Lake Huron: La Mer Douce

Lake Huron is the world’s third largest freshwater lake by surface area, after Lake Superior and Lake Victoria. The lake is one of the 5 Great American Lakes and is located in a region that is sparsely populated, exceptionally beautiful, and of great economic importance.

Lake Huron Stats

Lake NameLake Huron
CountryUnited States
Surface area59399.300
Maximum depth229.0
Average depth59.8
Lake typeGlacial
Catchment area576017.70
InflowsStraits of Mackinac, St Marys River
OutflowsSt Clair River
Shore length8856.64
Mixing typeDimictic
SettlementsBay City, Alpena, Cheboygan, St. Ignace, Port Huron, Goderich, Sarnia
Residence time4484.5
Frozen80 days
Average discharge9162.152

Geography and Hydrology

The lake’s eastern section is located in the Canadian province of Ontario and its western section in the American state of Michigan. Extending for 59,600 square kilometers, it is the second largest of the Great American Lakes by surface area, after Lake Superior. By volume it’s only the third of the Great American Lakes, with Lake Michigan taking the second place after Lake Superior. The lake’s volume is 3,540 cubic kilometers and it has a shore length of 6,159 kilometers (or 3,827 miles), including its 30,000 islands.

The lake sits at an altitude of 176 meters (577 feet), has an average depth of 59 meters (195 feet), and a maximum depth of 229 meters (750 feet). Its maximum length is 332 kilometers (179 miles), and its maximum width is 295 kilometers (159 miles).

Lake Huron is hydrologically the eastern section of Lake Michigan-Huron. The two lakes, located at the same altitude, are separated by the Straits of Mackinac (8 kilometers or 5 miles wide), and some people consider them to actually be one lake. If that were generally accepted, Michigan-Huron would have a combined area of 117,400 square kilometers (45,300 square miles), making it the largest freshwater lake in the world.

The lake’s most important inflowing river is St. Marys, which drains Lake Superior at Sault Ste. Marie. The most important outflow is St. Clair River, which drains Lake Huron at Port Huron in Michigan and Sarnia in Ontario. This means that the Great Lakes Waterway is continued to Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. The lake’s retention time is 22 years.

The lake has a large bay called the Georgian Bay on its Canadian side. The region’s first explorers thought that Georgian Bay was a separate sixth lake, because it is separated from the rest of Lake Huron by the Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula. If Georgian Bay were indeed a separate lake, it would be among the world’s top 20 lakes by surface area. Saginaw Bay, located in the American state of Michigan, is the second largest bay in the Great Lakes.


The most important cities and towns at the Georgian Bay include Owen Sound (population: 22,000),  Wasaga Beach (population: 18,000), Midland (population: 17,000), Port Severn (population: 12,000), and Penetanguishene (population: 9,000).

Manitoulin Island, with its area of 2,766 square kilometers (1,068 sq miles), is the world’s largest freshwater island. Manitoulin Island separates Georgian Bay and the North Channel from the rest of Lake Huron.

Other important towns and cities on Lake Huron include Sarnia (population: 72,000), Bay City (population: 35,000), Port Huron (population: 30,000), Saugeen Shores (population: 12,700), Alpena (population: 10,500), Goderich (population: 7,500), Cheboygan (population: 4,800), Rogers City (population: 2,800), and St. Ignace (population: 2,500). Port Huron, where Lake Huron and the St. Claire River meet, is the lake’s most southernmost point.

During the summer months, the lake’s surface waters can reach 23 C (or 73 F), which makes it a popular recreational destination. The lake freezes approximately once every 10 years.

The Huron-Manistee National Forest covers 10,000 acres of aspen, pine and hardwood forest. Also, underwater petrified trees that are believed to 7,000 years old can be found in the area.

Highest Water Level: Summer of 1986

The highest water levels in the lake are in October and November, and they vary from month to month throughout the year. The water reached its highest level in the summer of 1986, at 1.80 meters (or 5.92 feet) above datum. This high level of water in the lake was consistent throughout the entire year, beginning in February 1986 and ending in January 1987.

Lowest Water Level: Winter of 1964

Waters in the lake are usually at their lowest during the winter. The lowest level was reached in the winter of 1964, at 42 centimeters (or 1.38 feet) below datum. Similar to high water levels, low water levels were consistent throughout the year, from February 1964 to January 1965.


The lake has 30,000 islands, and if their shores are taken into consideration, Lake Huron has the greatest shore length among all the Great Lakes.

Lake Huron was formed similarly to the other Great Lakes, by melting ice from the continental glaciers which retread at the end of the last ice age. Before that, a low-lying depression through which the former Laurentian and Huronian rivers flowed, used to replace the lake. A large network of tributaries of these 2 rivers used to criss-cross the lake bed.


Lake Huron was the first among the Great Lakes to be discovered by early European explorers in the region. The French were the first European visitors here, and they often referred to the lake as "la mer douce" ("the fresh-water sea"). Two French explorers, Samuel de Champlain and Étienne Brûlé, reached the lake in 1615 at the Georgian Bay. Others followed, among whom was Louis Joliet, who traveled on Lake Huron by canoe in 1669, before reaching Lake Erie.

