Lake Huron is the second largest by surface area and third largest by volume of the five Great Lakes of North America. Bounded on the west by Michigan and on the east and north by Ontario, the lake is 206 mi (331 km) long from northwest to southeast, and 183 mi (295 km) wide. Lake Huron is connected to Lake Michigan by the wide Straits of Mackinac, and flows into Lake Erie at its southern end through the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River.
Many islands lie in its northeastern side, the most prominent of which is Manitoulin Island. Lying in the Georgian Bay, it is also the world’s largest freshwater island and Canada’s 31st largest. Manitoulin has also over 100 freshwater lakes of its own.
The melting of ice glaciers at the end of the Ice Age was responsible for the formation of the Great Lakes. Lake Huron is named after the Huron, five Indian tribes that were part of the Iroquian confederacy. Also called Wyandots, they depended on hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming for livelihood. Roughly 25,000 Hurons lived in villages on the southern shores of the Georgian Bay before the French exploration.
The lake was also the first of the Great Lakes to be discovered by the Europeans. Seeking to preempt their rival tribe, the Hurons made contact with the French explorer Samuel de Champlain at the New France settlement of Quebec in the early 1600s. Champlain, in turn, explored the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, eventually reaching Georgian Bay in 1615. He also mapped a canoe route which is crucial for the fur trade. Étienne Brûlé, another French explorer, traversed the North Channel and eventually reached the St. Marys River in 1618.
A Jesuit mission was established among the Huron Indians at the Wye River, which is at the southeastern part of the Georgian Bay in 1638, naming it Sainte-Marie, but the Iroquois Indians destroyed the settlement in 1649. Afterward, the center of French activities shifted northwestward to the settlement of Sault Sainte Marie on the St. Marys River. Meanwhile, the French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet canoed down Lake Huron in 1669 before discovering Lake Erie. Sailing westward from Niagara, Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, traversed Lake Huron in 1679. In 1671, another French explorer and missionary, Jacques Marquette, founded a mission at St. Ignace on the Straits of Mackinac.
Disease and warfare took a toll on the Native American community, reducing it to the tenth of its original population. The aboriginal population remains, however, on the shores of Lake Huron, in the First Nations community in Saugeen, Ontario. The British started to penetrate the lower lakes in the mid-18th century, which led to their capture of Pontchartrain-du-Detroit in 1760 and Michilimackinac on the Straits of Mackinac the year after.
After the Revolutionary War (1775-83), the boundary between the US and Canada was determined. The fort on Mackinac Island was taken by the British during the War of 1812 before the US recaptured it at the close of the war. The boundary between the two aforementioned countries was then firmly established.
In the second half of the 19th century, English and Scottish immigrants settled along the southern shore of Lake Huron in Ontario. Aside from logging, hunting, and farming, salt mining also provided livelihood through the lenses of salt deposited underneath the lake during the Devonian period. Shipping was a chief source of supplies for settlements and villages along the coast.
The dangerous shoals and shifting currents of Lake Huron, however, led to a large number of shipwrecks, many of which are preserved in its deep, cold waters. On November 9, 1913, Lake Huron was hit by the worst storm yet, dubbed as the Big Blow. With wind gusts of 90 mph (145 kph) and massive waves of more than 35 ft (11 m), the 16-hour storm sank 10 ships and claimed 235 lives. As more shipwrecks have been discovered in recent years, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary makes an effort to preserve more than 200 of these wreckages, making it a popular destination for divers and tourists alike.