COWAN --The village of Cowan is one of those places you can miss in a blink. There's a general store with gas pumps under a big blue and yellow Tempo sign, a fast-food joint, a fast-food trailer and a clutch of houses strung out along Highway 10 east of Swan River, about a five-hour drive from Winnipeg.
Yet the name Cowan has loomed large on Manitoba's political landscape for decades, all because of a different name -- Harapiak. Three members of the farm family have been NDP cabinet ministers, beginning in 1981 when Harry, now deceased, was elected, followed by Leonard, then their sister, Rosann Wowchuk, the current NDP finance minister and minister for Manitoba Hydro.
Given that the Harapiaks put Cowan on the map, you might think that Cowaninians support Wowchuk's defence of the decision to force Hydro to move Bipole 3 from the east to the west side of Manitoba, and perhaps they do.
But eight of nine people I interviewed in Cowan, including two of Wowchuk's relatives, think it's a dumb idea to waste $1 billion to move the line from an uninhabited east-side wilderness to a built-up agrarian breadbasket where tens of thousands will be forced to work around what amounts to a colossal blight on the landscape, including right there at Cowan where the line jogs just far enough east to skirt most farmland, including lands worked or owned by Wowchuks and Harapiaks.
The one person I spoke to who defended the west-side route was Tony Blazenko, whose property is one of the few in Cowan Bipole 3 is to traverse. He said when a letter arrived from Manitoba Hydro, "My first thought was not in my backyard." But then he discovered it crossed a field kilometres from his home. "So it doesn't really affect me. I've lived with worse."
BUT let's go back to the beginning.
Six years ago, I made the first of three forays up the east side of Manitoba -- twice by winter road and once by air in summer.
The first trip convinced me that Bipole 3 not only should go up the east side, as Hydro had planned for decades, but that it should be routed so as to provide a path for an all-season road that could end the isolation of 16 east-side communities and reduce the staggering costs of living that dependence on air transportation creates.
In the intervening years, the NDP government came to the wrong-headed decision to keep the east side "pristine" by forcing the line to the west side, a plan that will actually degrade the efficiency and reliability of the bipole network while destroying equal amounts of "pristine" forest and adding $1 billion to the cost of Bipole 3.
At the same time, the government announced it will build an east-side road that is more problematic for a "pristine" wilderness than a bipole and will add tens of millions to the ballooning costs of the west-side folly.
Better, obviously, would be to forgo the $1 billion wasted to make the west bipole 480 kilometres longer than the east bipole, build the east bipole and use the savings to build an east-side road all the while maintaining the integrity of the bipole system.
Having seen the east side, and with the bipole's future an issue in the Oct. 4 provincial election, it seemed like a good time to travel the west side to see what Manitobans there think about bipole politics.
I began by driving 635 kilometres to The Pas with the intention of following the "preferred" route of Bipole 3 from there south.
The 1,364-kilometre route begins much farther north at the proposed Keewatinnoow converter station on the Nelson River at Conawapa and travels south to the proposed Riel converter station east of Winnipeg. The line is divided into 13 sections, the first five of which pass through trackless "pristine" boreal forest north of The Pas.
The remaining eight sections, however, traverse increasingly built-up territories serviced by roads that make it possible to meet the folks who will have to live with Bipole 3 for the rest of their natural lives. I suspected they would have something to say about the NDP's decision to move 45-metre towers into their backyards where they would blight vistas and interfere with farming.
The drive to The Pas was instructive. The existing Bipole 1 and 2 parallel much of Highway 6 and frequently the two paths intersect, the great cables sagging between towers spaced about half a kilometre apart.
You can't miss them in farming districts, where, as suspected, most folks are strung out over the prospect of the bipole. But, for all their size, they vanish from sight in forested areas, as they would on the east side where, 99 per cent of the time, there is no one to see or hear them.
And you can hear them. I stopped north of Ashern and stood under a bipole line. I was surprised by how noisy they are, humming like motors with occasional electrifying zaps and sizzles punctuating the drone.
THAT you can't see the line for the forest made me suspect I wouldn't find much resistance to Bipole 3 at The Pas -- and I didn't.
The preferred route bypasses The Pas far to the east where it will be out of sight and mind.
At the Opasquia Times, I learned that when Hydro held public consultations last year, it was expected there might be a packed house and a lively discussion of the options. Instead, only a few cottagers showed up, and when the few learned the line would not cross their properties -- or their eyes -- they left with no further questions.
