Three miles inland, I could hear booms and cracks coming from the lake. Was it the lingering echoes of English soldiers firing their muskets? Or the awakening of a sea monster? I had heard of Lake Erie’s South Bay Bessie, a giant water snake. I was convinced it was out there, pushing and straining under the sheets, its head and trunk unfurling, its enormous black body arcing over the water. I imagined it surmounting the ice and rumbling onto shore. In my dreams, it thundered into my neighborhood and crashed through my bedroom to feed upon my trembling limbs.
Was it out there when my mother read me the news of my classmate, the one who tried to row to Canada over the summer? The lake must’ve been like glass when she launched her little skiff, dipping her oars far from the shadowy bank. How long did she glide swanlike before the monster upreared its head and strode after her? Did it swallow her whole and spew her half-eaten body upon the sands with only her teeth to mark her identity?
I soon realized that all that grinding and cracking on those early spring nights was expanding and contracting ice splitting and sliding apart like a flotilla. This wasn’t a serpent the size of a skyscraper. It was Lake Erie itself, a shapeshifting, often violent force guilty of drowning multitudes. Driving along the coastline in the winters, I could see its russet chowder, a mix of fumes and nibbled bodies expelled from liquid graves, flinging against structures standing by the shore. Between heaps and throes, its pulp clung to derelict snack stands and shivering stop signs, while the bordering trees all drooped dejectedly with monstrous limbs dangling like stalactites in mammoth caves.
The winds coming off the lake behaved like invisible bullies who threw bits of furniture around and heaved wild-eyed men into parked cars. I tried to take advantage of these conditions one summer to body surf upon Erie’s tsunami-like waves, but the currents pulled me under and ground my face into the sediment, then belched me onto shore. There, I scuttled through the backwash, coughing and snorting, rash burns upon my hot, sunburned shoulders, bathing suit clinging like a bloodsucker. It was a lesson I learned after hearing of the fate of my young friend. Never tempt Lake Erie.
My parents drove us eastward one summer to Niagara Falls. At the border, we took the scenic route, veering north into Canada, a network of quiet neighborhoods to my left, the west bank of the Niagara River to my right. The water looked peaceful enough, until it began to roll with increasing violence. As we moved closer to the famous white chutes, I saw an old iron ship jutting out from the middle of the river. I wondered how it got there and what the mariners were feeling as they coursed uncontrollably toward the precipice, skidding into a rocky shoal just seconds before plunging over the dolomite cliffs where thousands had already been pounded to pulp. Lucky they were, but not lucky enough. Now they were stuck in center—hundreds of feet from each bank—where no terrestrial could wade without being sucked down the drain. Were their emaciated figures still manning the helm like spectral river pilots? How many more years would it take before the rusty ship lurched further downstream, teetered over the edge, and then dropped?
I later hiked the river gorge several hundred feet downstream from the base of the falls and basked in the spangled spray where the riffles foamed and thrashed dangerously against my mermaid rock. Nothing, no microorganisms, no current-flouting salmon, could possibly strain against these torrents and leap the 167-foot cataract into Lake Erie, I thought.
But something had already broken the barrier, and it was no South Bay Bessie of Cleveland lore. It was the ancient kind, the biblical kind, a thing-to-rot-the-fruit-on-the-vine kind, spawned in primeval slime nearly 300 million years before dinosaurs thudded across the earth and eons before receding glaciers carved out the Great Lakes basin. In its infancy, it wriggled wormlike in the graveled shadows of a riverbed, inhaling plankton with a wide yawn. After a spell, the bumps on the sides of its head sprouted pustular eyes, while its tubular body grew fat and long. Its mouth became a jawless suction cup surrounding several circular rows of spiny teeth. From its center came a rasping piston equipped to drill into flesh and inject it with poison enough to keep the blood flowing. This relatively harmless worm had now become a parasitic snake whipping out to sea where it leeched onto the underbellies of trolling superfish. It sucked and spawned through four mass extinctions, surviving long after the megalodon and the placoderm were spent. From the Carboniferous to the Paleogene, the Cretaceous to the Neogene, this squirmy nightmare had endured. This crude little vampire was the sea lamprey.
It had survived but not evolved, for the crude design of its fossilized, horny-toothed granddam was still working for it. So that by the time of the American Revolution, it was still thriving, now along the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. It had grown up with all sorts of fantastic beasts hulking enough to host all freeloaders without causing themselves stress. Combined, the lamprey and its siblings might’ve overthrown the ocean if it hadn’t also been a delicacy for larger creatures, like swordfish, seabass, and King Henry I, with a voracious appetite for mashed vermin.
But how did sea lamprey get into Lake Erie? Through the Welland Canal, a human-carved channel connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. It had been significantly expanded on the eve of the Jazz Age. New fleets of maritime vessels could now bypass the repellant impasse of Niagara Falls as easily as opening the backdoor to a speakeasy. The lamprey suctioned to the hulls of cargo ships and rum runners drifting through the canal, their bodies waving loosely from the underbellies like tufts of hair. The ship captains didn’t know what lurked below as they floated toward Buffalo. They didn’t know a lot of things.
