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The Great Lakes system includes Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior, their connecting waters, and the St. Lawrence River. It is one of the largest concentrations of fresh water on the earth. The system, including the St. Lawrence River above Iroquois Dam, has a total shoreline of about 11,000 statute miles (9,559 nm), a total water surface area of about 95,000 square statute miles (24,600,000 hectares), and a total drainage basin of almost 300,000 square statute miles (77,700,000 hectares). With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the system provides access by oceangoing deep-draft vessels to the heartland of the North American continent. From the Strait of Belle Isle at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the distance via the St. Lawrence River to Duluth, MN, at the head of Lake Superior is about 2,340 statute miles (2,033 nm) and to Chicago, IL, near the south end of Lake Michigan is about 2,250 statute miles (1,955 nm). About 1,000 statute miles (870 nm) of each of these distances is below Montreal, the head of deep-draft ocean navigation on the St. Lawrence River.
Small craft and barge traffic may also reach the Great Lakes via two shallow-draft routes; from the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway to Lake Michigan at Chicago, IL, a distance of about 1,530 statute miles (1,329.5 nm), and from New York Harbor via the Hudson River and the New York State Canal System to Lake Ontario at Oswego, NY, a distance of 340 statute miles (295.5 nm), or to the Niagara River at Tonawanda, NY, a distance of 496 statute miles (431 nm).
The St. Lawrence River, 744 statute miles (672.6 nm) long, is one of the principal rivers of North America and provides access for oceangoing vessels to the Great Lakes and heartland of the continent. The river flows northeast from its head in Lake Ontario, first along the United States-Canadian border, thence through the south part of Quebec Province past the cities of Montreal and Quebec before emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In its upper part, the river is wide and is filled with the Thousand Islands. Below Cornwall, ON, the river widens into Lake St. Francis, thence into Lake St. Louis, thence descends through Lachine Rapids to Montreal. Lake St. Peter, another widened section, is between Sorel and Trois Rivieres. Below the city of Quebec, the river is a tidal estuary which gradually increases to a width of 90 statute miles (78.2 nm) at the mouth.
This chapter describes the upper part of the river, from St. Regis, QC, upstream to Lake Ontario. No attempt has been made to mention all of the islands, shoals, winding channels, and irregularities of the mainland shores which characterize the river for most of its length. Mariners are referred to the charts for delineation of the intricate details of topography and hydrography.
Lake Ontario is the smallest and easternmost of the Great Lakes. The lake is comparatively deep; the greatest depth is 802 feet, and the average depth is 283 feet, much in excess of the greatest depth of Lake Erie. Lake Ontario is fed chiefly by the waters of Lake Erie by way of the Niagara River. The lake drains at its northeast end into the St. Lawrence River. Welland Canal bypasses the falls and rapids of the Niagara River and provides a navigable connection between Lake Ontario and the upper lakes.
Lake Erie is the southeasternmost and fourth largest of the five Great Lakes. With a greatest depth of 210 feet, it is the shallowest of the lakes and the only one with a floor above sea level. The deepest part of the lake is generally at the east end, while the island region in the west part of the lake is the most shallow. The lake has an average depth of 62 feet. The lake is fed at the northwest end by water from Lake Huron via St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and Detroit River. The only natural outlet of the lake is at the northeast end through Niagara River. Welland Canal bypasses the falls and rapids of Niagara River and provides a navigable connection to Lake Ontario.
Detroit River is about 32 miles long from Detroit River Light at its mouth in Lake Erie to Windmill Point Light at the head of the river at Lake St. Clair.
The lower part of the river is broad and is filled by many islands and shallow expanses. The river banks in this part are more flatly sloping than those in the upper river. The river bottom is generally earth and boulders, except for a section of bedrock and boulders about 6 miles north of the lower end of Bois Blanc Island. Extensive rock excavation and dredging have been necessary to provide channels for deep-draft vessels.
The upper 13 miles of the river is a single deep channel, except at its head where it is divided by Peche Island and Belle Isle. The river banks in this stretch are quite steep, and the bottom is earth.
Lake St. Clair is an expansive shallow basin, with low, marshy shores and a flatly sloping bottom. The lake has a greatest natural depth of 19 feet. St. Clair River flows from north and enters the north part of the lake through several channels of a wide delta area. The outflow of the lake is at the southwest end through the Detroit River. The chief importance of the lake is the dredged deep-draft channel that leads across it to connect Detroit River and St. Clair River. No large commercial facilities or harbors are on the lake.
St. Clair River is about 39 miles long from Lake St. Clair via St. Clair Cutoff Channel and South Channel to the head of the river at Lake Huron. The lower 11 miles of the river is a broad delta through which numerous channels flow into Lake St. Clair. St. Clair Cutoff Channel and South Channel form the main navigation route through the delta and connect with the dredged channel across Lake St. Clair. The upper river, above Chenal Ecarte, is generally a single deep channel, except where obstructed by Fawn Island and Stag Island. The banks of the river are clay and sand and usually quite steep.
Lake Huron is the second largest of the Great Lakes. Three large bays extend from the main body of the lake, Saginaw Bay on the west side and North Channel and Georgian Bay on the northeast side. The lake receives the waters of Lake Michigan through the Straits of Mackinac and those of Lake Superior from the St. Marys River. The lake discharges at its south end into St. Clair River at Fort Gratiot. The lake is a connecting link in the Great Lakes chain. The depth of water in St. Marys River, St. Clair River, and Detroit River governs the draft of vessels navigating Lake Huron to and from Lakes Superior and Erie.
Lake Michigan is the third largest of the Great Lakes and is the only one entirely within the United States. The only natural outlet of the lake is at the north end through the Straits of Mackinac. At the south end of the lake, the Illinois Waterway provides a connection to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The north part of the lake has many islands and is indented by several bays; Green Bay and Grand Traverse Bay are the largest. The shores in the south part of the lake are regular, and it has been necessary to construct artificial harbors. The forested shores in the north part of the lake are sparsely populated, while those in the south part are near the heart of the great urban industrial area of the U.S. Midwest.
St. Marys River forms the outlet of Lake Superior, connecting it with Lake Huron. From Whitefish Bay at the southeast corner of Lake Superior, the river flows in a general southeast direction to empty into Lake Huron at Point De Tour, a distance of 63 to 75 miles depending on the route traveled. The river is bounded on the west side for its entire length by the east end of the upper peninsula of Michigan and on the east side by the Ontario mainland in the upper part and Drummond Island, MI and St. Joseph Island, ON in the lower part.
Lake Superior the largest freshwater lake in the world, is the northernmost, westernmost, highest, and deepest of the five Great Lakes. The lake is fed by the waters of many short swift-flowing streams and drains through the St. Marys River into Lake Huron. The shores of the lake are generally high, rocky, and forested. The lake is sparsely populated, especially along the north shore.
The Hudson River extends north from The Battery at New York City for about 152 miles to the head of tidal navigation at the Troy Lock and Dam at Troy, NY. (This section of the Hudson River is described in United States Coast Pilot 2, Cape Cod to Sandy Hook.)
A Federal project provides for a 32-foot channel from New York City to Albany, thence a 14-foot channel to the Troy Lock and Dam.