"It was anticlimactic," I was told.
At the Times, I also heard a puzzlement that would become a constant refrain on the west side: If the government is stopping a bipole on the east side to keep it "pristine," why has it promised to build an all-weather road there that will be far more intrusive than passive hydro lines?
"It just doesn't hold water," Murray Harvey, retired Times publisher, said at his home east of the town. "The decision is a mystery."
NEXT stop was the village of Mafeking, 250 kilometres south of The Pas on Highway 10.
Mafeking roughly marks the end of the boreal forest on the west side and the start of the agriculture zone. Land in the region is not as productive as the Carrot River Valley at The Pas, or practically any land south of Swan River. It is best suited to cattle and forage.
It was there I met Howard Parker, a farmer who had parked his tractor and round hay bailer outside a general store from which he emerged with a cold drink in hand. The heat wave that had been baking Winnipeg was baking the north, too.
Parker said his farm, where he has lived for 65 years, is the only one at Mafeking that Bipole 3 will traverse.
Asked if he wants the line he says "I don't really, but it's only one quarter of six so I guess it's not too bad."
He said Hydro "sent papers" informing him of his fate, but he has no idea what he might expect in compensation or what he might do if it's inadequate.
"All I know is that I won't be able to stop it."
WUSKWI SIPIHK FIRST NATION
THE thing about small communities like the Wuskwi Sipihk (Birch River) First Nation, south of Mafeking, is everybody knows everybody. Which meant it took no time at all to find myself knocking the door of the community's land manager, Craig Stevens.
Bipole 3 is slated to pass through the band's traditional lands and I expected Stevens would tell me the community, as many others are doing, will resist. But no.
"I'm all for it myself," he said. "If they (Hydro) are willing to come and offer our community something, that's a good thing for our community."
He said Hydro has told the community it can apply for a share of a community-development fund that promises to pay out $5 million a year for 10 years, a total of $50 million.
He said Hydro did not indicate how much money the First Nation might be eligible to receive or just how band members might get jobs building the line or skills training, but at least it was being raised.
"Maybe we could get some recreational facilities, a few ball diamonds," he said.
EMBROILED as it has been with the issue of an indoor swimming pool, Swan River is largely indifferent to the issue of Bipole 3, said Derek Holtman, who recently resigned as editor of the Swan Valley Times after 11 years on the job.
"We'd get lots of letters about it from people outside Swan River," he said. "But people inside didn't give two rats."
He said while additional costs of the west-side line concern some, the fact is the line will pass 40 kilometres to the east and that's "far away enough" that the town and valley are out-of-sight, out-of-mind zones.
He said he personally believes the power losses the 480 extra kilometres of line will create constitutes an "environmental issue that's worse than cutting through (east-side) forest, which they are going to do anyway for that (east-side) road."
THIS Métis community of about 650 on the west shore of Lake Winnipegosis is of at least two minds on the issue of Bipole 3, which is to pass an undetermined distance to the west.
A year ago, the community council rejected the line. Today, Mayor Nestor Chartrand is not so sure.
"Back in the fall, we didn't want it," he said. "Now, if it's going to come anyway, we might as well have some compensation."
Chartrand said some are concerned that the electromagnetic field around the line will cause health risks, others think it makes sense to follow the cheaper east-side route, while others believe there might be jobs to be had. "So they say."
But the bottom line is there isn't a bottom line.
"Everyone's changing their minds every day," Chartrand said. "We're hoping the engineers and politicians will give us a safe alternative."
ERNEST (Foxy) Clarkson pumps gas at his gas bar from behind a wall of monster sandbags at the south end of Lake Winnipegosis.
"All along the lake it's water that people are concerned about, not a power line," he says. "The lake's so high we can't even put cows to pasture -- they'd sink out of sight."
At heart, however, Clarkson is a Winnipegosis booster and is for anything that will improve the local economy.
"We proposed a wind farm here but, no, they moved it south for rich farmers who don't need it.
"An east-side line won't benefit Winnipegosis one bit. But if it came here at least they might buy some gas and stuff from the village."
STE. ROSE DU LAC
THEY require a $100 deposit to book a $52 room at the Chicken Chef and motel in Ste. Rose du Lac, the Cattle Capital of Manitoba.