A map from 1656 made by Nicolas Sanson, a French cartographer, calls the lake "Karegnondi", a Wendat word that was translated as either "freshwater sea", "lake of the Hurons", or sometimes simply "lake". Most European maps labeled the lake as "Lac des Hurons".

The name of the lake is derived from early French explorers who named it for the Huron people inhabiting the region. The huronian glaciation was named due to evidence collected from Lake Huron region.

The Freshwater Fury of 1913

The "Freshwater Fury", also known as the "Big Blow" or the "White Hurricane", was a devastating storm with hurricane-like winds which unleashed its force on the Great Lakes Basin between November 7th and November 10th, 1913, and was at its strongest on November 9th. Lake Huron was hit the hardest by the storm among all of the Great Lakes, with most shipwrecks happening on the southern and western sections of the lake.

Out of the more than 250 people who were killed during the storm, 199 died on Lake Huron on 8 different ships: Argus, James Carruthers, Hydrus, John A. McGean, Charles S. Price, Regina, Isaac M. Scott, and Wexford. The shipwrecks of James Carruthers and Hydrus are still yet to be found.

The Great Lakes Storm was the most destructive natural disaster that ever happened on the Great Lakes. Along with the lost lives, it destroyed a total of 19 ships and stranded 19 others. In today’s dollars, the financial loss in vessels amounted to almost $120 million, $5 million at that time. More than 68,000 tons of cargo was lost, including grain, iron ore, and coal.

The storm was an extratropical cyclone, and it produced winds of 145 km/h (90 mph), and waves more than 11 meters (35 feet) in height. It was a "November gale", a seasonal process that happens when two major storm fronts meet and are fueled by the relatively warm water of the lakes. These storms can produce 15-meter (50-foot) waves, and drop several inches of rain or several feet of snow.


Lake Huron is the final home for more than 1,000 shipwrecks. Le Griffon, the first European ship to navigate the Great Lakes, is among them. The ship was built in 1679 on Lake Erie’s eastern shore, near Buffalo. The French explorer Sieur de la Salle reached Lake Huron by navigating across Lake Erie, up the Detroit River, then through Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair river. He passed through the Straits of Mackinac, reaching Washington Island on Lake Michigan. The Griffon was filled with pelts and sent back in November 1679 to the area of modern-day Buffalo, but was never seen again.

There are 2 important wrecks claimed to be the Griffon, but neither was undeniably proven to be the Griffon. One claim is the wreck in the Mississagi Straits, on the western tip of Manitoulin Island. Another claim is the wreck on Russell Island in the Georgian Bay, which is 150 miles to the East.

The 238-foot steamer New York was discovered in 2012, more than a century after it sank.

Shipwrecks of Thunder Bay

116 important shipwrecks are located in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, which has a surface area of 1,160 square kilometers or 448 square miles. Established in 2000, it is the 13th National Marine Sanctuary. The most famous shipwrecks in Thunder Bay can be seen by taking the glass-bottom boat tours from Alpena, Michigan.

Shipwrecks of Saginaw Bay

From among the more than 1,000 shipwrecks in Lake Huron, 185 are located in Saginaw Bay. One of the most famous among them is Matoa, a 2,311-ton propeller freighter, which sank in 1913 in Port Austin Reef.

Shipwrecks of the Georgian Bay and North Channel

The largest bay on Lake Huron, the Georgian Bay, is home to 212 shipwrecks. One of them is Manola, a 2,325-ton propeller freighter, which got stranded on November 20th, 1924, on Christian Island. Initially headed for Port McNichol in Ontario, it was declared a total loss 2 weeks later.

The Lost Lake Trout and Other Ecological Issues

The last century has been the scene of dramatic changes in Lake Huron’s ecology. It has been plagued by problems similar to those of the other Great Lakes, among which the most important is the disappearance of the lake’s native top predator, the lake trout. This happened due to a combination of overfishing and the proliferation of the sea lamprey, an invasive species. By the 1960s, several species of deepwater ciscos became virtually extinct as well.

Besides the lake trout, which used to dominate the native fish community, other species included deepwater ciscos, sculpins, and more. By the 1930s, invasive species became abundant in the lake. These species include the sea lamprey, the rainbow smelt and the alewife. The bloater is the only native deepwater cisco that still inhabits the lake.

Attempts have been made to reintroduce the lake trout into Lake Huron, but little natural reproduction has been observed. Also, the nonnative Pacific salmon has been introduced in the lake starting with the 1960s.

As if this wasn’t enough, new invasive species have been introduced in Lake Huron. These species include the zebra and quagga mussels, round gobies, and the spiny water flea. By 2006, the deepwater demersal fish population had reached a state of collapse. Whitefish have also become much less abundant, and catches of chinook salmon have been dramatically reduced.


Lake Huron is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and it supports heavy traffic in grain, iron ore and limestone. Navigation is usually open between early April and late December. Limestone is loaded in large amounts from Rockport and Rogers City in Michigan. Other important harbors include Alpena, Cheboygan, Bay City, and Harbor Beach in Michigan, as well as Midland, Collingwood, Port McNicoll, Tiffin, and Depot Harbour in Ontario.

Other important economic activities include fishing, lumbering, and tourism. Productive fisheries can be found in Saginaw Bay and Green Bay. There are also many resorts that dot the lake’s shores.

Lake Huron Map