The definitive ranking of the Great Lakes (according to Donovan Woods)

photo collage of Donovan Woods surronded by the Great Lakes Photo by Bree Fisher / Photo collage by Taylor Kristan

Every April, Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Woods releases a ranking of the Great Lakes on Twitter, as he has for the last several years.

Needless to say, when the rankings are released, people have thoughts. Cottagers and non-cottagers alike stumble over actually-no-you’re-wrongs faster than their fingers can fly across the keyboard. It could be because there isn’t much movement on the ranking from year to year (Lake Erie lovers, you’re in for a tough go), or that personal bias is so strong. I mean, who is this guy to rank the Great Lakes anyway?


Perhaps what adds to the mystique of this controversial list is that once it’s posted, Donovan is mum on the subject. You won’t find him defending his choices against replies desperately seeking explanation or fielding polite questions about his process. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his reasons or that he hasn’t thoroughly thought his decision through. And while he won’t reply on Twitter, he would talk to us. We sat down with Donovan to find out why he ranks the lakes as he does and, more importantly, what does he have against Lake Erie?


Alysha Vandertogt (AV): So, tell me—how did you start doing this? What inspired you to start ranking the Great Lakes?

Donovan Woods (DW): Well, my parents’ front yard is on Lake Huron, I’m from Sarnia, Ont. I’m partial to all the lakes, but I did grow up on Lake Huron. I try to keep my own personal bias out of my ranking, although I do think Lake Huron is the best by a long shot. But I’ve just always loved the lakes, I love ’em! My friends and I have always loved them.

We like to argue about the rankings of things. You know, what are the top five dinosaurs or the most classic farm animals. They really are quite interesting arguments. The number one farm animal is obviously cow. But then there are people who want duck in there, people who want sheep in there. There’s really not a lot of room for that, all of these things can become contentious.

AV: I was going to ask you about whether or not your upbringing and Sarnia might have influenced the rankings.

DW: Listen, I’ve swam in all of the Great Lakes. I don’t have any real training in the field, but I feel like I’m as good as anybody to judge them.

I’ll tell you, the first time I posted a ranking, I was so surprised by how contentious it was. People were very, very angry.

AV: I was looking back at tweets from years previous, and you even had a tweet in there about how you didn’t expect to have to block people as a result of ranking the Great Lakes.

DW: Yeah, exactly!

AV: How did you feel when people got so fired up? People were in your replies, they’re quote tweeting you. People are taking this really seriously.

DW: To me, that’s the funniest part. You can become an authority on something just by saying you are. My favourite part is when the tweet reaches a certain level of popularity—and it has all three years—somebody eventually goes, ‘Who is this person, never heard of him.’ And when you start getting those tweets, that’s when you know it’s going good, things are heating up.

Everybody says, ‘How could Superior not be number one with the name,’ but I would hazard a guess that the name Superior has something more to do with how it’s the highest and the furthest west. But I try not to get into the weeds with people on that. Anybody who has been to Lake Superior knows it’s beautiful, of course, but it’s not very useful. It’s really cold all the time.

People’s opinions are interesting, but, at times, sad. It’s sad that people would think that Lake Erie deserves to be number one. Anybody who knows anything knows it’s not true.

Ontario has an argument, to a certain degree. If you’ve ever been to the Sandbanks beaches, it’s beautiful around there. And a lot of Canadians have a bias against Lake Michigan because it has an American-centric name, but Lake Michigan is just gorgeous. Very Lake Huron-like. Some people want to make the argument that they’re the same body of water technically, I don’t go in for that.

AV: I think when people think Lake Ontario they think of what Lake Ontario is right around Toronto or Hamilton.

DW: Justifiably. But that’s not fair to the lake, there’s a whole top area that’s much better than those areas.

I try not to argue too much. People have their passionate beliefs, but they are wrong. By and large, my ranking is correct. I would die on the hill for it.

AV: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t really like to explain why you’ve put certain lakes over others. Is there a particular reason for that, or you don’t necessarily want to get into it with people, given the amount of people that reply to the tweet.

DW: I don’t think it’s very constructive. I don’t feel any need to defend it because it’s just one person’s opinion. All year long, I’m thinking about the Great Lakes, their movement, what’s going on. Maybe something will happen eventually that would change the ranking, but I don’t know what it is. I just put the list up and that’s it, that’s my duty done.

AV: Earlier you talked about swimming conditions. What is it that you take into account that makes the ranking the way that it is?

DW: This is tricky. This is stuff that I don’t love to get into, but I do think it’s a general sense of the usefulness of the lake. Beauty is a really important part of the equation. In general, it’s an ineffable quality that is in the zeitgeist. This year, for example, Lake Michigan featured heavily in the show Station Eleven, where it has a sort of mythic quality. That almost put it into a more prominent position, but in the end it didn’t feel right. It still felt like it had to be Huron, Superior, Michigan.

AV: One of your tweets from a previous year said that Lake Erie was last, by a lot. Not that I’m a Lake Erie apologist, but what is it about Lake Erie that has it so firmly in last place?

DW: I’m not particularly fond of any of the cities on Lake Erie, I have found the swimming to be lacklustre, I’m not fond of that part of Ontario.

AV: Have your feelings about a particular lake changed since since you started doing the rankings?

DW: It’s possible that a decade ago, I would have felt the same way as people that think Lake Michigan should be lower. Michigan really came up for me in my 20s when I spent a lot of time there. I’m a lot more fond of Lake Ontario even now than three years ago when I first did the first ranking. But they’re all great—fourth out of five is still pretty good. It’s really going to be something if the ranking ever moves, I wonder if it will.

AV: Is there anything that could push one ahead of the other? I see that there was like a Lake Superior account that was tweeting at you about the ranking and saying that it wanted to make some moves.

DW: People say to me, ‘Oh, how could you ignore the Lake Superior tweet?’ That sounds like a person pretending to be a lake. I’m a grown man, using his own name, ranking the Great Lakes. A guy pretending to be a lake, does that sound like an authority to you? Nonsense.

AV: How do you feel about people who are trying to throw in completely off-the-board picks to be included in the ranking? They seem to take the “great” name very liberally. 

DW: There’s always someone who wants to tell you that Great Slave Lake or Great Bear Lake exists, we all know that. That’s not what we’re talking about though.

AV: It’s pretty definitive. People kind of have to accept that these ones are the Great Lakes, because they’re called that. As a society, we’ve acknowledged that these ones are the Great Lakes.

DW: I was writing a song the other day with a guy from the U.K., and I was telling him about the ranking. And I said, ‘You know of the Great Lakes, right?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’ This is a guy who grew up on the Isle of Wight in the U.K., and he knew immediately. So, these are important lakes, right? He’s never heard of Great Slave Lake, let’s put it that way.


Well, Lake Erie, better luck next year.

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