The deposit has the effect of enforcing a no-smoking, no-damage policy. It costs $4 for an additional guest but $20 for pets, and any mess the pets make is the responsibility of the guest. "Rags" are provided to discourage the use of towels for "cleaning jobs."
It's a seemingly harsh, take-it-or-leave it policy but it's also eminently fair -- rooms are comfortable, clean, maintained, odour-free. There's an indoor corridor that leads to the restaurant, a nice touch in winter, and, at $52 a night, it's steal of a deal.
"My wife and I are non-smokers," Vern Tocher explained. "We didn't want the stench in the rooms, and we wanted to provide good value. We've gained more business than we lost as a result."
Tocher said the same kind of common-sense economics should apply to the routing of Bipole 3.
"They want to keep the east side pristine. But at what cost and for whom? It has to make economic sense, and isn't the province already in financial trouble?
"It seems to me that the focus should be on the economics, and that's the other (east) side. It's you and me that's paying for it."
EBB AND FLOW FIRST NATION
UNLIKE the 16 isolated First Nations on the east side, the Ebb and Flow First Nation is served by a highway and is within easy driving distance of the goods and services a modern community might expect.
That asphalt might not explain why the housing stock at Ebb and Flow is superior to everything I've seen on the east side, why the health and community centres are modern and shipshape, why the band offices are clean and professional in dealing with the public, or why the place feels so much more prosperous than east-side communities, but it couldn't have hurt, either.
I put these observations about the relative wealth of the isolated east side and west side to the chief of the fire and water rescue unit, who did not want to be named. He responded succinctly.
"But we're not isolated."
They're not rolling over, either.
Chief Nelson Houle says he is seeking an injunction to block Bipole 3 -- maybe even the operation of the Wuskawtim generating station -- in order to force Manitoba Hydro to deal with flooding issues on Lake Manitoba.
More than 40 per cent of the reserve is under water this year, a problem that has persisted since the drought of 2003, after which Hydro began using the lake as a reservoir to the detriment of every community on the lake, he charges.
He says if Hydro wants to profit from expansion, it cannot do so at the expense of west-side communities.
"We had a meeting and all they (Hydro) want to talk about is the bipole, not flooding, and so we say no."
ABOUT 100 kilometres of submerged shoreline south at Langruth, however, they say "yes."
"A lot of people here feel it's the expensive way, but not the wise one," Reeve Philip Thordarson said.
Some of that unnecessary expense, however, will end up in Langruth coffers and that is a benefit the 102-year-old rural municipality with a shrinking population of 350 can't ignore.
Thordarson said Langruth has been offered $25,000 a year compensation for 10 years -- $250,000 to hold its nose and allow the Bipole 3 to pass through.
"We're happy to have the income, not so happy to have the line," he said. "It'll pass west of Langruth through mostly pasture so it won't impact our farmers too much."
IF Westbourne Surplus is not the last army surplus store in Manitoba, it certainly is the last store with a Sherman tank turret guarding the front door.
And it's that idea -- protecting one's interests -- on which owner Al McMaster reflects when he talks about Bipole 3.
On the one hand, McMaster says when he thought the line would cross some marginal rural land he owns, making him eligible for compensation, it "was welcome."
"If I were a farmer, I would grab the money."
But then he discovered the line would pass near his property, which will lead to loss of value with no compensated upside, and his enthusiasm waned.
"I wouldn't want to look at it, that's for sure," he says.
In that, McMaster is in step with the council of the RM of Westbourne, which has taken a stand against the west-side route.
"Our council believes it should be going on the east side," Reeve Dave Single said. "It (west side) is not only 1.5 times as long, and will cost 1.5 times as much, it's going through farmland."
Single thinks it can be stopped.
"We're voting Conservative," he said.
THE 360-degree view from Monty Kerr's wheat fields south of Highway 16 was as follows: clumps of bush on the horizon, a grain elevator, a green combine blowing a cloud of golden dust, a row of silver storage bins, a lone tree, more storage bins, fields of golden flax, a barn, a farmhouse in a copse of trees and rows of swathed wheat. There was not a cloud in sight nor a single hydro line.
"It's supposed to go right up here," Kerr says, standing at a plowed line that marks the boundary of his land from that of a neighbour.
"It's going to be a nuisance, a big ugly nuisance."
