What happens when the ice disappears?

In our latest newsletter, we take you to the shores of Gitchigumi for a story on the fastest-warming Great Lake

What happens when the warming climate upends your way of life and your livelihood? Anishinaabe-kwe journalist Jolene Banning explored that question in this beautiful on the ground feature about Phillip “Benny” Solomon. Like Jolene, he’s a fellow member of Fort William First Nation, located on the northern shores of Gitchigumi, otherwise known as Lake Superior. 

Benny remembers when the ice ran so deep on Lake Superior that there was only a foot of water to fish in. “We cut the hole, standing in the hole. I was standing in six feet of ice,” the Anishinaabe fisherman told Jolene of a winter expedition in the 1990s.

But the ice, and Benny’s ice fishing, isn’t what it used to be. That’s because Gitchigumi is warming faster than any of the Great Lakes — and it’s losing ice cover quicker than any other lake in the Northern Hemisphere.

Jolene told this story as part of a cross-border collaboration between The Narwhal and Great Lakes Now, a show and site produced by Detroit Public TV.

“I used to hear these stories from my mum and dad about what ice fishing was like when they were kids, fishing with their parents and with their grandparents and how they would have this big net go in the water,” Jolene said during a recent Great Lakes Now online event. “Benny Solomon, a community member, he still fishes that way, so I asked him to take me out to show me.”

The unpredictable weather — Gitchigumi didn’t freeze until mid-January, about a month later than when Benny was younger — made planning for the trip difficult.

“We weren’t even sure if we were going to get out ice fishing or if we were going to take a boat,” Jolene recalled. Thankfully, they managed to pull it off, with photographer Damien Gilbert there to capture it all, with a video to boot.

“We set the nets and then the next day you could just see, not far from where we were fishing, it was already open water again,” Jolene said.

That unpredictability has major consequences for the people whose ways of life are so intertwined with Gitchigumi. And, of course, the risks are severe for wildlife: less ice cover can lead to toxic algal blooms which, along with warmer water, reduce the oxygen concentration that fish need to breathe.

With the Great Lakes under threat, Indigenous Peoples are taking leadership roles in protecting waters on the shores of their territories. For the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, as Jolene notes in her story, that includes managing enforcement of water standards on its part of the lake in Michigan. For Benny, it means taking his granddaughters out on Gitchigumi so they can learn and value the traditions that have been passed down through generations.

Take care and stand on solid ground,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience

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