Lake Winnipeg is a strange place. Sometimes it seems like it is taken from a painting like Monet, but at other times it is definitely more JMW Turner, or even Hieronymus Bosch. Most Winnipeggers know Lake Winnipeg as a beach and cottage place, a place of pleasant endless sands with gentle lapping waves,a place where we take our children for an enjoyable summer experience. But this huge lake is much more than that; it is a fierce, independent, unpredictable force of nature, a body of water that can charm you with its beauty one minute, and soak and scare you utterly s***less the next. Its north basin is an immense, trackless waste. If you get lost there, you are really lost. Permanently lost. Utterly and sadly lost, though there is nothing really tragic about it. Just a silent grey curtain pulled across the end of your story.
In comparison with Lake Winnipeg, the other prairie lakes are shallow, immature muddy sloughs. They are babies, incapable of thoughts of their own. They may sometimes have weather, or even waves, but those are little baby waves. Lake Winnipeg has intense moods and tantrums. It can be an angry giant teenager, yelling, stamping its way upstairs and slamming all the doors in the house. Lake Winnipeg is like the sea in miniature, but I would never dare tell it to its face that it is a small copy of anything else. On second thought, I take that back. Lake Winnipeg is nothing like the sea.
The lake’s surface is a work of art, and it is its own medium. It pushes water around between the basins as caprice takes it, sculpting mounds of fluid here, creating liquid synclines over there. You may tell me that these variations are the result of outflow from rivers, or seiche waves, or Manitoba Hydro’s attempts to control the lake’s level at its outflow. But I know better. Lake Winnipeg is a sneaky, evil bastard (or at the very least, an elemental force), and it decides where its water will go. If lakes were animals, Lake Winnipeg would be a big cat. It walks by itself, and it knows its own mind. But this is not a mind that we can ever fathom. This mind is full of dark embayments, uncounted small islands, the flotsam and jetsam of a thousand wrecked boats, the Archean secrets hidden in gneissic crevices of its eastern shore. You might call it shallow, but you would be fooling yourself.
Lake Winnipeg is a place of powerful images that are forever imprinted on my inner eye. The Namao steams past our shore through some very heavy weather, looking not at all like a boat on a freshwater lake. A tent, caught by a black squall, still floats as it disappears over the horizon. In the channel off Seymourville, the wind-compressed waves fling our small fishing boat upward before instantly dropping us into the trough with a buttock-bruising bang. Huge wind tides that make the perfect sand beaches of the south basin disappear for days on end … leaning out onto the bow of the zodiac to keep it down as we head into a rapidly stiffening storm … standing on the causeway at Hecla, transfixed by the approach of swirling waterspouts …
But after each intense episode the calm returns, and you would never guess that this polite place was prone to wild and unseemly outbursts. A sailboat materializes out of the moonlit silence of an empty lake. Purple flowers tenaciously cling to the limestone cliffs at Cat Head. Pelicans land in the misty stillness of an endless hot afternoon. Foot-deep windrows of ripely rotting fishflies clog a tourist shore. Teeming spiders in the wonderful damp cool beneath a north-facing cliff, when the air above is a stifling +35 … brown-green tendrils of a late-summer algal bloom on the north basin, visible from the window of our Otter as we make our stately way north from Matheson toward Jackhead … and of course, the Goldfield sailing into magic-hour evening light at McBeth Point.
The photos below show Lake Winnipeg at peace, in the cold season. Why did I include that horrible fish picture? Well, that is yet another aspect of our relationship with lakes, isn’t it?
(all posts © Graham Young, 2009)