Kerr said at first he opposed the line because of its impact on the land and landscape. But then he became concerned about the cost to ratepayers of moving it and extending it by 480 kilometres.
"The line has to go somewhere, but why here?"
"You live in Winnipeg," he continued. "You want to go to Grand Forks. Would you start by driving to Brandon? It's nonsense."
He's right. At the junction of Highways 16 and 50, there's a sign that says "Winnipeg 110 kilometres." But to get to Winnipeg following Bipole 3, I was looking at a 350-kilometre loop across southern Manitoba to the far side of the city.
It seems a lot of unnecessary wire creating a lot of unnecessary problems for people in southern Manitoba, and it is.
Remember, Bipole 3 is being built, first and foremost, for security purposes. The existing two bipoles run down the centre of Manitoba along a common corridor. A tornado in 1996 knocked them both down at once, leading to the decision to create Bipole 3 on the east side of Manitoba, far from existing lines.
The shorter east-side line would have a simple, direct path to the proposed Riel converter station east of Winnipeg.
But the west line can't take a straight path (the 110 kilometres to Winnipeg) because that would bring it so close to the existing lines, it would provide no security at all.
So instead of simply coming to Winnipeg from the east, it comes down the west side and then continues south to Ste. Claude, east to Niverville and north to Winnipeg to ensure it actually provides the security it was intended to provide.
Kerr, like many others, said he could not understand what is being preserved on the east side.
He said back in the day he drove semis on east-side winter roads through the "pristine" forest.
"I can tell you, it ain't much of a forest. And if they want to save that forest, why are they building a road? I could see it if they were building both at the same time on the east side."
NEAR STE. CLAUDE
THE De Rocquingny farm east of Ste. Claude is a huge, cattle, dairy, grain and hay operation marking its 100th anniversary as a family farm this year.
Bert De Rocquingny figures Hydro wants to plant 17 bipole towers on the farm's 38 quarter sections -- an area of more than eight square miles.
At a guesstimated $10,000 compensation per pole, that amounts to a one-time payment of $170,000.
"You've seen our operation," Bert says after a tour. "A hundred and seventy thousand is not enough to sell us on this thing."
Bert takes me to the 150-cow dairy operation, where stray electricity leaking from hydro lines was grounding on steel rebar in the concrete floor of the barn and shocking cows. Hydro eventually fixed the problem by redesigning the regional grid, he said.
Bert believes if rural service lines can create dangerous stray-electricity problems, a 500,000-volt bipole could prove disastrous, especially given that the area is riddled with underground streams and government regulations have forced the family to build a massive steel manure holding tank that could act like an electricity magnet.
The same regulations that brought the storage tank led to the development of what is now a common method of spreading manure -- and it's not the simple manure wagons of yore.
Instead, manure slurry is spread on fields using applicators that inject it to precise depths and in controlled amounts dictated by soil analysis.
But it gets more complicated, and bipole-unfriendly.
The applicators are attached to the holding tank by a two-kilometre-long slurry pipe that is dragged back and forth across fields in a grid pattern that requires no impediments -- such as hydro towers.
And then, there is the concern that magnetic waves the lines give off could adversely affect cattle fertility.
"Hydro says we don't have to worry about these things," Bert says. "But what if? It's all the unknowns. The reps can say what they want -- that it won't affect spray planes or GPS or cows or stray electricity. But what if? They can't compensate enough to deal with the what-ifs.
"I wouldn't have a problem if this was the shortest route, but it isn't.
"I'm a farmer and I work for efficiency. That's how we get by. But this isn't efficiency. If I ran my farm like that, I'd go broke."
FOR 19 years, Michael Hertzel, 42, worked as a millwright for Mercedes-Benz in Germany and dreamed of moving to the Canadian Prairies where the view was uninterrupted to the horizon.
He and his wife Annette got so into the fantasy that they built a wheeled cart and mushed huskies through the parks of Stuttgart where they lived.
Then, six years ago, they made their move, to Manitoba, got jobs and found the perfect place -- a 320-acre hobby farm where they have pursued their passions for horses, restoring old vehicles and mushing dogs in the winter.
And then, they discovered Hydro wants to string Bipole 3 a stones's throw from their house and right through their view of the horizon.
"Everything is still in its original condition," Hertzel says. "Rolling hills, meadows and bush. It's so perfect for us and the way we want to keep it.
