All of the largest lakes in North America, except for Lake Michigan, are in Canada or are along the Canada-US border. But the Great Lakes aren’t just some of the largest lakes in North America. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the whole world!
Lake Superior’s the lakehead of the five Great Lakes of North America. This is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume. Nothing in North America’s larger by either measure.
This lake’s big enough to have ocean-sized storms! It’s a good thing it’s way up north near the 49th parallel, which makes it much too cold to feed a hurricane. But it’s not alone in its power. All of the Great Lakes are big enough to make their own weather.
Surprisingly, the name “Lake Superior” didn’t originally refer to its size! Sure, the Ojibwe called the lake “Gichigami,” which means “big water.” You’ll still hear that name, mangled to Gitchi Gumee, in Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” and in Canadian balladeer Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
But the early French explorers named this huge lake “la lac superieur,” which only means that it’s the lake above and upstream from the other Great Lakes. After the English won the French and Indian War in the 1760s, they anglicized the lake’s name to Superior. That’s when the name’s meaning changed to refer to the size of the lake.
Like all the other lakes on this list, Lake Superior’s a leftover lake from the last ice age. It was carved out by the glacier and filled by melt waters of that glacier. That’s why all these lakes are a bit shallow compared to the big-volume lakes in other parts of the world, although parts of these lakes can get extremely deep, too. Lake Superior gets up to 223 metres deep. Christie Bay, in Great Slave Lake, is 614 metres deep!
Other Great Lakes
All of the Great Lakes are among the twenty largest lakes in the world, both by land area and by volume, so it’s really not surprising that the Great Lakes watershed is the largest freshwater watershed in the world. A fifth of the world’s fresh water is located right here! All of that water flushes out into the Atlantic Ocean by way of the St. Lawrence River, one of the world’s busiest waterways.
In order of water flow, the five lakes of the Great Lakes are Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. All of them except Lake Michigan lie along the Canada-US border. Lake Michigan lies entirely within the US.
Some people think of Georgian Bay as a sixth Great Lake. That would also make it among the largest lakes in North America, but it would take Lake Huron out of the worldwide top ten.
After Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are the second and third largest lakes in North America. Lake Huron’s larger than Lake Michigan by land area, and Lake Michigan’s larger than Lake Huron by volume. Both of them also come in among the top five freshwater lakes worldwide for surface area, and among the top ten freshwater lakes worldwide for volume.
Lake Erie’s the fourth largest Great Lake by land area, and Lake Ontario comes in last. It’s the other way around by volume.
However, there’s a couple of other lakes in Canada that kick Lake Ontario and Lake Erie out of the list of the top five largest lakes in North America.
Great Bear Lake
This lake is the largest lake completely in Canada, the fourth largest lake in North America, and the eighth largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s two thousand kilometres northwest of the Great Lakes, overlapping the Arctic Circle, so parts of Great Bear Lake never see the sun in December.
You’d think that a lake that’s that far north would be frozen most of the year, and you’d be partly right. In the dead of winter, its ice surface is thick enough to support an ice road!
That makes it a lot easier to bring supplies in to the 525 residents of Deline in the middle of winter than in the middle of summer! However, the total shipping costs still mean that food’s a lot more expensive in these parts of the world than it is in places that are easier to reach.
Great Slave Lake
This lake rounds off the list of the largest five lakes in North America. As distances in the north of the Great White North go, it’s a hop, skip and jump away from Great Bear Lake, just six hundred kilometres southeast.
Both Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are part of the Mackenzie River drainage basin. By way of a couple of other northern lakes, including Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake drains into the Arctic Ocean.
Even though it’s in the Canadian Northwest Territories, you can actually get here by road from anywhere in Canada, and you can do it year-round on paved road, now that the Deh Cho Bridge over the Mackenzie River has opened. It’s not even the most northernmost road in Canada!