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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winter, water-hauling a frigid mix

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WASAGAMACK -- Sam Harper spent his 69th birthday in March hauling drinking water up from frozen Island Lake.

He and his family have a room full of containers that last a week if they ration the water carefully.

The Wasagamack First Nation delivers clean water to elders, but the truck doesn't always make it to Harper's house, about five kilometres away from the water-treatment plant over sometimes snow-blocked roads.

"They've got a lot of people to do," Harper said charitably as he donned his outdoor clothes. "Bad water truck."

He estimates it takes him about six hours to carry the family's 26 small water containers up the slippery bank two at a time and into the house he shares with his wife and grandchild.

"I find myself, once in a while, lying down on the snow because I'm so tired," Harper explained. "Ever since I had my chopper crash, I can hardly breathe sometimes."

Helicopters are the only means of travel between Island Lake communities during spring ice breakup and fall freezing. Two elders and the pilot died in the 1998 crash.

Harper uses an ice chisel to maintain an opening near the shore that doubles as a fishing hole. First, he has to skim off the ice, then dip in his pail.

"It's pretty hard, eh? Especially when it's windy and it's cold," the bare-handed man said as the wind gusted more than 30 kilometres an hour across the open lake.

Harper figures people in tropical countries who live without running water have it easy compared to people in Island Lake.

"We have winter here."

Theresa McDougall is one of the lucky ones, whose family has a 4,000-litre water tank at home, with water delivered a couple of times a week. Thirteen cheerful family members live in the three-bedroom home, and other relatives without running water come by for showers and to wash clothes.

"I need water at least four times a week," said McDougall, known for making some of the best bannock in town.

"I would wash everything. I would wash my house outside, too."

Sometimes, the water-treatment plant breaks down with no warning and the family has to take a snowmobile or boat to fetch water from the middle of the lake where they figure it's cleaner.

Health officials say no one in Manitoba should drink lake or river water without boiling it, but that's a time-consuming prospect when you're running around after a passel of lively grandchildren.

"Sometimes we boil and sometimes we don't," McDougall said.

A 2006 University of Manitoba study on diarrhea reported E. coli present in Island Lake -- no surprise, considering the number of leaky outhouse pits and the amount of sewage dumped on the ground from latrine pails in the lakeside communities.

A nasty strain of E. coli killed seven people in Walkerton, Ont., 10 years ago and made half the community of 5,000 people sick.

"Sometimes the kids have diarrhea and vomiting, especially during the spring," McDougall said. "Maybe it's from the lake."

Louis Wood's family has an outhouse for men and one for the women, but he's running out of room to dig new holes. The land around his home is mostly bedrock, with a high water table under the areas where it is possible to dig.

Harper, meanwhile, would love to have a flush toilet. "You can freeze your ass in there," he said of the family's outhouse.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2010 A1

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