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Lake Michigan: History, Facts & Figures

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The Great Lakes
Samuel de Champlain
Jean Nicolet
Shuttle Photo: Great Lakes
Lake Michigan Depths
Lake Michigan Beach

Approximately 1,000,000 years ago, glaciers up to 6,500 feet thick covered most of the Midwest. As these monstrous ice formations inched their way forward and backward, until finally withdrawing 10,000 years ago, gouges were created that filled with water from the melting ice. These gouges became the lakes of the Great Lakes that we know today.

The first Europeans to see Lake Michigan were French traders and explorers in the 1600's. One of which, Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635), who mapped much of northeastern North America, called Lake Michigan the Grand Lac. It was later named "Lake of the Stinking Water" or "Lake of the Puants," after the people who occupied its shores.

In 1679, the lake became known as Lac des Illinois because it gave access to the country of the Indians, so named. Three years before, Claude-Jean Allouez (1622-1689), a French Jesuit missionary, called it Lac St. Joseph, by which name it was often designated by early writers while others called it Lac Dauphin.

Side Note: Allouez died August 27/28, 1689, near Ft. St. Joseph, New France -- present day Niles, Michigan.

Another story recounts that Jean Nicolet, the first European to set foot in Wisconsin in 1634, landed on the shores of Green Bay and was greeted by Winnebago Indians, whom the French called "Puans." Lake Michigan was labeled as "Lake of Puans" on an early and incomplete 1670 map of the region that showed only the northern shores of the lake. However, only Green Bay is labeled as "Baye de Puans" (Bay of the Winnebago Indians) on maps from 1688 and 1708. On the 1688 map, Lake Michigan is called Lac des Illinois.

An Indian name for Lake Michigan was "Michi gami" and through further interaction with the Indians, the "Lake of the Stinking Water" received its final name of Michigan.


Lake Michigan is one of the group of five lakes that comprise the Great Lakes. It is the third largest of the Great Lakes and is the only one of the lakes which is contained entirely inside U.S. borders -- making Lake Michigan the largest body of fresh water in the United States and is the sixth largest lake in the world.

Lake Michigan is approximately 300 miles long and averages 75 miles across, covering 22,300 square miles -- which is equal to the combined areas of the states of Maryland, Massachusetts and Delaware! It is 335 feet above Lake Ontario and 577 feet above sea level. The deepest point in the lake is 925 feet (282 meters).

Lake Michigan boasts excellent salmon and trout fishing. Species include Chinook, Coho, and Atlantic Salmon, and Rainbow, Brown, and Lake Trout.

Because Lake Michigan is joined to Lake Huron at the Straits of Mackinac, they are considered one lake hydrologically.

Many rivers and streams flow into Lake Michigan, and the major tributaries are the Fox-Wolf, the Grand and the Kalamazoo.

There is a diversion from the lake into the Mississippi River basin through the Illinois Waterway at the Chicago River.

Lake Michigan's cul-de-sac formation means that water entering the lake circulates slowly and remains for a long time (retention) before it leaves the basin through the Straits of Mackinac.

Small lunar tidal effects have been documented for Lake Michigan.

Internal waves (upwellings) can produce a 59-degree F. water temperature decrease along the coast in only a few hours, requiring drastic alterations in fishing strategy.

The northern part of the Lake Michigan watershed is covered with forests, sparsely populated, and economically dependent on natural resources and tourism, while the southern portion is heavily populated with intensive industrial development and rich agricultural areas along the shore.

The world's largest freshwater dunes line the lakeshore and are visited by millions of people annually who enjoy the numerous state and national parks as well as local beaches.


Length:307 miles / 494 km.
Breadth:118 miles / 190 km.
Average Depth:279 ft. / 85 m.
Maximum Depth:925 ft. / 282 m.
Volume:1,180 cubic miles / 4,920 cubic km.
Water Surface Area:22,300 sq. miles / 57,800 sq. km.
Drainage Basin Area:45,600 sq. miles / 118,000 sq. km.
Shoreline Length (including islands):1,638 miles / 2,633 km.
Elevation:577 ft. / 176 m.
Outlet:Straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron
Retention/Replacement Time:99 years

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