of using a stock copy, I finally purchased the original on DVD from the National Film Board of Canada.  I took the liberty of translating the narration into a written script because it is all set to music  (reprinted below)  I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the time travel theme I started with continues in the film so please sit back and relax as we take in the the formation of the Great Lakes set to music.  Don’t blink or you may miss thousands of years of geological history!  

Top Piece Video – The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes – complete script printed below:


Distributed by the National Film Board of Canada


Now listen to me people and I’ll tell you what I found

I found that changes, oh those changes, keep the world going ‘round

Yesterday, today, and when you wake up the next morning

Long before the inland waters were travelled by a man

The Great Lakes were being created by the glaciers on the land

And the lakes still are forming, all changing one by one

Yes they ask us with their beauty, what things are to come

If you travel to the Great Lakes, five jewels beneath the Sun

You’d learn enough about those changes to satisfy anyone

In case you must be told again, the Great Lakes haven’t always been

So look about you carefully and realize that what you see

Will not remain, will always change

And if you could just leave today and travel back to yesterday

Would what you see still be the same?, Would what you see still be the same?

10,000 years ago today, the glaciers were going away

The lakes did remain, the lakes that always change

But if you could leave yesterday and travel back another day

Would what you see still be the same?  Would what you see still be the same?

Now ain’t that nice, you’re up on ice.  A mile thick and moving slow . . .

Now take your partner by the hair, hold her hand and form a square

I’ll tell a story as we go, but don’t forget to do sa do – don’t let go

Long ago in olden days the Great Lakes started in this place

They started quiet, they started slow, but watch and see the Great Lakes grow –

Allemande left

Then one day, the ice age came, lots of snow and not much rain

The weight of the ice made the land go down and scraped out a hole in the middle of the ground – Allemande right

The rock did scrape, the ice did move and pretty soon to tell you the truth

Everyone was beating time to the old square dance in two-four time – do sa do

Then one day, an eventful day, the Sun came out and decided to play

And after a while decided to stay, and up and melted the ice away –

Easy now, hold your partner

When the Sun came out that day, the mighty glacier moved away

The consequences they did make the first and genuine Great Lake

Now this story happened again and again, the last time it happened was way back when

10,000 years ago today, the very last the glacier went away – bye bye

Now the water coming in has to go somehow, and those days weren’t the same as now

The water then was going north and now-a-days it all goes south – how come?

Now swing your partner round and round, now bow to your partner it’s all over now


When the weight of the glacier moved away, the land did spring up again

And cut off the flow of the water north, and made it go instead to the south

When you travel on the waters, and you think it’s going fine

Just remember you are bouncing, like a tennis ball through time

When you travel the Great Lakes waters, you can see far and wide

The traces of that glacier on its prehistoric glide

As you travel on the waters, which the ancient ice age planned

Just remember there are changes also made by man

And the waters shimmer golden in the ever golden Sun

I hope there’s so much beauty in the changes that are to come

You were born by the waters, do you swim the waters

You will die by the waters, do you drink the good water

The rivers go on like a sad lover’s song

Is this a beginning or the end?

Now listen to me people and I ‘ll tell you what I’ve found

I’ve found that changes, oh those changes, keep the world going ‘round

Yesterday, today, and when you wake up the next morning

Words and Music by Bruce MacKay – Canoe man – James Blake