Many months ago I toyed with an idea that I called the Throw the Dart game. That’s where I’d go into Google Street View, drop the cursor onto some random part of the world and then try to create an article from thin air. It worked pretty well in October 2009 when I hit a spot outside of Piedmont, Alabama, USA. I found similar success when fate delivered my eyes to Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England in March 2010.
Then I stopped.
I still enjoyed the concept so that wasn’t the problem. No, it was this image that put me into a tailspin for nearly a year:
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Yikes! Go ahead and circle that image all the way around. I’ll wait. I can guess that you saw only a ribbon of Ontario 527 stretching to both horizons with a curtain of trees on either side. I should have known I’d hit a bunch of remoteness if I threw a cursor at interior Canada when something like 75% of the population lives within 160 km of the United States border. A gambler wouldn’t place any meaningful bet on the odds of hitting a recognizable settlement by random chance here. That’s closer to Lotto territory. Why would the Google car even drive here?
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So I’d succeeded in capturing an image of some inexplicable stretch of rural Ontario north of Thunder Bay surrounded by forests and lakes. It sat unexplored as a draft in the queue of my WordPress blog software, month after month, reminding me that I’d been stumped. I came close to deleting it. Repeatedly. Psychologically I couldn’t do it though, and it remained lodged there every day confronting me. I’d come back to it from time-to-time, piddle around with it a bit, and still find nothing.
The beauty of the Intertubes is that as long as one searches hard enough and waits long enough then something will turn up eventually. Is today my day? Well, maybe. Let’s see if we can salvage something from this location and exorcise this demon for good.
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I’ll drill in a little closer. Ponds and lakes of various sizes dot the landscape. The largest one, maybe 3 km west of my spot, is called Cheeseman Lake. I tried to determine how it gained it’s unusual name and found nothing. However, I did learn that people fish here. In fact the fishing is supposed to be pretty good according to Internet chatter. Anglers warn that one should bring plenty of extra gasoline along though: the nearest filling station is 100 km further north in Armstrong, it’s expensive, and the pumps have been known to run-out at times.
It’s also not too far away from one of Canada’s continental divides. My random spot drains towards the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. A bit further either north or west and the land drains to Hudson Bay.
The last one is best. The Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry mentions the Cheeseman Lake area on its Geology Ontario website. It’s also caught the attention of the Ontario Prospectors Association. Early testing has shown anomalous amounts of copper, gold, silver and several rare earth elements. This random spot may be sitting on a gold mine — literally — and that’s not so bad for some unknown place set in the middle of nowhere.
Nonetheless, I think I’m done with the Throw the Dart Game. Canada kicked my butt again.
What’s a growing city to do when its water supply is jeopardized by its own filth? If it’s Chicago and it’s the late 19th Century, they reverse the flow of an entire river system and purposely puncture a Continental Divide in the process.
I’m in Chicago this week so I wanted to make sure I got away from work for a few moments to explore a little local geo-history, the great Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Most visitors stop by Grant Park, the Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile and places like that. I, on the other hand, pay homage to the remnants of an open sewer. The city still dumps treated wastewater into the Chicago River system, but no doubt to the delight of visitors that take those tour boats through its skyscraper canyons, it’s a whole lot cleaner than what got sent through here a century ago (Dave Matthews not withstanding).
The Chicago River flowing through downtown Chicago from the State Street bridge, looking east
The Chicago River extends 156 miles. It once flowed east through the city and into Lake Michigan, taking raw sewage and whatever else got thrown into it away from a growing population. This caused a dilemma: Chicago also got its drinking water from the lake. Besides the awful visual image this conjures, this had the potential to become a major health issue. So in 1887 the government decided upon a solution: they would simply reverse the direction of the Chicago River and flush their troubles away from the lake, thus separating their toilet from their drinking water. Sewage would be forced to travel in the opposite direction from its natural flow through the marvels of civil engineering. It would drain instead into the Des Plaines River, using a series of locks, canals, dams and pumps where it would travel far, far away. A 28-mile waterway, a massive undertaking known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, opened in 1900 to much fanfare and critical acclaim to complete this honorable mission. That is, of course, for the citizens of Chicago. I’m sure the people who lived downstream in the other direction were less thrilled.
