Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks
At ten minutes to noon on February 7th, 2024, a tremendous roar went up across the city of Chicago. It was a roar that many witnesses described as a “tremendous sucking sound.” People flocked to apartment and high-rise windows and rushed to the lake shore where they saw the bottom fall out of Lake Michigan. In twenty-eight minutes, the lake disappeared beneath its muddy bottom.
The disappearance of the lake was not some magician’s illusion. David Copperfield had not shown up at Grant Park and awed his audience with so grand an act of sleight of hand. Tens of thousands of people watched Lake Michigan drain away. They walked out onto the lakebed mud like Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
In the Oval Office, the president of the United States looked at photos taken by NASA. He didn’t ask if it was the Russians or the Chinese. The president knew that something like this was far beyond the capacities of any other country. But he did want answers. And he wanted them not only from NASA and the Pentagon, but from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Back in Chicago, the authorities tried in vain to keep Chicagoans out of the lake. But people were too curious to stand behind hastily erected barricades and police tape. In the balmy weather, a party atmosphere prevailed. People sang impromptu songs and tossed footballs. Even the religious stopped their praying to praise God. News crews from scores of countries broadcast the image of a festive populace and expressed their surprise at the joy people showed over what clearly was a natural disaster.
For days, much of the world riveted its attention on Chicago. Even though water had disappeared up and down the lake so that places like Milwaukee and Green Bay were bone dry, Chicago made for a better backdrop with its supertall skyline.
But most mystifying was how Lake Michigan remained dry. Somehow, Lake Superior and Huron waters did not fill the vacuum left by the desiccated lake. Crowds gathered along the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the thumb of Michigan with its upper peninsula, to stare in amazement as Lake Huron seemed suspended by the bridge, held back by some invisible hand. It was a scene out of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. A few brave souls walked down from the bridge and stood in front of a wall of water over ninety feet tall in places. Viewers from the bridge and behind television, computer, and phone screens worldwide held their breath as a crowd of people stood at the base of the wall and shoved their hands into its chill depths. One man claimed he caught the tail of a sturgeon.
Winter ended, and spring arrived. Lake Michigan went from muddy to dry and soon became a hazard. Drought conditions developed, and strong winds blew dust across the Michigan basin. There were days when air quality was so poor people in cities and towns on both sides of the lake had to stay indoors. Respiratory distress was chronic, and public health officials worried that silicates, metals, and fertilizers found in the lakebed would cause widespread cancer. The novelty of Lake Michigan’s disappearance wore off. Commentators compared it to the Aral Sea.
By late spring, tens of thousands of people began to flee the Lake Michigan “coast.” Cities and towns across the interior U.S. struggled to absorb the exodus. Disruptions to the supply chain of meat and pork products, caused by Chicago’s exiled workforce, created a price inflation that led to unrest in a country already enmeshed in a presidential election. The president’s chief opponent accused him of draining the lake to flood “red states” with blue state voters, thus ensuring a landslide re-election. The president dared his opponent to provide proof, but rumor and innuendo carried the day, and a plurality of voters believed that a sitting U.S. president had drained one of the great lakes.
On the campaign trail, the president asked: “Assuming I had the power to drain the lake, how do you explain my ability to keep Michigan dry? You’ve seen pictures from the Mackinac Bridge. Who is holding up all that water?”
After this speech, the president’s opponent accused him of comparing himself to God.
Meanwhile, a team of miners, engineers, and geologists from the United States Geological Survey dug several tunnels underneath Lake Michigan. They built their main tunnel along the Chicago shore since Chicagoans were the first to report hearing the lake drain away.
For months they dug horizontally and vertically, searching for any clue as to what had happened. But the team did not find anything, not even an underground reservoir.
A week before election day, an eight-year-old boy in Benton Harbor, Michigan, told his parents that a large willow tree on their property was the source of the problem. He said that if you hacked at the willow’s “legs,” water would shoot out and refill the lake. The boy’s parents thought their son was playing make believe, but he was so insistent that the father, to humor his son, took out his axe and started chopping at a large root that extended out into the lakebed. It was a gigantic root extending more than twelve feet into the Michigan barrens.
When the axe struck the leg, a tremendous shriek pierced the air. The tree began to tremble, and water shot loose from the root. Water the color of blood.