Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes in North America. The lake is shared by Canada’s Ontario, and the United States Minnesota to the north and west, and Wisconsin and Michigan to the south. It is generally considered the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. It is the world’s third-largest freshwater lake by volume and the largest by volume in North America.
The Ojibwa call the lake gichigami, meaning “be a great sea.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the name as “Gitche Gumee” in The Song of Hiawatha, as did Gordon Lightfoot in his song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. According to other sources the actual Ojibwe name is Ojibwa Gichigami (“Ojibwa’s Great Sea”) or Anishnaabe Gichigami (“Anishinaabe’s Great Sea”) or taught in Ojibwa language classes as gichigami, gitchi-gami or kitchi-gami.
The first French explorers approaching the great inland sea, by way of the Ottawa River and Lake Huron during the 17th century, referred to their discovery as le lac supérieur. Properly translated, the expression means “Upper Lake,” that is, the lake above Lake Huron. The lake was also called Lac Tracy (named for Alexandre de Prouville de Tracy) by 17th century Jesuit missionaries. The British, upon taking control of the region from the French in the 1760s following the French and Indian War, anglicized the lake’s name to Superior, “on account of its being superior in magnitude to any of the lakes on that vast continent.
American limnologist J. Val Klump was the first person to reach the lowest depth of Lake Superior on July 30, 1985, as part of a scientific expedition, which at 122 fathoms 1 foot (733 ft.) below sea level is the lowest spot in the continental interior of the United States. It is the second-lowest spot in the interior of the North American continent after the deeper Great Slave Lake in Canada (1,503 feet [458 m] below sea level).
The largest island in Lake Superior is Isle Royale in the state of Michigan. Isle Royale contains several lakes, some of which also contain islands. Other large famous islands include Madeline Island in the state of Wisconsin, Michipicoten Island in the province of Ontario, and Grand Island (location of the Grand Island National Recreation Area) in the state of Michigan.
The Great Lakes Circle Tour is a designated scenic road system connecting all of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
The rocks of Lake Superior’s northern shore date back to the early history of the earth. During the Precambrian (between 4.5 billion and 540 million years ago) magma forcing its way to the surface created the intrusive granites of the Canadian Shield. These ancient granites can be seen on the North Shore today. It was during the Penokean orogeny, part of the process that created the Great Lakes Tectonic Zone, that many valuable metals were deposited. The region surrounding the lake has proved to be rich in minerals. Copper, iron, silver, gold and nickel are, or were, the most frequently mined.
The continent was later riven, creating one of the deepest rifts in the world. The lake lies in this long-extinct Mesoproterozoic rift valley, the Midcontinent Rift. Magma was injected between layers of sedimentary rock, forming diabase sills. This hard diabase protects the layers of sedimentary rock below, forming the flat-topped mesas in the Thunder Bay area.
During the Wisconsin glaciation 10,000 years ago, ice covered the region at a thickness of 1.25 miles. The land contours familiar today were carved by the advance and retreat of the ice sheet. The retreat left gravel, sand, clay and boulder deposits. Glacial meltwaters gathered in the Superior basin creating Lake Minong, a precursor to Lake Superior.
The first people came to the Lake Superior region 10,000 years ago after the retreat of the glaciers in the last Ice Age. They are known as the Plano, and they used stone-tipped spears to hunt caribou on the northwestern side of Lake Minong.
The next documented people were known as the Shield Archaic (c. 5000–500 BC). Evidence of this culture can be found at the eastern and western ends of the Canadian shore. They used bows and arrows, dugout canoes, fished, hunted, mined copper for tools and weapons, and established trading networks.
The Laurel people (c. 500 BC to AD 500) developed seine net fishing, evidence being found at rivers around Superior such as the Pic and Michipicoten.
Another culture known as the Terminal Woodland Indians (c. AD 900–1650) has been found. They were Algonkian people who hunted, fished and gathered berries.
The Anishinaabe, which includes the Ojibwa or Chippewa, have inhabited the Lake Superior region for over five hundred years and were preceded by the Dakota, Fox, Menominee, Nipigon, Noquet and Gros Ventres. They called Lake Superior either Ojibwa Gichigami (“the Ojibwa’s Great Sea”) or Anishnaabe Gichgamiing (“the Anishinaabe’s Great Sea”). After the arrival of Europeans, the Anishinaabe made themselves the middle-men between the French fur traders and other Native peoples.
In the 18th century, the fur trade in the region was booming, with the Hudson’s Bay Company having a virtual monopoly.
Many towns around the lake are either current or former mining areas, or engaged in processing or shipping.