Living in the Detroit area, you can’t help but be surrounded by activities related to the Great Lakes, the major rivers here, and the connected lakes in between. Lake St. Clair, the connecting lake between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, is a frequent destination of mine in the winter time because of the ice buildups along the shore. However, if you don’t own a boat, as I don’t (except for a kayak), you can miss out on some of the islands and other features that are only accessible by one.
I happened to stumble upon an activity offered by the Metro-Detroit area Metroparks last year called the Summer Discovery Cruises. My wife and I enjoyed it so much that we signed up for quite a few of them this year. These are educational boat trips made on the covered vessel Clinton that holds approximately 25-30 people. They have more than 20 educational themes ranging from wildlife to history to fisheries to shipping on the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. So each one is a bit different. Aptly named, they help you discover more about the region and the importance of these smaller bodies of water in the Great Lakes basin.
The trips last from as short as 2 hours, to longer ones that last 6 hours at an outrageously affordable cost. The program is subsidized by grant money made available for promoting knowledge and awareness of the Great Lakes ecosystems, Lake St. Clair, history, and their vital importance to this region. They work as a partnership between the Metroparks and Michigan Sea Grant, and have support and guest speakers from NOAA, Michigan DNR, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and many more. Naturalists from the Metroparks, especially Lake St. Clair Metropark, are on board and lead the presentations along with members from Michigan Sea Grant.
We have been on three of these cruises just in the past week and have more planned in August. Below are some of the highlights….
This cruise took us deep into the St. Clair flats area, which is part of the largest delta of the Great Lakes system, and one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world. The picture here gives emphasis to the word flat.
Lake St. Clair is a pretty shallow lake, with an average depth of only around 10-11 feet, and the deeper areas of around 27 feet belonging to the dredged shipping channel. So it was quite limited how close to shore we could actually get, and of course limited some of the photographic opportunities. It was a reminder to me to get my kayak back out here again to do some more exploring.
The naturalists discussed various aspects of this area and the importance these remaining marshlands hold to the surrounding ecosystems. A rather large invasive species control project on Phragmites has been underway for a few years now. They took out their underwater camera to give us glimpses of the habitat below, and even brought up samples of zooplankton.
Birds seen along the way include common Mallard ducks, Mute Swans, Canada Geese, and a variety of tern species and gulls. One of the last sightings was a deer crossing a waterway from one piece of land to another.
Well, our Nightwatch Cruise would have benefitted from having clear skies, but hey, this is Michigan. We did venture out to the shipping channels where we encountered 4 freighters. It was pretty cool encountering them at night, where you can only see the ship’s lights.
On this cruise, I learned about an iPhone app called Marine Traffic that is extremely useful in identifying ships before you can actually see the name on the side, and obviously very helpful when encountering them at night. This app lets you know about all the big ships in your area, where they are headed, and where they are from. I only wish the app listed what cargo they were carrying.
A funny thing happens while trying to give a laptop powered presentation while on board a boat at night on Lake St. Clair… You tend to attract a lot of mayflies (also known as “fish flies”) or Hexagenia. These non-biting insects (they don’t even have mouths as adults) mass in huge swarms in the area of Lake St. Clair & Lake Erie at this time of year. The swarm is typically so large, they are often noted on Doppler weather radar!
I thought the naturalists from Lake St. Clair Metropark did a good job pointing out the good things about these harmless insects that are normally considered a nuisance because of the large amounts of them. They are good indicators of water quality and an abundant food source for many fish (especially the endangered Lake Sturgeon) and birds in the area. Once the laptop was turned off, the Mayflies dispersed.
It was near impossible to photograph a passing freighter in the pitch black of night, handheld from a boat, but hey – I had to try…
Lake St. Clair has a couple of channel lights that are only accessible by boat. We had on board a couple of representatives from Save Our South Channel Lights that offered a lot of history and stories about these two historical markers.
There are plenty of lighthouse chasers/photographers around Michigan, and strangely enough, I am not one of them, at least in any serious way. I will photograph them on occasion, but I tend to loosely follow a Dexter-like code and keep away from the hand of man for images on my website. Well, as this post has clearly shown in spades, even like Dexter I slip up now and then in following my code. :-) I enjoy visiting them and appreciate their active place in maritime history.
The particularly interesting bit about these channel lights that I learned (as a nature photographer) was that the front light has become a nesting ground for terns. Having terns nest in this area is a very special thing, and I hope that the SOSCL organization will work with local naturalists and biologists to find a balance between uses to keep this preserved.
I am looking forward to the cruises ahead in August as they will be exploring more around the Detroit river / northern Lake Erie regions – places I have only seen from land. If you are local or in the area, the Summer Discovery Cruise series is a great way to get out on the water and learn a lot about what is going on in this area on a great number of subjects. I have included a number of links throughout this post that lead to a lot more information for those interested.