Hail to Lake Agassiz, the mighty inland sea

This is my Sunday column for the July 21, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Hail to Lake Agassiz, the mighty inland sea
By Aaron J. Brown

Living in the woods you get used to driving. You get used to complaining about gas prices, as though the 25 cent fluctuations common to any given summer were your real problem. How about this: most days I sit in a machine that hurls me at 95 feet per second past people hurtling the opposite direction at similar speeds. I steer this craft using mechanisms that are, for my purposes, indistinguishable from magic*. Lately I’ve been staying close to home, though again, that’s mostly because of gas prices.

In northern Minnesota we have a lot to worry about. Will our economy hold up, and thus the prosperity of our families? How about those schools? Will they prepare our children for the modern world or merely teach them how to decipher written language, something unavailable to all other species on earth. So many problems, and only recently did I learn that most of this region was under water just over 12,000 years ago.

The largest freshwater lake in North America was Lake Agassiz, named for the Swiss glacial geologist Louis Agassiz who was the first to suspect the Ice Age. Agassiz was a gregarious man of science, a portly ball of energy who uncovered …


prehistoric species of all kind on all continents. He finished his career at Harvard where he influenced an entire generation of influential scientists, and where his social life inspired a poem by Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. A statue of Agassiz was commissioned for a building in San Francisco. The stone Agassiz toppled in the great earthquake of 1906, lodging headfirst in the sidewalk below.

Broadly speaking the lake that bore Agassiz’s name was Lake Winnipeg and the Red River, but in reality it was an inland sea that covered much of central Canada and everything north of Bigfork, Minnesota. The Iron Range, being high ground, stayed dry. The region around us developed into the white pine forests that drew the first Europeans here. Area native populations, such as the Dakota, draw origin stories that include a great deal of water, and one can see why when looking at maps of the massive glacial lakes found all over the region.

South of the Range, from Cherry down through the Sax-Zim Bog to Cloquet was Lake Upham, named for the geologist who first theorized Lake Agassiz. The very swampland where I grew up was the bottom of this vast lake. Prehistoric fish of massive proportions patrolled these waters, pike that would have to be hunted like whales instead of angled like their tiny toothed descendants. But there were no ships to sail this lake, and it is long gone.

We were raised to believe the Ice Age was still in the past, but reality is we’re still in one. Scientists, so adept at postulation, contend the earth has spent more time without ice than with. We are merely in an interglacial period until the next incursion by the ice walls. In fact, the last 10,000 years (otherwise known as “History”) represent a climatological oddity – a period of relatively stable temperatures that allowed us to shed our fur and write poems about how sad we are.

Some have said that the next glacial period was set to begin any day, until we humans started pumping the air full of carbon. Now, who knows? But it would appear that the glaciers need only wait us out, as whether we endure 10,000 years or 50,000, the Ice Age will continue for many million years to come.

How much hell can we unleash upon ourselves? To be determined, but certainly an irrelevant detail in the long life of the universe and, if we’re lucky, the salvageable remainder of our souls.

* It was George Carlin Arthur C. Clarke who said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

CORRECTION: The print version of this column incorrectly listed George Carlin as the origin of the technology quote. I had heard him say something similar in an act. I mistakenly attributed the Arthur C. Clarke quote to him, using my failing memory.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).


  1. When I first moved here, I was given the impression that where I live is also part of Lake Agassiz, after all, this area is relatively flat, and sits on 60 feet of solid clay, clay like you can make pots out of. But some maps put us outside of the area of Lake A. And as you article says, Big Fork and north. Now I’m curious. I’m also curious about the occasional gravel hills/ridges that dot the area, without which, we wouldn’t have our driveways. I guess I should have take geology in college.

  2. I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who made the comment about technology and magic.

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