Submitted by Deborah Cramer

Lake Superior’s Big Susie Island, on the route of Paddle-to-the-Sea
Photo © Travis J. Novitsky

Any child who has read Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea knows we are connected to the ocean even if we can’t see it. In this beloved children’s book first published in 1941 but still in print, an Indian boy living in the Canadian wilderness near Lake Nipigon carves a canoe and a paddler. When he hears the cry of wild geese returning at the end of winter, he places Paddle-to-the-Sea on a snowy hill behind his home, facing south.

As the sun warms, Paddle-to-the-Sea begins his journey, carried by melting snow into a brook and then a river, and then into the rough waters of Lake Superior. Lake Superior is 600 feet above sea level; each of the Great Lakes is a little lower. Paddle-to-the-Sea drifts from one lake into the next, narrowly escaping a saw mill, and catching a ride in a container ship carrying iron ore mined from the nearby mountains. This iron, from Michigan’s Marquette Iron Range, the world’s richest iron mine, fueled the Industrial Revolution in the U. S. The iron was precipitated into the ocean and then raised into mountains almost two billion years ago.

Paddle-to-the-Sea floats along eddies and currents from Lake Michigan into Lake Huron. He passes the steel mills of Lake Erie, and plunges over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario. Three years and several thousand miles later, he reaches the mouth of the St. Lawrence and the open ocean.

Beautifully drawn maps detail the watery life-line between the Nipigon River and the ocean. If the earth continues to warm, water levels in the Great Lakes will drop. Tiny Paddle-to-the-Sea might make the long journey, but the shallower water may inhibit large cargo ships that ply the waters of the Great Lakes today.

References and more information

Holling, Clancy Holling. 1941. Paddle-to-the-Sea. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Great Lakes cross-section profile

Iron formation in the ocean
Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World

Climate change and the Great Lakes

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