Hewing wood, drawing water in the Canadian outback

Effects of climate change are very real when you get away from the city

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You never know how many trees you have until one falls on the roof of the cottage.

Until the tornado last month, I never looked, counted or cared. The lake was out front. The trees were out back.

Then, in seven minutes on the last Wednesday in June, the tail end of a tornado, or cyclone, or something, suddenly tore down Lac St. Pierre, ripped through the narrows of the bay, and snapped the tallest pine tree at our place in two.

We were the lucky ones. On its way down, the top half of the towering pine got caught up in the branches of a giant maple tree. Otherwise, falling from that height, it would have crashed through the cottage roof with the force of a guided missile. Luckily, no one was home at the time.

The neighbours weren't so lucky. Four places over, the summer storm blew through every window in the house, and snapped majestic old-growth pines like matchsticks.

When the cleanup began, I started counting the kinds of trees. We've got pines, cedars, firs, birches, maples, elms and poplars, many of them living and some of them quite dead.

And now we have firewood, which in the Gatineau is about as scarce as coals in Newscastle. Enough firewood for three years in the cottage, and several summers of bonfires on the beach.

If all work can be divided into policy and operations, then in cottage country the division of labour is simple: The policy guy is the one with the chainsaw, and the operations guy is the one stacking the wood.

So, my neighbour is the one with the chainsaw, while I'm the one building the woodpile. It's hard to say which will burn best, the top half of the pine tree or the dead birch with its lovely strips of bark.

It being the cottage, there is always something. The polite word for it is upkeep.

For example, the plumber was here for 10 hours a week ago Saturday, fixing the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the shower and hot water tank, which wasn't giving us any hot water. In fact, the system, which pumps water in from the lake, wasn't producing any water at all. It is very difficult to explain to the girls that there is no hot water for their showers and, in fact, no showers.

The plumber was exceedingly well paid for his time and his trouble, but he came on a Saturday morning. Try getting that kind of service in the city.

The trees were cleared, and the water was finally running, but that was before the flood.

Last Thursday, it rained overnight, and rained and rained. It washed out the dirt road, felled more trees, knocked out the power (again), and forced the closing of Highway 307 when part of it disappeared at St. Pierre de Wakefield. Over at McClelland's general store in nearby Poltimore, Darryl McClelland was saying that a friend with a rain metre had measured 122 mm of rain. Apparently, that's about six inches. Enough that it made the weekend paper.

It also flooded our beach, with the runoff from the famous Gatineau Hills completely washing away the neighbour's beach. At our place, there was so much water in the little fishing boat it nearly sank. At McClelland's, I bought an eight-litre pail to bail it out. There were at least 600 litres of water in the boat.

The lake now comes up to the retaining wall, which is normal in the spring runoff, but unheard of in July. It rose so high last Friday night, our dock slipped from the poles to which it was attached, and started floating away. It was quite a sight, complete with Muskoka chair, pole with Canadian flag, and fishing boat with motor, all floating off into the sunset. We finally pulled it in, and while we all understand that floodwaters must rise before they can recede, our lake has this curiously dead look of standing water to it.

Lac St. Pierre is a big lake, nearly seven kilometres long at one point, with more than 50 kilometres of coastline over several bays. There are 35 smaller lakes in our watershed, and the stream behind our house, now running as high and hard as it does in April, feeds Lake McArthur and Lake McGregor. These are three of the biggest lakes in the Outaouais region.

Climate change? Something is going on. There hasn't been an evening in the last two weeks when it hasn't been cool enough to start the fireplace - in July. In two decades of summers here, this has never happened before.

This summer, the cottage is a reminder of Canada's economic origins. Once again, we are hewers of wood and drawers of water.

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