When seeking a location to listen from along the shores of the Great Lakes, there are many factors to consider. One of the main factors is possible reception distance.
Influencing factors of reception distance
Factors that influence reception distance include proximity to urban centers or transmitter sites (especially clusters of antennas), open water and the number of stations on the opposite shore, suitable shoreline elevation from which to listen, or the openness or narrowness of the water body (i.e. avoiding narrow bays such as in the Duluth area). In the absence of all adverse factors, the sky is the limit for listening!
The arithmetic mean
Above is the average reception distances at all 80 radio sites on the Great Lakes. Average distance is declared by typical mathematical average, i.e. the arithmetic mean, the sum of all of the numbers in a list divided by the number of items in that list. The average reception distance is found by adding the distance of all stations together and dividing by the total number of stations heard at that site. Easy peasy. Upon calculating the mean distance for each site, especially those sites that have multiple bandscans for which to compare, a rather accurate picture of the best stretches of shoreline presents itself.
Lake Michigan is a surprise when it comes to average reception distance. Much of the lake, mostly because of its shape, is great for listening. The obvious areas such as Chicago and Milwaukee can cause some issues, but even the site of ten years in suburban Milwaukee with blocking terrain easily hears 200+ miles to Detroit and Northern Michigan on an average day. Sleeping Bear Dunes is without any doubt the top site on these shores with each multi-day visit in 2019 and 2020 racking up at least one session of numerous Dakotas loggings to 600 miles. The shoreline from Muskegon to Traverse City does not disappoint. Hart Rest Area and Ludington Rest Area are among the most unparalleled sites on this lake, both with blasting Chicagoland stations and beyond on a daily basis and complete with hiking trails, restrooms, and services. The north shore of the lake between Manistique and Escanaba, though not as impressive, can take in some nice catches as well. Don’t forget the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan joins Lake Huron. This is the center of everything in the northern Great Lakes where it is commonplace to hear Thunder Bay and Manitouwadge across Lake Superior at the same time as Milwaukee and points south over Lake Michigan and Barrie and Detroit, across Lake Huron, all with a fantastic view of Mackinac Island and ferries coming and going beside the great Mackinac Bridge.
Lake Huron has its fine spots, but unlike Lake Michigan, which has so many public beaches it is nearly impossible to choose which to visit, Lake Huron is plagued with a lack of public access.
The best reception can be found on the eastern shore of the lake, technically Georgian Bay. Most of this shore is dotted with islands and marshes, a true lack of solid shoreline. What shoreline does exist along this stretch from Awenda to Killarney is primarily privately-owned, especially by yacht clubs, homeowners, and others. Many residing along this coast aren’t especially welcoming of others, sad to say. Parking, which can be found at some boating lots and area businesses, can be hard to come by in good locations and carries a steep price in many areas with few nearby private areas to listen in. This fact is utterly disappointing for the fact many great signals into Wisconsin are commonly heard on this remote coastline. Because of these reasons, Awenda and Killbear are the two recommended locations for listening along this stretch. Both are sizable provincial parks with the latter covering such a large expanse that it is possible to set up at multiple locations almost unnoticed, choose the campground that best suits your needs, and get in some great hiking, sightseeing, or even boating in the meantime. As they are public lands and in favourable locations — to some extent anyway — you will never worry about stepping on the toes of locals.
The north shore and North Channel of the lake, including Killarney and Blind River, have a far better situation. Both locations have ample parking and places to listen alongside great scenery. Killarney is a quiet and remote resort town, part of a provincial park, while Blind River is a mere stop along the road, a stop that happens to fall right at the top of the lake where even Cleveland, Erie, and Rochester are common catches. Of course, to the west of there is the Straits of Mackinac (see Lake Michigan). Even then, most of this shore has few notable sites in which to listen. Terrain is flat and most of the towns only have so many public access points that are worthwhile.