Engineering marvel aside, there’s another extremely interesting aspect of the local geography. A low ridge runs parallel to Lake Michigan about a dozen miles west of Chicago’s lakeshore. It’s the remnants of an ancient beach dating back to the end of the last ice age of 12,000 years ago. That’s all that separates two vast drainage areas: the Great Lakes / St. Lawrence basin that empties into the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River basin that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Nowhere else is it so easy to travel between those two massive waterways. Towns grew here and became prosperous simply because of the easy portage. An early passage, the Illinois and Michigan Canal, replaced the land-based portage. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal took it one step further by actually removing the entire Chicago River watershed from the Great Lakes drainage basin and adding it to the Mississippi basin. In addition to the sanitation it provided to the city of Chicago, it served another vital purpose, the only navigable link between two hugely important commercial waterways.
To understand how little separates the Great Lakes from the Mississippi system, take a look at the Google Street View Image and you may be able to discern the slight rise that separates the two.
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Are you having trouble spotting it? That’s exactly the point. Contrast that with another continental divide I’ve featured previously. It quickly becomes apparent why this area on the southwest corner of Lake Michigan became so vital to trade and transportation.
This spot came to my attention from the Oak Park Tourist website, specifically from their series of pages on the Oak Park Continental Divide.
The terrain in our Village is so flat that the slopes are difficult to perceive. The best place to see a distinct drop off in both directions is at the northwest corner of Taylor Park, at the intersection of Berkshire and Elmwood. There you will be standing on the continental divide. At the time this area was first settled, the land east of Oak Park, being an old lake bottom, was mostly swamp. Our low ridge was the first high land west of the Lake and was a desirable place to build. Thus Oak Park’s first settler, Joseph Kettlestrings, in 1837 chose to build west of Oak Park Avenue, on top of the ridge. The oak trees, growing on the sandy ridge, gave Oak Park its name.
As a final thought, there are pressures to separate to two watersheds and return the Continental Divide to its original condition. This is for a couple of reasons. First, given the finite nature of the Great Lakes, there are concerns about the amount of water being drawn off for purposes other than drinking (i.e., as a giant toilet flush down the Mississippi). Second, there are anxieties that linking the two large systems will hasten the spread of invasive species through even greater territories of the United States.
Satisfied with my tourist excursion up State Street to the river, I returned to work.
As covered in the prior post, Trail Ridge Road reaches stratospheric elevations as it becomes the highest continuous highway in the United States, cutting straight through the splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors climbing the summit from Estes Park, Colorado encounter another noteworthy feature along this remarkable road after they pass the highpoint and the Alpine Visitor Center, heading downhill. At Milner Pass the highway crosses over the Continental Divide.
Source of map: United States National Park Service; http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/maps.htm
In truth there are several continental divides in North America. Some are specific to the United States and some to Canada, with others shared in common. The best known of these is often called the Great Divide, a physical contour separating east from west. Water on the eastern side will flow either to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. Water on the western side will flow to the Pacific Ocean. When the term "Continental Divide" is used without qualifiers it generally means the Great Divide, and that’s the famous line crossed by Trail Ridge Road at an altitude above 10,000 feet.
Milner Pass elev. 10,759
The "Great Divide" separates drainage to the Atlantic from drainage to the Pacific. It traverses America from Alaska almost to Cape Horn.
Atlantic Ocean drainage [arrow pointing left]
Cache La Poudre Creek drains into the Platte River which flows to the Missouri, then to the Mississippi, thus reaching the Gulf of Mexico (part of the Atlantic Ocean).
Pacific Ocean drainage [arrow pointing right]
Beaver Creek drains into the Colorado River, which then flows through Grand Canyon National Park and on to the Gulf of California (A part of the Pacific Ocean).
Thus, there are two remarkable geographic features in a short stretch along Trail Ridge Road: the highest point of contiguous highway in the United States; and the boundary that marks the Great Divide. Along with that comes some of the most incredible Rocky Mountain scenery imaginable, worth a journey all on its own.