"I was shocked. That's it. Dream gone."
Hertzel says he will fight Bipole 3 with every means available.
"The only way they'll cross this land is through expropriation," he says. "No money in the world would buy our agreement. We won't back down. There's too much at stake."
JOHN and Helene Graffland moved to Manitoba 35 years ago from Holland to start a beef operation.
Then a few years ago they decided to retire, sold all but about 80 acres of land and used the money to build their retirement "dream house" only to learn Bipole 3 is to cross their horizon 200 metres from the house.
"It doesn't fit here in the landscape," Helene said. "But we have no right to say we don't want it here."
She's right, of course. The owner of the adjacent farm can do what he wants with his property. And Helene says what he wants is to take compensation money that will help finance his retirement and move from the area.
In fact, the whole compensation issue creates a kind of prisoner's dilemma for farmers.
If the line is routed across a farmer's fields, he could say no, only to see the line appear anyway one field over on a neighbour's property.
The dilemma is a source of friction -- dividing communities and neighbours -- right down the line.
MOST crops grown in Manitoba -- the world, for that matter -- have been studied to the point that farmers can consult tables that tell him exactly when to apply exactly what inputs to produce -- or prevent -- certain outcomes.
It's called an economic threshold.
In canola, the biggest cash crop in Manitoba, there are thresholds for infestations by different bugs -- both diseases and insects. The threshold for diamondback moths, for example, is six bugs per plant at the current price for canola. If the number is below six, then it's likely not worth paying to kill them -- the cost of applying insecticide would be greater than the damage the moths can inflict.
But once the number exceeds the threshold, then the infestation proceeds exponentially and the losses increase lockstep, thus justifying the cost of applying insecticide.
The quickest and most effective way to apply the remedy is by air, with "crop-dusters" -- not the little biplanes of days gone by, but modern, turboprop airplanes worth $1 million and capable of inoculating a quarter section (160 acres) in 20 minutes. One thousand acres of crop can be saved in a day. In modern agriculture, time truly is money.
"That's the whole point of aerial application in agriculture," Reg Friesen, owner of Prairie Sky Aviation said. "You get a superior application faster. And if it's too wet to do it from the ground, it's the only option."
Friesen said, however, the introduction of Bipole 3 into the mix will make it impossible to carry out modern crop-dusting operations anywhere near its path. When he explained the complications at public meetings, officials responded that he should simply increase his prices, he said, a suggestion that still rankles as the height of ignorant arrogance.
That the bipole will hinder farming practices is a given on the east and west routes, he says. "But only about five per cent of its path is on agricultural land on the east side. On the west side it's 33 per cent, and it's for the next 150 years."
Friesen's crop-dusting company is only one wing, shall we say, of his family's farm, which includes 1,000 acres of grain, seed and feed operations and crop-inspection services.
He says neither the NDP government nor Manitoba Hydro seem to understand the technical intricacies of modern farming, nor the scale of operations.
"Over the past 20 years, the size of the average farm has increased from about 900 acres to about 2,200 acres."
One of those big farms, an 1,800-acre grain, poultry and hog operation a few kilometres up the road, belongs to Friesen's cousin Larry and his wife Karen Friesen.
Karen said she had not heard of Bipole 3 until a notice arrived a year ago July informing her that Hydro planned to string the line across her home quarter and about 200 metres from her sunroom view of the Prairie sky.
"At first I was just NIMBY (not in my backyard)," she said. But then she went to a "stakeholders" meeting in September (when her husband, like most other affected farmers, was in the field) and heard former Hydro CEO Len Bateman denounce the west-side decision.
"That was the first time I realized that people other than farmers were concerned," she said.
One thing led to another and, before she knew it, she was the president of Bipole 3 Coalition, a network of engineers, retired Hydro executives, farmers and others determined to stop Bipole 3 for technical, logical and financial reasons -- not political ones.
She said there are so many reasons why Bipole 3 should go back to the east side where it will disrupt nothing and no one.
"Maybe it's because I'm a mom, but living close to these big electromagnetic fields... Hydro says there is 'no evidence' that they are harmful, but there's a lot of suspicion.
"And there was an alternative that nobody -- not one of the 16 (east-side) First Nations -- would be affected.
"Now that I see the big picture I'm not fighting just for my farm," Friesen said. "I'm fighting because it's wrong."