Further down the coast, most of Michigan’s Sunrise Side (Alpena area) has good listening, though sites are minimal aside from roadside parks. Tawas Point is the southernmost point along the lake’s open waters before Saginaw Bay. Saginaw Bay has some interesting signals and scenery, while the Thumb does as well, regularly pulling in Northern Michigan and even Green Bay stations (Milwaukee on the north shore of the bay as well) while offering a remote listening post. While the Thumb area can actually be rather boring with a lack of services, often including a lack of cell service, the atmosphere here is relaxed and addictive. You’ll want to return again and again even if to go camping and walk down to the beach with the radio as each section of coastline on the Thumb aims in a different direction, meaning signals can range from common Green Bay and Escanaba all the way to Toronto and Buffalo over the course of 20 miles of shoreline.
Back on the Ontario side, the eastern shore up to the Bruce Peninsula, despite not a lot of public access, is absolutely worth a visit. The main highlight of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay is Tobermory. With its isolated location basically in the middle of the lake, conditions can change with the wind (literally), the park’s gorgeous scenery is unforgettable, especially in the off-season, and famous throughout Ontario, and it’s guaranteed to be a listening experience that is without any doubt unforgettable. Even if your radio pursuits are an absolute failure at this location, the scenery and experiences you can come away with are just incredibly priceless.
If you hit the right spots and give yourself time, Lake Huron can be an absolutely phenomenal adventure.
One of the two more urban lakes — Lake Ontario being the other — the shores of Lake Erie are home to Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, and Buffalo, as well as being in direct proximity to the Detroit and Toronto metropolitan areas. Put all these together and Lake Erie sounds like the kind of lake you really want to avoid. While that’s not far from the truth, a lake is a lake and even urban shores can bring gifts of radio joy.
Lake Erie is a narrow and long lake. With Toledo on its western point and Buffalo on its eastern point, there are 250 uninterrupted miles of water between the two. Considering signals are often heard well beyond the shores, it’s entirely possible for Rochester to be heard in Toledo and for Detroit and Lansing to be heard in Buffalo. Its shape helps signals go long, under certain conditions anyway. And best of all, it only takes being on the outskirts of either metro area for marine conditions to take hold in presenting distant stations. The Monroe site is between Detroit, Windsor, and Toledo yet still has little problem with propagation, while the Evangola site is just outside the Buffalo suburbs but likewise takes in impressive signals from multiple areas.
On the south shore, Lakeside Marblehead is in the precarious position of being the center of a large cluster of small stations, making local interference frustrating and obstructing the signals of more distant stations. However, because of its unique placement of being a peninsula jutting out into the water — just one of a total of five on this lake — signals from all directions across open water are audible. To the east, Buffalo can be heard with South Bend to the west, Kalamazoo and Lansing to the northwest, and Pittsburgh to the southeast. The site is nearby Cedar Point amusement park and an historic lighthouse and is known also for its fishing and nearby islands.
Cleveland, despite its status as a large metropolis, has the protection of most of its powerful stations transmitting from inland suburbs far enough away from the water’s edge to allow plenty of incoming signals, even right downtown. On the other hand, Erie, to the east, is much the opposite. Local interference from the overcrowded market which holds almost all its stations right in town is an area to absolutely avoid. Instead, concentrate on the areas to the east of Erie for the best results where elevation begins to rise. Despite its poor radio climate, Erie’s Presque Isle State Park (free admission), situated on a massive peninsula accessed by a stunning tree-lined boulevard, is still very much worth a visit.
On the north shore of the lake, the peninsulas are the places to go. Point Pelee National Park, while not used as a site, is furthest west near Detoit and Toledo. Rondeau is across from Cleveland, and Long Point is across from Erie. All of them are in a position to receive signals from the east, west, and south, and signals from across Lake Huron to the north, including Alpena, are especially common at Rondeau and Long Point to the point they are almost expected. Long Point, despite the busy dial, is in a perfect location for some great listening, including mountainous West Virginia and Maryland stations, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Detroit, and Alpena. If visiting any one site on Lake Erie, Long Point would be the most highly recommended.
