Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beside the lake

This story was awarded an honourable mention in the 2012 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers Collective Non-Fiction Writing Contest

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"If the worst happens, where would you like to live?" the Red Cross worker asks.

This is not a question I want to consider. I can't find an answer, no matter how I agonize.

Lake Manitoba is at 811 feet above sea level as the spring melt begins. High, but not too scary. I'm thrilled by the tiny beach visible between our deck and the frozen lake rim.

Red-winged blackbirds twitter, the spring sun warms our backs. We know the lake is high, but my walking buddy and I assure each other, "The marsh will never cross the road." The predictions must be wrong, we agree as we pass people fussing with sandbags, trucks taking furniture away and clusters of neighbours arguing about the best way to prepare for flooding.

Within a week we are at 812 feet. I invite friends out to celebrate my birthday. There have been forecasts of north winds pushing up massive ice chunks that could crush our homes. But this April evening is warm. Outside on the deck, the house shields us from the strong south wind that blows danger away. We laugh about the non-existent flood.

In May, the ice threat is over but the lake continues to rise. I plant my annuals in their buckets, pleased with the continuing sunshine. My husband, Roland, waves a cheery goodbye as he heads for town. I go inside to shape the risen dough into loaves for baking.

The residents' blog reports 813 feet.

"We have to get the vehicles to higher ground," Roland says on his return.

"Impossible. I was out back an hour ago. Everything looked fine."

"Not anymore."

The marsh waters have crept across the road to cover our driveway. We can still get out driving slowly.

From four kilometres away, the Assiniboine River Diversion roars. We hear it inside with the windows closed. I turn up the radio.

We're at 814 feet.

Mountains of government-supplied sandbags appear along the highway for disbursement to residents. We decide to follow the trend, use a few just in case. I set out soup and buns alongside my neighbour's offerings. Miraculously, dozens of people arrive to heft bags, laugh, chat, eat and enjoy a warm, sunny day at the beach. I feel silly asking all those strangers to help when I know nothing will happen. At the end of the day, Roland takes a picture of me flexing my biceps on top of the snowy pile on our deck. I'd post a picture on Facebook if I knew how.

A day later, the fierce north wind sends waves that toss the sandbags like marshmallows and scatter them everywhere. It was a wasted effort.

"I promised our granddaughters I'd visit for a week.

"Will you be OK?" I ask Roland.

"Sure," he says. "While you're away, I'll gather up those sandbags and put them in superbags."

Each superbag holds 100 regular bags.

"You'll do that by yourself?" "Yes. The flow of volunteers has dried up."

As I drive along the Trans-Canada Highway, relentless rain slashed my windshield. I once taught high school students that water from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan drains into the Assiniboine River and flows east toward Winnipeg. The geography textbook didn't include the fact that high water from the Assiniboine is diverted into Lake Manitoba. I ignore waterlogged fields and ditches. They have nothing to do with me.

In Alberta, my stomach unclenches. I didn't know I'd been tense.

The lake level reaches 815 feet. My daughter-in-law and I return from a pleasant morning of shopping and lunch in Lethbridge to find Roland's voice on the answering machine.

"I'm evacuating. Big storm. Nothing more I can do."

Headlines across the country report 90 km/h winds devastating Lake Manitoba's south basin. Free Press photographs show our house still standing amid the wreckage. My neck, shoulders and heart ache as I rush back to find Roland safe.

Our pastor offered to send help.

"We can manage," my independent husband replied.

The new reality has smashed my absurd optimism. I see nothing but disaster -- trees uprooted, broken decks, stairs and railroad ties jammed all around and under our home. The superbags rolled to one side, deck ripped away.

I weep, then insist that I'm calling the pastor back, along with everyone else who offered to help.

Two days of backbreaking struggle and youthful cheer provide a start. Roland stays under the house with his chainsaw, cutting up the massive debris while the rest of us haul it away. Our contemporaries send food, messages of support and apologies for bad backs.

Lake level reaches 816 feet and every breeze from the north carries the potential of more destruction. A mere 60 km/h north wind creates a threatening rise of four feet, topped by three-foot waves. Our muscles grow. Retirees turned manual labourers. With mandatory evacuation and security guards to control access, only a half-dozen residents remain. Everyone must be prepared to leave at a moment's notice.

Boom! The house shudders, as do I. Relax, just another load of rocks delivered. Crash! A neighbour's home demolished. Beep, beeping! Skids backing up. I cover my ears. I still see helicopters circling. There's the premier, the prime minister, observing the results of their decisions from a safe distance.

At 817.5 feet, the mailboxes are moved to higher ground. We decide to redirect our mail.

"Where do you live?" asks the postal worker.

Confusion, long pause, headache, flood-victim brain. We have evacuated, stayed with friends, evacuated again.

"Sorry, give me a minute."

A very expensive wall of rock replaces our protective sandbars and we begin the battle for compensation, a more traumatic experience than nature's fury.

Them: "We don't pay for rocks, only earth berms."

Us: "Ever been to Delta? A good wind would dissolve a berm in minutes."

Them: "Oops. Lost all your paperwork. Please send the information again."

Us: "For the third time?"

We attend the folk festival, camp at Grand Beach, visit friends at Falcon Lake. It feels like a strange dream, wrong place at the wrong time, unable to hear the real sounds of summer -- our grandchildren playing in the Delta sand, neighbours calling for us to join them by an evening fire, gulls screeching around he sandbars.

On a hot summer Sunday in July we park on the highway, don rubber boots, trail along abandoned cottages to reach home. In the eerie silence, we are the only people left in the world. It's hot, but what does the water hide below its smooth surface? Jagged beams? Boards with nails? Shattered windows? We pull on our water-socks and venture in carefully. Ahh, our lake still offers cool relief.

In August, we paddle the canoe down the back road, moving to one side for rock-laden dump trucks to avoid being swamped. An excursion along the swollen lakeshore in a neighbour's dinghy: So many homes teeter into the water, broken into pieces; rooms with no walls still offer arrangements of sofas and chairs.

Lake level 816.9 feet. We hold our breath. Occasional strong winds produce wild waves that crash against our rock wall and splash up to the second-storey windows. Roads appear, disappear, depending on the direction of the wind. We dread the annual fall storm that could remove the whole Delta ridge. It never comes.

We are blessed with time to raise road access, lift the shed, build protective shutters, fix the cellar, replace septic insulation until winter delivers frozen stability -- no water rising, no damaging waves. We must rest while keeping track of expenses, filling the work log and visiting the flood-recovery office. Fears of next spring's ice melt linger but, for sanity's sake, we practise our new mantra: "Wait and see."

Under the ice, nature creates a miracle. Sand pushes up against rocks. The spring melt is uneventful and reveals a newly formed beach, wider than last year's in spite of the higher lake level.

Lake level 814 feet. Rock walls line the shore. The cleanup frenzy intensifies as neighbours return. Summer winds bring more sand, prayers for hot, dry weather are answered. From our perch on the rock wall, sunset bestows the most spectacular kaleidoscope of brilliant colour on the planet.

Lake level 813 feet. Low enough for comfort.

Where else would I like to live? Nowhere else on Earth.

 

This is the first of six winning entries in the 2012 non-fiction contest.

 

BOXING DAY: WILDERNESS

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2012 A1

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