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Sampling history on a ride around Lake Huron

My scooter-riding camping adventure this year took me 1,280 miles around Lake Huron in August. On the trip I learned much history that is not easy to come by, as I found no books about Lake Huron in Michigan and Canadian bookstores. Every other Great Lake was well represented, but not Huron.

There are several reasons this lake is so little publicized. Perhaps most important: not one city bordering it has a population as great as the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. Also, as I learned, the British embarrassed us there in the War of 1812.

Heading north from Port Huron toward the Michigan thumb, I passed through an area that was devastated by 1871 and 1881 forest fires, the first coincident with the better-known Chicago fire. There were many deaths and thousands left destitute. Today that entire shoreline is like that of Lakes Erie and Ontario: cottages along the lake, farmland and second-growth forest on the other side of the highway.

With one difference, however: Every 10 to 20 miles, a well-tended roadside park with clean restrooms provides public access to the lake.

My route skirted Thunder Bay, appropriately named for its storms. The steamship route between Lake Erie and Lakes Michigan and Superior follows this side of Huron, but the infamous 1913 hurricane that sunk eight ships drove so many of the 178 drowned seamen's bodies onto the opposite Canadian shore that they had to be carted away in wagons.

The Mackinac bridge took me above the island fort that was quickly captured by the Canadians at the outset of the War of 1812. Then in 1814 they turned back an attempt to retake it by a superior U.S. force. We had to wait for the Treaty of Ghent to get it back.

Lakes Michigan and Huron are actually separate bays of the same lake hung like a saddle over Lower Michigan. On the other hand, there is an elevation difference between Huron and Superior at Sault Ste. Marie. There the sault -- French for rapids -- drops more than 20 feet in the St. Mary's River connecting the two lakes. Locks carry ships between them.

The Americans who failed at Mackinac did capture Fort St. Joseph, which guards this Huron-Superior connection. But they only destroyed an empty installation, the British having abandoned it earlier to move to Mackinac Island. Later, the second most exciting Great Lakes action (next to Perry's victory) took place near here, when in a Hornblower-like episode, a small Canadian force, attacking from bateaus, captured two U.S. schooners.

Then I met another reason Lake Huron is little known. From just east of Sault Ste. Marie to the south end of Georgian Bay -- over 300 miles -- I would not see what one sailor called the "rocky ironbound shore" of the lake.

I would, however, find important history at the French River. At the mouth of this river in 1615, Samuel de Champlain first visited Lake Huron -- possibly preceded by two others: Etienne Broule and Father Joseph LeCaron. To my surprise I learned here that Huron was the first of the Great Lakes to be discovered by Europeans. Instead of ascending the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario, explorers first followed the Ottawa River on through Lake Nippising and the French River to Georgian Bay. Thus the discovery of the lakes is ordered: Huron, Michigan, Superior and only then Ontario and finally Erie.

The most beautiful part of the trip was along the shores of the Bruce Peninsula, with its major feature the continuation of the Niagara Escarpment.

Lake Huron is named for the Huron Indian Tribe, its fictional member, Magua, the villain of "The Last of the Mohicans." But the Hurons too were wiped out. From a population of 30,000 when they guided Champlain west, by 1650 they had been reduced by Iroquois attacks to a diseased remnant on Christian Island near the historic town of Penetanguishene.

Only along the southeastern Ontario shore did I again find the lake lined with cottages.


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