Beware autumn “blows”

“When it blows in the fall, God help us,” my mother told me over the phone on Wednesday afternoon.

A resident of Gimli for most of her life, my mother is well aware of the vagaries of Lake Winnipeg, especially in the fall when “blows” arise over the lake and drive waves toward the shore.

The very fact she uses the term “blows,” both as a verb and a noun in conversation, is an indication of her long association with the community on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Her father was a commercial fisherman and the town’s lighthouse keeper for a time, that is, during the era when lighthouses were manned and not automated.

I know of one historical photo from April 1943, which shows the lighthouse knocked over by sheets of ice driven by a “blow” over the long federal dock at Gimli.

It’s the fear of another “blow” that has  Gimli and other communities along the south basin of the lake concerned that floods will strike within a month because of the known history of the lake at times of high water. With this traditional knowledge as the benchmark, Gimli Mayor Kevin Chudd has been pleading for help from the province to prepare for a flood. 

Floods have not been uncommon in the Gimli area over the years. In fact, just five years after the settling of the community by Icelanders, a flood of massive proportions struck. In the late fall of (October) 1880, following a cold and exceptionally wet summer, a violent northwesterly storm whipped the lake into a frenzy. The south basin was filled to overflowing and the icy floodwaters spilled over the land. The local residents of New Iceland — a federal government land grant from Hecla Island to Boundary Creek near present-day Winnipeg Beach — called this the “Great Flood.”

The extent of the flood and the damage it caused nearly spelled the end of Gimli and New Iceland. After years of hardship and suffering through a major small pox epidemic, the flood was the last straw for a significant portion of the population, who pulled up stakes and chose to seek other lands for settlement that were not along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

The last major flood was in 1974, when docks were covered and land was inundated. Photos from 1974  show sandbag dikes erected to protect the town. The southern basin of the lake experienced a water level of 718 feet above sea level with blows rising the lake level to 720 feet.

Following the flood in 1974, dikes were constructed around the south basin to 719 feet, which were expected to protect communities from a one-in-50-years storm. At present the lake level is nearly a metre above normal and approaching the level of 1974.

“We’ve had so much water this year. Two weekends before water was covering the corner road near us by up to six inches,” my mother added. “They say it’s because the lake is so high, even though it hasn’t recently rained.”

“There is concern about possible damage due to windstorms which may occur over the lake during the next few months,” according to the last report of Manitoba Water Stewardship on August 4. “The reason for the high level this year is record high summer inflows from the Winnipeg River, Red River, Sas-katchewan River and much above average flows on many smaller streams entering the lake.”

The provincial government has recognized the potential for disaster and has sandbagging equipment ready. The Manitoba government is also now meeting with municipal officials from Victoria Beach to Riverton along the south basin of the lake. 

Winnipeg Beach has already been calling for volunteers to help fill sandbags. According to a Free Press report, Chudd said Gimli will need at least three-million sandbags, but more appropriate for protection of communities along the lake is a dike which would dwarf the length of the 24-kilometre Brunkild dike built in 1997 to save Winnipeg for the “Flood of the Century.”

Since the 1974 flood, the value of property along the lake has skyrocketed. The south basin of Lake Winnipeg is one of the most desirable for cottage development. Many lakeshore cottage properties are in the $250,000 range, while some are over $1 million.

Flash floods at Lester Beach earlier in the summer, toppled cottages off their foundations. Actually, cottages all along the lakeshore are poised to fall into the lake, the result of “blows” during the summer contributing to widepread erosion.

Folk memory has a place when it comes to preparing for floods. It’s this local knowledge that should always be respected. And, as the water level increases, people who have lived through past floods, including 1974, are well aware of the damage a severe “blow” can create.