A Lake Trout native to Rabbit Island. Fall in love with this fish. It represents a very big idea.  

“The great abundance of fish and the convenience of the place for fishing have caused the Indians to make a fixed settlement in those parts. It is a daily mana, which never fails.” - Antoine Cadillac, French explorer of the Great Lakes and founding father of Detroit, 1695

“What of the Great Lakes… and where are the fish?” - Chicago Times, 1881

Swimming amidst the rocky shoals surrounding Rabbit Island is one of the last remnant populations of native “lean variety” Lake Trout on the southern shore of Lake Superior–a rarity indeed. In the fall of each year Lake Trout migrate from the depths of the lake where they pass summer months and congregate around shallow, rocky features to mate, as they have for thousands of years.

Little trout. Big idea. This little trout is a wonder. It swam past our camp as we were doing our dishes and with one lucky swipe of an enamel bowl we were afforded a brief and rather spectacular moment. (That is dish grease on the tips of fingers three and four.)

We might as well have been holding a California redwood in the palms of our hands as this trout carries with it a bloodline undisturbed for thousands of years and is an heirloom if ever there was. It hatched from an egg between sandstones in the shallow water around the island, laid by a mother and fertilized by a father, both of whom spent their lifetimes swimming in water clean enough to support biologic function, in virgin form, on the largest of of environmental scales (as did every generation of lake trout before them). For this to continue to occur, year after year, the system didn’t need anything from us humans except for our relative absence. Our relative restraint. 

Since the glacial age, lake trout in all five Great Lakes had sustained themselves in similar fashion until very recently. The northernmost lake, Lake Superior, however, (that grand lake!) is the only remaining lake that has endured the additive influence of human settlement over the past 300 years and yet maintained a naturally reproducing population of wild trout–that is, a population of trout that didn’t rely on artificial stocking and that wouldn’t die out if not replaced by fisheries biologists. It has gotten some help along the way, of course, but it never lost a viable pulse. 

Put another way, perhaps, one could wash dishes on the shores of the other four Great Lakes and never see a Lake Trout of this size swim by because it simply wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be possible biologically. The ecology of the lakes has changed so much at the hands of man that Lake Trout are no longer born of native parents in these four lakes, but rather stocked for the benefit of fisherman from aquariums in government building. By 1950 the Lake Trout was extinct in Lake Michigan and they have not been found to reproduce naturally since. Nobody knows exactly why. A wild strain was found in 2007 on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, which is exciting, but the overwhelming pattern persists.

This is a story that is seldom told but represents a profound and symbolic idea: over only a few human generations thousands of years of natural history have ceased to exist for the largest predator in 4/5ths of the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet. Intellectually this is amazing. 

If this concept were painted upon every other terrestrial and aquatic American (or French, Guatemalan or Chinese, for that matter) ecosystem what else would be shown to have been lost? 

The California golden bear comes to mind, which now exists only on a state flag. Salmon runs of the mid-atlantic do as well. Gray wolf populations in much of the country. Sturgeon. The list would be very long and exemplify specifically the byproduct of ecosystems divided by settlement without a logical framework or muddled by runoff of our various activities.

This is, of course, not an argument against the urban environment, but a conceptual argument for better organization of developed space relative to the undeveloped as a fundamental value, and a simple celebration of a place spared an irreparable flight to the middle ground. It is an argument for maintaining and restoring open space of scale where natural cycles can occur with the original number of moving parts. It is an argument for the conscientious maintenance of places where we are absent, for our own benefit. It is a suggestion that something equal to the highest points of our social order exists in our most expansive intact natural spaces.

The Metropolitan Opera, the MoMa, the subway system, our governmental bodies, networks of business, universities, means of energy production, computers, medicine; these exemplify a fantastic display of organization and human reasoning. Similarly, the act of setting aside wild places on scales large enough to support grand and delicate ideas such as the one this little trout represents is an equally civilized thought. The act of restraint is virtuous in natural contexts. The act of creating and promoting systems to restore higher cycles to places where they no longer exist is equally so; perhaps even more so. These concepts were overlooked by a large portion of our country as it was settled from from east to west.

It is said that people protect what they fall in love with. Fall in love with this fish. Fall in love with the idea this fish represents. Make sure that it persists in your culture. Each generation has the responsibility to be stewards of the land and it will soon be our turn to take the reins. And, if we’re lucky, to use the science we have inherited to make ecosystems expand and remain according to reason, adjacent to our civilized culture… because of our civilized culture.  


If you google Traverse Island Strain Lake Trout many related articles come up. This specific genetic line of fish has been used to stock Lake Ontario, Seneca Lake in upstate New York, and many others. (Traverse Island is one of the two historical names of Rabbit Island).

ps. If this native trout isn’t reason enough to close the Chicago Shipping Canal to prevent the Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes ecosystem we don’t know what is. 

December 11, 2012