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Rediscovering Lakeland

by Allan Casey

Photo: Allan Casey

Rediscovering Lakeland was, as the name suggests, about seeing something already known, but with fresh eyes. Lakes, and access to them, are central to the Canadian way of life, our culture of recreation, our history. They define the landscape and tell the story of our natural history.

For a whole variety of reasons, Canadians take their access to lakes much for granted. This happens when people have a lot of something, and there a lot of lakes in this country. Probably the presence of Canada’s Great Lakes have somewhat eclipsed attention paid to all the rest. And there are many. Depending on how you define them, there are perhaps five million lakes worldwide. Thanks to our glacial history, Canada has roughly sixty percent of the total all to itself. Relatively pristine lakes are still easily accessible from every urban centre in the country. It is difficult for many Canadians to imagine not being able to visit a lake. In fact, this experience is quite unknown in most of the world.

The lakes chosen as destinations for this expedition are mostly southerly, and well-known at least regionally. This needs some explaining. While almost any Manitoban will know all about Lake of the Woods in nearby Ontario, they may know nothing about the “ponds” of western Newfoundland in Gros Morne National Park. And vice versa. It is big country, after all. Those were two of the destinations. From west to east the other main destinations were: Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Lake Athabasca in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Lake Nipissing, Ontario, Lac Saint-Jean in Quebec, and Bras d’Or Lake, Nova Scotia.

These destinations were reached in a number of linked journeys, and at different seasons, the most distant east and west by air, the rest overland. Lakes visited ranged in altitude from 2300 meters in the Southern Rockies to virtually sea level in Newfoundland. I crossed Lake Athabasca over the winter ice road in February. I sailed up Reindeer Lake with a team member at the June solstice aboard our sailing vessel Neoma, which I built especially to explore Canadian lakes for this project and future ones. I made a particular effort to get out on the water with knowledgeable local people in their own vessels. To list a few examples: I traveled on the 30-metre research ship Namao on Lake Winnipeg. I went aboard with a barge operator on Lake of the Woods. On Lake Nipissing I joined fishery field technicians conducting catch interviews with anglers.

Whether afloat or ashore, the purpose of the whole expedition was not only to experience natural spaces, but to meet people who inhabit lake areas, either seasonally or year round. It was an attempt to understand some of the commonalities — and regional differences — of the Canadian lake experience. The local differences are fascinating. In Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, foreign visitors are heavy users of lakes. The mainland province has deep traditional ties with the American east — the Boston States in local parlance — and US citizens who visit in the summer have long been a mainstay of summer business. Thanks to cheap flights in the modern era, Europeans too are frequent visitors. Lac Saint-Jean is arguably the heartland of traditional Quebecois culture, and the small towns around the shores represent some of oldest and richest lake cultures of the places visited. I visited during the running of the 53rd Annual Traversée du Lac Saint-Jean, the 32-kilometre swimming race across the lake held each summer.

The similarities, as expected, far outweighed the differences. Across the country, lake access is a large element in the quality of life of average citizens. Canadians equate lake life with the good life, and demand for access to lakes has created a number of pressing challenges. High prices for lakefront property have driven some excessive development in a number of areas, particularly the Okanagan Lake valley which contains some of the most important bio-diversity “hotspots” in the country. Not everyone needs a lakefront property to experience lakeland, but rising affluence have made some lake area less accessible to people of more modest incomes. Elitism is emerging as a much larger problem in our lake areas than it was just a few years ago.

Ecological problems exist, and here too there are both commonalities and local differences. Eutrophication — essentially a condition of algal over-growth caused by manmade nitrogen and phosphorus pollution — is the common threat to all lakes situated below population centers within their watershed. Lake Winnipeg has reached a critical stage, but echoes of the problem are found across Canada. Blooms of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, have been seen in may areas and are a common cause of swimming bans.

On Lake Okanagan the opposite problem exists. The lake is already nutrient-poor, taking its run-off from high, rocky slopes. Extensive dams and upstream water management have further prevented nutrients from reaching the lake. The kokanee salmon, a “keystone” species in the lake, has been reduced to a small fraction of its former population.

If the generosity and interest of people I met along the way is any measure, the expedition has been a great success in spreading geographical knowledge. I have interviewed scores of people in the course of the project, and met hundreds. Grassroots conservation organizations across the country exist and are beginning to connect with each other toward common goals. One introduction has usually lead to more. In some instances, I have been able to return the favour, connecting a group of people in one area with another group doing similar work elsewhere. All the people I met were excited about contributing ideas towards a book on the subject of Canadian lakes, a large subject overdue for examination.

I should mention that endorsement by the RCGS itself helped open doors. The attention of a worthy organization was encouraging to the many people I met who working to bring attention to lake issues, and to protect Canada’s lakeland for the future.

As you will be aware, two feature articles related to this work have been, or will be, accepted for publication in Canadian Geographic. One looked at Lake Winnipeg (November-December 2006), and the next addresses Okanagan Lake. As promised, all of this material will be gathered into a book to be published by Greystone Books in the spring.

I am attaching the introductory chapter of the book in draft form in case some quotation from it may serve your purposes.

The one unavoidable difficulty with such an expedition is that the research window was too short, the country too large. The work begun with this project has already led to plans for future ones.

I wish to thank the RCGS for its generous financial support of the expedition.

Allan Casey


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