As Erie opened wide, the men inhaled the moist air, their breasts swelling with ambition, their minds saturated with money dreams. Their ghastly cargo also sensed the freshness of that formerly landlocked lake bubbling all around them. Standing upon their decks, the men roared, “Here, we’ll make a living.” And dangling from the hulls, the lamprey puffed, “Here, we’ll make a killing.” After 3.4 million years, these bloodsuckers could now prey with impunity upon the unsuspecting natives of an insulated ecosystem only 4,000 years in the making. And this was just one reason the Great Lakes would never be the same again. With the aid of Earth’s fallen angels, Eden was now pierced, and mortality would become the law.
The lamprey kissed the hulls goodbye and dispersed like viruses infecting a bloodstream. They moved further into the lake where they sensed the warmth of the sunlight above and the coolness below. Their gaping nostrils caught the scents and the sere rustle of fauna flowing in the currents. They slithered through all sorts of dead things littering the lakebed, from animal remains to human garbage, and drifted in and out of a thousand ghostly shipwrecks. They delighted in every vibration, their beady eyes dully glimpsing dark forms all around them. They knew not their names, only that there flowed within them fluids to slake their thirst. And so, one by one, they latched onto little luggers of various shapes and sizes and began to slurp the souls from their wasting bodies and drain the spirits from their placid eyes.
It was a bad time for anglers, who now recoiled from their emaciated catch, even as they held them high in the air for the cameras. From each precious trout there dangled one, two, even three of these wet noodles, whose tenacious rows of fangs left cratered, bristling wounds. In fewer than four decades, the invaders sucked dry much of the native fish populations in all the Great Lakes. And for the first time since King Henry’s last meal, they had made headlines. “There is a murderer abroad,” read a 1950 news article, and it is “now preying on anything that moves.” From swimmers scuttling through the surf kicking lampreys from their legs to motorboats cruising along at 15 miles per hour. The vampires of the lake had run out of victims. And now they were desperate.
To lake folk, it sounded like science fiction. In fact, the news finally breached the borders of popular lore nearly a full century later, long after the first slinker squirmed into Lake Erie. The B horror flick Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys is about as viscerally repulsive as anything I’ve seen, not for its consciously stupid camp, but for its anatomical realism—and, because it swarms with lamprey that slither down shower walls and writhe in an orgiastic nest at the bottom of a toilet bowl. Can you guess what happens to the sitting mayor of lamprey-ville? If the movie trailer alone could make me a noodle-brained hysteric, just imagine how grievously Lake Erie’s innocents must’ve suffered in the hellish maw of their very real apocalypse.
We were lucky to have fished out a savior. Before I first dipped my elfin toe in the surf, around 1970, a scientist did what 360 million years of evolution could not: commit mass lampricide. He didn’t drive stakes through lamprey hearts. He didn’t burn them with sunlight. And he didn’t stuff their grotesque little mouths with garlic. He did it by stalking them in the shadows of streambeds and observing them in lab tanks. And by binge-watching fornicating lamprey until each one drooped with exhaustion like a limp prophylactic.
After years of lingering over lampreys, Vernon Applegate’s watershed moment came in 1967 while he and his team were testing thousands of bottles of poisons sent from chemical companies around the world. Finally, he pulled number 5,209 and poured its contents into a pickle jar containing baby lamprey and other fish. In moments, the wilted nippers floated to the surface as the surrounding fish smiled on. After just a few tweaks, Applegate was ready to pour the life-saving death potion into lamprey infested tributaries. It worked. By 1967, only 10% of the once exploding Great Lakes lamprey population remained, clearing the waters for a native rebound. And ever since, Applegate’s potion has been enough to keep their numbers in check. At least until another King Henry floats along.
It was a heart-gnawing ending for Lake Erie’s parasitic marauders. Had they not had access to the Great Lakes, they might’ve continued to benefit the north Atlantic’s estuaries, where they would’ve favorably scrubbed the substrate during spawning season and made tasty meals for an array of birds, fish, and mammals. They might’ve endured with their siblings for another epoch without ever having to evolve. But in the young and cloistered freshwater seas, the sea lamprey lived fast and died hard.
Yet, Lake Erie remains a victim. Humans can lay plans and carry them out, put pen to paper, fingers to the keyboard and pound out a song. We can sometimes reverse our mistakes. But our imaginations are a little myopic. It was upon the rudders of human ingenuity that nearly 2 billion pounds of fish were gratuitously slain. The Great Lakes ecosystem and its dependent economies nearly collapsed, as another nightmarish creature continues to bristle along Erie’s western bank—toxic algae. My childhood imagination never dreamed this formidable force that thrilled my soul could be just as fragile as my wave-weary young friend. The mental picture of her washed-up skeletal remains haunted me for years. Yet, the organisms of Erie’s lifeblood repeatedly suffer a similar fate—the fairest of all lakes, the one blending with the voices in my head and the nursery songs in my ears. Will I hear its low breathing when it takes it last breath?