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The following comes from the journal of Daniel Harmon, a fur trader who worked for the North West Company in the western interior of Canada. While he was at Swan River Fort, spring runoff was unusually high:

April 19, 1801. Sunday. On Friday last there fell nearly a foot of Snow, which however soon dissolved and caused the River to overflow its Bank to such a distance as to oblige our People who were making Sugar to leave the Woods and come to the Fort.

May 10, Sunday. It has for three successive Days Rained constantly, which caused the water in the River to rise since yesterday four feet. Yesterday one of our Men went a shooting Ducks, but lost his way and therefore was under the necessity of passing the night in the wood, with nothing to cover himself from the cold & Rain that poured down in torrents…

May 13, Wednesday. The late Rains we have had has caused this River to overflow its banks to such an uncommon distance, that this morning when I arose I was not a little surprised to find Seven Inches of water on the first floor, which is what the oldest person here does not remember to have seen before, and we are obliged to leave our Fort and Pitch our Tents on a small rise of Ground no great distance off, and where we shall remain till the deluge is past.

May 20, Wednesday. The water has left the Fort and we with pleasure quite our Tents to occupy our former Dwellings.

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RM of Kelsey Reeve Rod Berezowecki at dyke fall 2011

RM of Kelsey marking future gates along Rall’s Island dyke, fall 2011

In the spring of 2011, there was water, water everywhere in western Canada.

Amidst the media concern for floods in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan — the Hoop and Holler break, the village of Roche Percee, incredible damage at Minot, ND — all the water from the entire North and South Saskatchewan River system was heading for The Pas. This wasn’t news — after all, all the water from both the North and South Saskatchewan River system (that which is not drained off for irrigation, kept in lakes behind dams, seeps into the soil or lifts off into the atmosphere) ends up at The Pas. It’s simply hydrology: the two rivers converge into one (east of Prince Albert at The Forks) and, after a brief stop in Tobin Lake, are released by Sask Power from the E.B. Campbell Dam to continue the river’s many winding paths east through the spectacular Saskatchewan Delta and past the village of Cumberland House.

The amount of water that flows into the Delta is unstable, and has been since the early 1960s and the creation of what was (then) the Squaw Rapids hydroelectric dam. Whereas prior to the dam, natural flows used to rise in the summer and fall in the winter, the dam holds back water in summer in Tobin Lake. All too often, flow was cut off completely, leading to fish being stranded in puddles in the river, and a probable overall drop in the lake levels at Cumberland Lake. That water is kept at Tobin to be released throughout the winter, providing power when the cold and dark Saskatchewan winters leave us hunkering in our homes, furnaces blasting, lights, televisions, and computers all running. Of course, winter releases carry their own issues: unstable ice development, for example. No wonder the Cumberland House community pushed for years for recompense, and a bridge.

But I digress. I was talking about The Pas.

In the late spring of 2011, the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains was deep; the water in the rivers running from the mountains, high. The old saying “if the Good Lord’s willing, and the creek don’t rise”, or Johnny Cash’s classic hit, “Five Feet High and Rising” may tell the tale of rivers overtopping their banks — and both give a sense of what the Saskatchewan chose to do in 2011. There was no way that the water could be held back in the reservoirs of Alberta or the Gardiner Dam at Diefenbaker Lake; Tobin Lake, which takes in water from the combined river, was bloated and the dam significantly stressed. Outflow into the Saskatchewan River Delta led Cumberland House residents to ask Ducks Unlimited to open smaller dams to release water strategically throughout the Delta, to ease pressure on their town.

But even if water could be moved around Cumberland, at least a little, the RM of Kelsey, along with Opaswayak Cree Nation and the town of The Pas, got it all. Sitting on a pile of glacial till, The Pas and surrounding area are the drain plug of the ‘bathtub’ of the Saskatchewan River system — all of that water eventually goes through The Pas. To add insult to geographical injury, the Carrot River also empties into the Saskatchewan at The Pas — and that’s where things get really complicated.

In a normal year, water coming down various minor rivers empty into the mighty Saskatchewan, which continues its trek through Cedar Lake and the Grand Rapids Dam before entering the Lake Winnipeg water system. But, when the Saskatchewan is bank-full, the smaller rivers — such as the Carrot — can’t empty out. In fact, they back up, threatening to overtop and flood along their banks, backwards from the Saskatchewan. Throughout the entire Delta region, along the banks of the Carrot, the Saskatchewan, and all the other tributaries, the water rose and rose, overtopping in many areas and threatening others.

Rall’s Island lies just east of The Pas, nestled in a triangle-shaped bend in the Saskatchewan River. Crossed by channels (both natural and man-made) and old dykes, this is a landscape that is used to being periodically inundated, or at least, threatened by the river. For years, the RM of Kelsey, which governs the patchwork of small farms and acreages that make up the Rall’s Island community, has been pushing for a massive dyke to protect the people and the infrastructure in this vulnerable region. This spring, with the Saskatchewan at 100 year record flood levels, all the pieces fell into place. The RM found a perfect storm of environmental  necessity, political and social will, and economic backing to instigate the project. Throughout the late spring and summer of 2011, a massive earthen dyke was created using nearby materials, local and regional equipment and expertise, and plenty of volunteer labour.

