Great Lakes, Amazing Connections: Rest, Relaxation and a Respect for Recreation

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(Lake Michigan as seen from Museum Campus. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Through all four seasons, the Great Lakes provides a vast array of recreational opportunities that connect more than 40 million people who live in its basin, and the countless others who flock to its shores from around the world. While public policy, a trillion dollar economy and critical conservation issues connect all who take pride in the Great Lakes, this month we take a look at how the five bodies of water foster fun, inspiration and relaxation through a host of recreational opportunities. Stay tuned for future posts in our series, "Great Lakes, Amazing Connections," to learn more about the ways the Great Lakes bring us together.

Staring north on the shore of Lake Michigan from Museum Campus in Chicago, there's something in the water that competes for your attention as you look toward the city's iconic skyline: It's people! Thousands of them filling the lake's vast horizon with a skyline of their own that includes sail boats, jet skis, luxury crafts, fishing rigs and tour liners. On the surrounding land, runners, walkers, cyclists and families on a stroll take advantage of the picturesque scenery provided by the lake.

Summer -- perhaps more than any other season -- allows us to step back and celebrate the vast array of recreational opportunities the Great Lakes provide, and the memories they help us form. In Chicago, it's watching the Chicago Yacht Club's sail boat race to Mackinac Island each year or as I'm literally doing right now, watching the world-famous Blue Angles fighter jets prepare for this weekend's Chicago Air & Water Show. Michigan -- surrounded by Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior -- offers the chance to hike the 400-foot high Sleeping Bear Dunes or kayaking through any number of inland lakes and costal bays. Across the border, Ontario's network of nearly 35,000 square-miles of provincial parks -- many of which border Lake Ontario -- offer an abundance of opportunities for fishing, camping and bird watching.

Our appreciation of the lakes as a source of R&R underscores yet another reason why they are such a vital asset that connects us all. Our summers on the Great Lakes sustain more than 200,000 jobs, and pump $16 billion into the economy annually on boating and equipment alone. And because our play creates work, it's vital we remember how important it is to keep the lakes healthy and vibrant so generations to come can enjoy it as we have.

Beyond simple pleasure, those who recreate on our waters have also created powerful stories using the lakes as their backdrops. In 2014, five men from Traverse City set out on a 60-mile paddleboard trip across Lake Michigan in an effort to raise money and awareness for Great Lakes conservation. In just one day in July, a trio of adventurous swimmers from Canada set out to swim in all of the Great Lakes in a single July day, and a New Jersey woman set off in June to paddle 2,000 miles of water to bring attention to water quality issues in the United States. And finally, let's not forget the Great Lakes offer some incredible fresh water surfing -- yes surfing. Of course with surfing, rowing, swimming, or any other recreation on the Great Lakes, it's important to be responsible and the Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project is a great place to start.

Stories like these, coupled with our own experiences in any of the five lakes, are wonderful examples of just how much we not only rely on them to sustain us physically, but emotionally as well. No matter how we choose to enjoy the lakes, the ample opportunities for recreation ensure there is a like-minded community we can connect and share with.

The lakes prove that, even when stepping away from the watery horizon of Lake Michigan into the offices of Shedd Aquarium, they provide lingering reminders of all they have to offer. Just glancing at social media like Facebook and Twitter, families and friends are sharing their summers full of enjoying the Great Lakes. From pictures of friends bringing their newborns to the beaches of Lake Eerie for the first time, or family posing for photos at a beach barbecue, the lakes serve as an important reminder of the memories they can make simply by allowing us to enjoy them.

Seeing these is a particular joy to me. With Shedd being a leader in conservation and research into these lakes that sustain our appetite for recreation, it's my hope that we all put as much passion into keeping them a healthy, thriving system as we do while spending our time off enjoying them.

Have you spent any time relaxing and recreating by the lakes this summer? I'd love to see your photos! Leave a comment or tweet to @Shedd_GL with your pictures.