Lastly, Mitchell’s Bay is the only site lying on nearby Lake St. Clair, a part of the Great Lakes system, yet only less than 30 miles wide. Despite being across from Detroit, this lake still brings in stations making it a worthwhile detour for anyone passing through the area.
Like neighboring Lake Erie, Lake Ontario is yet another narrow lake with highly concentrated clusters of stations at each end. The lake is nearly 200 miles long with the Golden Horseshoe (i.e. Toronto and its suburbs) occupying its entire western end and Watertown, Kingston, and Syracuse occupying the opposite end. Rochester, with a large number of local full-power and translator stations, is right between the two ends hoarding any remaining frequencies. On the contrary, the St. Lawrence River provides a valley full of water that extends another 150 miles up to Montréal, with the city thus dumping its signals into Lake Ontario at the river’s Kingston terminus. There are a number of great listening posts between both ends of this lake and while listening isn’t as easy as other lakes, it’s still a very worthwhile endeavor to undertake.
On the east end of the lake, the stretch between Watertown and Syracuse is littered with an unnecessarily large volume of stations interfering with distant catches. The Sackets Harbor site is home to Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Park, a great educational park on the side of any radio listening. This side of the lake is in the easy fringes of the Ottawa market and Montréal is common, both night and day here. Reach for Buffalo, Toronto, London, and Owen Sound stations at this end of the lake on top of signals from behind up the St. Lawrence River valley.
On the other hand, the western end is cluttered with a full dial of stations as would be any large urban area. This does not have to hinder listening entirely from either shore. Toronto and Buffalo stations make the journey to Watertown while Watertown and Kingston stations persist on the Niagara Peninsula. Listening at the Grimsby site is almost not recommended aside from touring the Toronto and Buffalo area bands for fun. The scenery along the escarpment in Grimsby is unparalleled and worthwhile at any time of the year, though not as suitable for listening for distant signals in a spot where the radio situation consistently devolves year after year.
Along the south shore, Thirty Mile Point is a great spot for a lighthouse tour and to explore the Toronto band, which dominates here. While reception distance overall is quite limited, Ottawa stations are common here as they are on much of the south shore, and Erie and Cleveland, which largely have an open water path for much of their journeys, can be readily heard on select frequencies. Montréal is never out of the question here either.
Rochester, just to the east is much the same. Despite it being a fairly large city with many more local stations than is rightfully needed, Ottawa and Montréal are quite easy to hear here, and Toronto is just across the water to the northwest and additional stations can be heard well into Ontario. The park at this site has enough blocking terrain, similar to the Milwaukee site on Lake Michigan, where one need not worry too greatly about the local market stations hampering listening entirely.
Oswego suffers from the same problem as the Watertown and Kingston areas to its north: unnecessary congestion of the FM band. Dozens of stations with their repeaters line these shores making listening painfully annoying, but far from impossible. In fact, although the dial here is congested, Oswego is in a perfect position for the best reception of Toronto across unhindered waters and Buffalo, Ottawa, and Montréal are rather common here as well.
On the north shore of Lake Ontario, the situation improves quickly outside the Toronto area. Darlington, the closest site one should dare bother with in the metro area, is a little too close for comfort to the urban areas. Buffalo, Toronto, and Rochester are all within close proximity to this site in suburban Oshawa. Erie, Syracuse, Utica, and Watertown are about as far as it gets at this spot on an everyday basis. Further east, Presqu’ile and Bath are both in a position for better reception. Presqu’ile is in the center of the shore based on a peninsula and even Rochester, directly across the lake, is more than 50 miles away, close enough to receive lower-powered stations but far enough to allow for distant reception. Being evenly between the east and west shores, this is a fine locale for listening, even for hearing lower-powered translators well into upstate New York. Bath, just outside Kingston, has good potential to cross the lake toward Buffalo, though the large number of stations from Watertown and to the south have a great probability to make matters difficult.
Lake Ontario can be a fabulous lake to explore, both as a tourist and as a radio hobbyist. Scenic roads run close to the shore at all points of this lake and even driving the highways away from the shore, one can easily tune the dial and expect something from a distance. Take time to visit the small towns along these shores and find great sites from which to listen. The commonplace Ottawa and Montréal signals from a distance spice things up and the large number of signals from every shore, while making listening more difficult, also present more available targets.
Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area, called “gichi-gami” in the local Ojibwe language, meaning “great sea.” For radio, this truly is the greatest lake, but it’s not as easy as you would hope it to be. This lake is truly expansive. It covers some of the most remote territory in the region with some of the most difficult listening conditions, but a visit to this lake has the potential to become the most memorable lake of all.
The southeast corner of this lake is perhaps the closest to civilization you may come for many hours. Whitefish Point, home to a magnificent lighthouse and museum, is nearby to popular Tahquamenon Falls. This is a rather remote point despite being close to Sault Ste. Marie, but it is flat and at lake level, a disadvantage on this lake. Ducts over Lake Superior are primarily at a higher elevation than those on the other four lakes. The higher you are, the better it is, so listening along the surface of the water, perfectly suitable on the other lakes, leads to scattered reception on this body of water. To the east of Whitefish Point is Brimley, just outside Sault Ste. Marie. While it is protected by a bay, listening here is still good. It is close enough to Northern Michigan to pull in a lot from the south with both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan not far away.
Heading northward from Sault Ste. Marie, the land becomes more and more sparse, but so does the dial. Batchawana Bay (at Chippewa Falls) is in a position to best receive radio from the south and southwest across the water, somewhat of a rarity along Lake Superior. To the north, Agawa Bay is more than 300 feet above the lake. Here too, signals from the south and southwest dominate, but the added height further enhances conditions. Even in the absence of these conditions, the view here is spectacular, a situation to quickly get used to the closer to the north shore of this lake that you get. With the added elevation here, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are still within earshot on this stretch of shoreline and it isn’t unheard of to pick up a few stations across those lakes. From this point on, civilization quickly drops out of view and nature dominates, with a few small towns on the side.
Nokomis is one of the very few sites on the Great Lakes that requires some true mountain hiking. While it is entirely possible to listen from lake level, the added height here is essential on this lake, and the views from Nokomis Trail are magnificent and highly recommended. As with points to the south, signals from the south and southwest dominate here. Because of the size of the lake and the variable conditions, it is not always possible to hear stations from every shore at one time. From here, just up the shore to the north is the town of Wawa, a good stopping point for the night. Nearby are the few beaches of Michipicoten, as well as a high overlook. All of them are potential stops. Interestingly, this marks the easternmost point of the lake on this stretch of shore and a complete open water path across the lake to Duluth on the opposite shore, 350 miles away, the direct path coming within only a half mile of land on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. This is the furthest possible water path on all of the Great Lakes. Because of the nearby services, Michipicoten can be an especially favorable spot to listen.
Beyond this point, the Trans-Canada Highway moves up to 50 miles inland with the shore accessible only by hiking and boating. The next stop is on the north shore in Marathon. Signals here are beginning to average in the range of 200 miles, meaning half all of signals are in the 200-350 mile range already. The band, without the influence of the lake, would be awfully quiet as it is inland. Terrace Bay, the next stop to the west, marks the only point on the Great Lakes’ shores to top an average of 200 miles. While these may not be the strongest signals heard, they are audible and they are distant. From here, it’s 160 miles of open water to the south with incoming signals scattered across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In addition, if conditions allowed, signals from both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan would be audible here, making this a superb location. Little compares, however, to Kama Bay just to the west of Terrace Bay. At 360 feet above the lake, the view here is stunning and access from the highway is a simple turn and drive up a small hill. While it’s getting close to the local stations in Thunder Bay, signals still stretch far.
The Thunder Bay area lies on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. Ouimet Canyon, although somewhat inland, is a great place to stop and take a listen while sightseeing. At certain times, you can find yourself completely alone here and seeing how far some of the distant signals from Michigan and Wisconsin can travel inland can boggle the mind. Thunder Bay has numerous listening opportunities despite the strong locals. This is the first true grouping of local stations in 8 hours of driving. The Terry Fox monument just northeast of town is one of the best spots to listen in the general Thunder Bay area. The added elevation is essential and it’s just far enough outside downtown to avoid interference.
Heading south and west onto Minnesota’s north shore, Susie Islands is a simple stop alongside the road. The lookout here is a whole 430 feet above lake level, meaning you have very easy access to a high spot, which doubles as an amazing sightseeing opportunity. This is the start of the narrower section of the lake — it’s only 70 miles to Michigan from here — setting up a situation more similar to that of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Signals across this stretch can be very intense. Further to the west lies Palisade Head, one of the most breathtaking locations along Lake Superior and the Great Lakes as a whole. While the overall reception distance isn’t so great on paper, it’s only for the fact that Duluth and Thunder Bay are nearby and the lake here is narrow, allowing for more semi-local reception. Don’t be fooled. Distances go long here, the scenery is amazing, and you’re perched atop cliffs popular with climbers, 215 feet above the water.
Duluth lies at the westermost point of Lake Superior. While it is the economic center of this region, it is also home to every local station under the sun, all of them originating from the same spot overlooking the city. While this many towers all clustered together is actually a very beautiful site and can be seen from more than 20 miles out, it is a nightmare for radio listening targeting anything outside of town. Take some time to enjoy this city, but leave radio as an alternative activity. Because of the narrow bay the city is situated on, conditions here should never be expected across the water.
Heading east on the south shore of Lake Superior, Lake of the Clouds is one truly amazing stop for anyone circling this lake. As the westernmost post in the Eastern Time Zone, the sun sets here at 10 o’clock at its summer peak. Right along the shore of Lake Superior, this site is based at a mountain overlook of Lake of the Clouds, a beautiful inland lake, and lies 720 feet above Lake Superior. In a similar situation, Mt. Brockway overlooking Copper Harbor is at a similar elevation, home to great views and amazing reception. Copper Harbor, with the mountain a few miles outside town, is at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting out into the lake. Conditions from here are variable, much like from Tobermory on Lake Huron. Low-powered signals from across the water are easy to come by here as they commonly are at Lake of the Clouds as well.
To the south and east of the peninsula, conditions return more to an average level. L’Anse is sheltered from the lake by a narrow bay and the peninsula itself, but signals persist here. Marquette, to the east, is cluttered with an unnecessary number of local stations out of proportion to its population. Despite this interference, it is possible on Presque Isle Park’s large peninsula to hear plenty of signals, though if not, a trip through Marquette’s beautiful downtown can still make a visit here worthwhile. To the east of Marquette is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, centered around Munising. Miners Castle is a very popular attraction requiring no boat, and that is a great scenic listening spot in which signals from all directions, including all directions across the water, is common.
Last of all is perhaps the most unique location: Grand Sable Dunes outside Grand Marais. Overlooking Lake Superior at a height of more than 300 feet, this spot is between Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette, just far enough from both markets, and also a fair distance north of the cluster of Northern Michigan stations. It is remote, beautiful, and quiet, both the atmosphere of the dunes, and the radio. Stations here go long on many days, well into Northern Ontario and over 400 miles straight into Québec, making this a very surprising location different from all others. Furthermore, because it is so close to everything else in Michigan as compared to other points on Lake Superior, it is an easily accessible spot not far off the beaten path. For that reason, Grand Sable Dunes is a must-visit spot on this must-visit lake.