The structure was more than sufficient to hold back the water. Indeed, standing on it, it seems impossible that even the might of Mother Nature could ever bring anything strong enough to threaten the new dyke. It’s almost a medieval fortification — perhaps their next building project could be a castle, firmly set within the dyke’s ‘moat’! Yet, climate change scientists warn us: it’s not so much that we should expect western Canada to dry up in a drought and blow away (those who survived the flood waters of the past few years would be the first to scoff at such a notion); it’s that ‘the new normal’ is exactly those extremes. Dr. David Sauchyn at the University of Regina, and his extensive research team and collaborative environment, warn: it is the oscillation between extreme wet, and extreme dry, that will be our future.

Rall’s Island has one side of that equation covered. We think.

Dyke crossing landscape like a road.

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Marvelous and richly carved detailing on the stern

As a local and environmental historian, my recent visit to Stockholm (via work meetings in Umea, Sweden) was ‘anchored’ by a fabulous visit to view one of the most intriguing historical artefacts I have ever had the privilege of viewing: the seventeenth century Swedish warship, the Vasa.

At the height of a massive war between Poland and Sweden (where feuding cousins sat on the respective thrones of each country), the war fleet of the Swedish king was being expanded. At the shipyards in Stockholm, work began on a new ship of war to help fight the naval battles and take troops to and from the scenes of war. The Vasa was built as the crown jewel of this fleet:  over 1000 of the King’s Oaks were felled to build the ship. At 47.5 meters long from prow to stern, she carried 64 guns, 145 seamen and 300 soldiers under 10 sails on four masts. Intricately carved and adorned with rich artistic symbolism, she was also richly painted (a detail I hadnt thought of; it seems as though Hollywood’s recreation of sailing ships tends toward the plain, unadorned and unpainted).

But disaster struck. As beautiful as she was, she had a major design flaw. Before her maiden voyage, her stability was tested by 30 men who ran in unison across the ship, deliberately checking her balance. After the third run, they stopped, as she nearly toppled and crushed the dock. Despite failing the test, the demands of war pushed those in charge to continue to arm and man the ship. She sailed on her maiden voyage on August 10th, 1628 from Stockholm.

A wind keeled her over, but she partially righted and kept going until another wind keeled her over again. This time, water rushed in through the gunports and in front of astonished eyewitnesses, she sank about a kilometer out in Stockholm harbour. An estimated 30 to 50 people died when the ship went down.

Although partially salvaged for her guns, the Vasa could not be raised. Over time, her whereabouts was mostly forgotten until 1956 when she was rediscovered. What followed was a modern feat of salvage, engineering, and marine archaeology on a vast scale. Vasa had withstood her watery grave remarkably intact: the brackish waters of the Baltic do not host the saline shipworm which feasts on most sunken wooden ships. The Vasa could, and was, brought forth from the depths in 1961 to huge international acclaim. Over the next fifty years, she was stripped of the mud, excavated, her contents catalogued and preserved, and the ship’s pieces preserved in polyethylene glygol before being put back together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. Such a remarkable historical and archaeological find yielded astounding insight into Swedish, Stockholm, and maritime history from the early 1600s, from food to clothing to games to money to health.

Now,  Vasa can be viewed from her new home on the edge of Stockholm harbor, not far from where she was built and where she sank. And if you’re ever in Stockholm, I insist that you go. It is an impressive sight.

The Vasa warship, Stockholm

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The word of spring 2011: flood.

Rising waters are a concern every year but it seems that this year, Mother Nature conspired to provide all the conditions necessary for floods of centenary proportions. Manitoba, of course, has been hit the hardest, with evacuations in Brandon now being added to a long list of road and rail washouts, cautionary evacuations, and sadly, lives lost. Saskatchewan and Quebec have also been hit with water, water, everywhere.

And the mud is flying at our Saskatchewan farm, where seeding is delayed by almost two weeks. Grey skies above do not bode well for agriculture, building on last year’s record wet year.

To give some context to the extent of the flooding in Manitoba, environmental historian Shannon Stunden Bower has penned a succinct overview of Manitoba’s flooded past. Go to the NiCHE website to view: http://niche-canada.org/node/9960 to read “Catastrophic Flooding: Manitoba’s Perennial Challenge.”

And while you’re at it, a sun dance would be a great idea.

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I am pleased to report that Dr. Maureen Reed, a geographer and assistant director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan has asked me to join her team. The postdoctoral appointment will involve working with Dr. Reed on her co-sponsored project through Carina Keskitalo of Sweden. Dr. Keskitalo is an associate professor of Political Science at Umea University and is the lead project co-ordinator. This many-layered project, funded by MISTRA (The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research), focuses on “Preparing for and responding to disturbance: Arctic lessons for Sweden.” Research teams in Sweden, Finland and Canada will co-ordinate projects related to community reponse to flooding, pest infestations, severe storm events, and economic restructuring in forest use. Focusing on boreal and boreal edge communties, I will feel right at home.

As a historian, I will bring a critical focus that will investigate change over time, particularly in terms of policy implications. Working primarily with flooding events — such as the massive spring run-off in 2010 in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the expected flooding predicted for this coming year — I will have one eye on the news reports, and another on the community and administrative response. If you have stories or photos to share, please contact me. Your expertise is valued.

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