Sailing the World’s Largest Lake in Search of Microplastics

Last spring my wife, Amy, and I retrieved our sailboat, Yemaya, from Ontario’s Georgian Bay. Yemaya spent the winter on Manitoulin Island, because we left her there in the middle of a 2,000-mile journey by canoe and sailboat from Minnesota to Washington D.C. last fall. Sailing her home seemed like the perfect excuse for a little getaway in the spring—a mini adventure, sailing 600 miles across the world’s largest lake. Given the amount of water we would cover, we offered to help Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) with their Global Microplastics Project.

Along our route we filled one-liter containers and recorded the coordinates and data about each sample location. The frigid water that stung our hands as we plunged the sampling bottles below the surface was often more than 500 feet deep and looked crystal clear—and perfectly clean.

We tend to think of the large plastic debris that is all too common in our waterways. But, what happens to those plastic bottles and bags as they break down? What about nylon clothing when it is laundered? Most washing machines don’t have filters for the water that goes down the drain. Microplastics even exist in common cosmetics and toothpaste. In our waterways, toxins then adhere to the microplastic particles and they’re often ingested by small aquatic life. Then they move on up the food chain. This is a serious problem, and it felt good to help get a grip on the mircoplastic concentrations in Lake Superior by spending a few minutes a day gathering samples.

We had mixed emotions about the ice coverage on Lake Superior last spring. We were glad to see it, knowing that it plays a role in maintaining the water level—significantly reducing water evaporation in the winter. However, the ice delayed our departure by about a week. Checking the NOAA ice coverage map became a daily affair until we launched Yemaya on May 13th. The ice had finally disappeared in the North Channel of Georgian Bay, but 150 miles to the west, Whitefish Bay, was still choked with ice.

Georgian Bay was a breeze, and so was the St. Mary’s River. As we locked through at Sault Ste. Marie on a gray, foggy morning, the lock attendant told us that all the all freight traffic was suspended until the fog lifted. That was a relief for us, heading into the narrow waterway that would lead us to Lake Superior. A familiar feeling gripped my stomach as we slowly sailed into the fog, taking turns blowing the foghorn. We intently watched for boats of any size and navigation markers as we crept along the edge of the channel. I could tell by the slight change in Amy’s voice that her senses were heightened as the temperature dropped and the relative safety of the Saint Mary’s river faded into the fog.

The fog grew denser as we entered the big lake (Lake Superior) at Whitefish Bay. It was a nerve-wracking affair, steering the boat into the white abyss. Massive pans of ice blocking much of Whitefish Bay and the Canadian shoreline to the North caused us to alter our route. We had planned to follow the more remote northern shore of Lake Superior. Now here we were, aiming for Whitefish Point instead of Michipicoten Island because of the dense glob of white that was still visible in the satellite images of the northeast corner of the lake.

Eventually the fog burned off and the sun came out. It was about then that we began spotting white specks in the distance. It didn’t take long to realize that those specks were icebergs. Soon a line of white extended across the horizon in front of us. In my head, I kept repeating advice given to me by a veteran of navigating through Superior’s ice, Mark Gordon, Captain of the Amicus II: it looks bad from a distance, but once you get up close, you’ll see that the icebergs are not as dense as you think and you can pick your way through. So we had faith and as we approached the field of white, motoring along at a crawl.

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

We worked our way through the maze slowly, throwing on extra layers as these frozen masses cooled the air around us. Luckily we never did hit a patch that was too dense to navigate through. At one point fog engulfed us, making dodging the icebergs all the more intimidating. After an hour and a half of dodging ice, we spotted Whitefish Point through tendrils of fog and we knew we could make it through the pack ice and reach the open lake beyond.

Just as suddenly as the line of white appeared, it disappeared behind our stern. The sun was out, the air warmed ten degrees and we hoisted the sails. It would take us 10 more days to sail along the south shore to the Houghton Canal, cut across to Isle Royale and then head home to our homeport of Grand Marais, Minnesota. We watched the weather and traveled when the wind was favorable, gathering samples as we went—sampling local beer in breweries along the way too, and enjoying the simple pleasure of traveling when and where the wind would take us.

We mailed our box and data sheet to ASC and recently got the results from our samples back. Of the 969 samples that ASC scientists have analyzed to date, 94 percent have contained microplastics. Our sample bottles looked like they had such clean, clear water in them—water from the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes. How much of this microscopic pollution did those bottles contain? We were shocked and saddened to learn that 100 percent of the samples we collected contained microplastics. Our daily actions have huge implications on the planet. I am going to think twice the next time someone asks me, “paper or plastic?” Hopefully I can answer, “neither, I brought my own bag.”

Read This Next

Soils found in Antarctica seem to contain no life

The complex situation for immunocompromised people and COVID-19 vaccines

Champions of wildlife and wild places win prestigious awards

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet