There's a lot of folklore and legend surrounding the Great Lakes, which are responsible for more than 30,000 mariner deaths and 6,000 shipwrecks.
An East Dundee man is among a group who details life on those waters with "Great Lake Warriors," an eight-part reality television series that chronicles the lives of captains and their crew as they navigate tugboats through those treacherous waters or, as George Houde says, live "the tug life."
Houde is one of six executive producers on the series that premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on the History Channel.
Houde, 64, a journalist, is also a recreational sailor who runs Compass Point Productions with partners Marty Bernstein and James Campbell, who are also executive producers on "Warriors." Compass Point produces reality programs and documentaries.
"We wanted to do something about the Great Lakes because it's just this huge area that is still vital in the nation's commerce and has this great history dating back to the time of the explorers," said Houde, who used to work for the Elgin Courier-News and now freelances for the Chicago Tribune.
Tugboats push and pull cargo, tow ships, break ice in harbors and sometimes help with search and rescue missions. It's an insular world, where everyone knows each other and they "either buddy up or swear at each other," Houde said.
The documentary highlights some of the colorful captains and crews involved in this line of work.
There's Captain John Selvick, a legend on the lakes who has been sailing them since he was 7 years old and lost a brother and grandfather to tugboat accidents. Selvick owns Calumet River Fleeting in Chicago and Selvick Marine Towing in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
Captain Mike Ojard used his life savings to start a tug company in Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior, in hopes of creating a new generation of sailors in his family and competing with some of the larger companies.
"All the characters in that series are cut from that tough stuff," said Jonathan Towers, executive producer and owner of Towers Productions, which is producing the series in association with Compass. "And they're always on the razor's edge."
It can be a lonely, dangerous life on the waters.
The captains are away from their families weeks at a time and risk their lives every time they go out.
They're always in danger of falling overboard or getting crushed. If there's too much ice on deck, the boat can even roll over. The elements, waves and weather present additional obstacles.
The History Channel jumped on the project because the documentaries it previously aired about the Great Lakes always did well, said Dirk Hoogstra, the History Channel's senior vice president for programming and development.
"We as a network, and as a country, love the story of America's inland sea and the heroes who brave its dangerous waters," Hoogstra said via email.
Filming took place on Lake Michigan -- including Calumet Harbor in Illinois; Gary and Burns Harbor in Indiana; Milwaukee, Oak Creek, Sturgeon Bay and Marinette in Wisconsin -- and on Lake Superior, including Duluth-Superior Harbor and Thunder Bay in Ontario.
Filming started in May 2009 and wrapped last February. In May 2011, the group presented a show demo to the History Channel, which was impressed and gave the project the green light. The station's 9 p.m. time slot averages 2.4 million viewers.
"It was a long process, but we're glad the History Channel believed in it," Houde said. "We're very excited and we think it's going to be a great show. I think people will really like these characters."