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That’s all I see as I drive past Otter Falls and Nutimik Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park.
The water is all the way up to the road and the waves look angry. It’s like they want to swallow my car into the darkness of the lake.
I’ve never seen it this high.
I’ve driven down this road countless times over my 22 years, but this time I see destruction.
Sandbags line the outside of cottages. It’s as if they’re preparing for battle.
Is this the new normal? Is this what a changing climate looks like?
The 10 warmest years on record have all happened since 2010. With the consistent warming, extreme weather events have become more severe and frequent. There are increases in rain, drought, and flooding across the world.
In Manitoba, water has been a major topic of conversation for the past two summers. In 2021, the province faced an extreme drought, while 2022 brought one of the wettest springs on record.
Between April 1 and June 19, the Red River Basin received 330 millimetres of rain, according to the Manitoba Basins Summer Conditions Report.
Communities throughout the Whiteshell faced challenges when the 2022 spring flood came along. Some people had to be evacuated from their homes, others had to work every day to keep their cabins safe from the rising waters, and some had no choice but to wait for the waters to recede.
Almost 1,400 residents of Peguis First Nation in southern Manitoba had to be evacuated after 700 homes were affected by the high waters.
The devastation of the 2022 flooding has cottagers thinking about the future of places like the Whiteshell.
A Different Summer for Cottagers
Brent Johnson and his family have enjoyed their cottage at Otter Falls in the north Whiteshell for 12 years.
Before purchasing the property, his family was familiar with the park. They had camped there before, mostly on the southern lakes like Falcon, West Hawk, and Brereton Lake.
Buying a cottage took away the stress of booking campsites every year.
Brent was visiting family in British Columbia when he first got word his parents were looking at a property in Otter Falls.
“It checked every box on the list, to be honest.”
It quickly became a gathering place for his family, including his two younger sisters.
“I mean it’s really just a dream,” said Brent. “I realized how privileged we are to have it.”
Brent’s family made little improvements to the cottage over the years, but they didn’t have to do much.
“The place was in really great shape when my parents bought it and we’ve kind of kept it that way,” said Brent. “And then there was last spring.”
Brent and his family had experienced floods before. Their family farm was located at the lowest and widest point of the Red River Valley during the flood of 1997. The river was 62 miles wide there at the peak of the flood. That year the Red River water levels reached 24.5 feet, according to the Government of Manitoba.
Their response to the high waters in 2022 was guided by that experience.
Will Kellas is a senior hydrologic forecast engineer with Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure. His branch looks after the water control structures in the province.
On top of flood forecasting, their main task is modelling the flows and levels along the major rivers. One of Will’s tasks is managing the lake levels in the Whiteshell.
“Every lake has its own kind of unique issues and structure setups,” said Will. “It’s kind of different every week.”
One of the major factors that go into predicting spring flood waters is the moisture in the ground, specifically in the months leading up to the ground freezing in November.
Another factor, which Manitoba knows all too well, is how much snow we get.
Some of the factors that contribute to flooding are how much rain we get during the flooding season, snow melting, and how quickly the runoff happens, said Will.
Keeping these factors in mind, Will combines the winter precipitation and the soil moisture which gives him the “runoff potential” going into the spring.
Runoff is the draining of water from the surface of something like land or a building.
“If we get a bunch of snow and then it gets warm for a few days, you’ll see more water coming faster,” said Will.
“Add rain into the equation, then it gets serious,” Will added.
Decisions After Hardships
Brent’s Whiteshell cottage had experienced flooding before the 2022 flood hit, most recently in 2014. That year they had 9-12 inches of water underneath their entire cabin. The layout of their property makes channelling water away from the cottage difficult because the piece of land is so flat.
After that, his mom made the decision to raise the cabin. It was already two feet off the ground, and they raised it nine more inches.
“We thought surely we’re good for anything now,” said Brent.
At the time, a neighbour validated the upgrade, noting the water had never been that high before so if they went above it, they would be fine.
“So that’s what we did. Well, low and behold the water we had this year was another three and a half feet on top of that,” said Brent.
Otter Falls’ water level predictions come from Manitoba Hydro and in early spring 2022 they were releasing predictions once a week. Brent recalled seeing the weekly predictions in April and each one showed the water getting higher. The park began bringing sandbagging materials to Otter Falls.
“We finally made the decision that we better get started because if we don’t start, we’re going to be behind the game,” said Brent.
Brent’s extended family came from far and wide to help get them started on their dike. The group was able to build the dike a foot and a half high with the gruelling work of filling each sandbag by hand.
Overnight the water had risen enough that it started to creep around the dike. The group had started with a half circle in front of the cottage, but the water had come around the circle. They caught it just in time and closed the dike.
From here they kept building and building — and building.
Ian Barager is the president of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association, an organization for people who own or lease land in the Whiteshell.
During the 2022 spring flooding, the association worked closely with cottagers who were dealing with the high waters.
Ian had just become president when the events started to unfold.
The initial challenge was communicating with cottagers about the high water. He said he wishes the association had information earlier, but is thankful they had a solid website and a following on social media to get information out to cottagers.
The sandbagging at Brent’s cottage started on May 5, 2022. In total, Brent’s parents sandbagged for 21 days straight. Neighbours and family helped when they could.
The park had a hard time keeping up with the demand for sandbags. Materials were running out faster than they could replenish them.
“I had to contact the cottagers’ association to let them know we need to continue sandbagging and there are no materials,” said Brent.
The infrastructure and typography of the Whiteshell are diverse. There are areas like Falcon Lake and West Hawk Lake with established townships and roads, and there are smaller lakes like Betula that don’t have that kind of network.
“We became a very good repository for people wanting information. So, we could refer them to parks or the website,” said Ian.
Looking back at the way the association dealt with the ever-changing situation, Ian said there were things they could’ve done better, and now they’re looking at refining their system.
“I felt we were very much in a reactive mode,” said Ian.
The Whiteshell Cottagers Association and their Lake Levels Committee meet with Will twice a year to discuss target lake levels.
In April 2022 things seemed okay, but in May, the Whiteshell experienced record rainfall, which came while the snow was melting.
“It was just a confluence of events that was just pretty much unavoidable,” said Will.
On May 25, 2022, the Government of Manitoba advised a mandatory evacuation order for the north Whiteshell. The lakes ordered to evacuate were Sylvia Lake, Eleanor Lake, Otter Falls, Dorothy Lake, Barrier Bay, Nutimik Lake, and Betula Lake.
Brent’s dike was six feet tall when he and his family evacuated. It would stay up for two months as the water receded.
On July 7, 2022, after more than a month away, Brent returned to the cottage to start cleaning up.
By Aug. 9, 2022, the water was off their lot, but it left behind a mess. Their sprawling green lawn, which had been home to many volleyball and badminton games, had disappeared.
Looking back, Brent remembers the only thought was to keep going.
“I don’t know how we channelled and found the energy,” said Brent. “I think a lot of it came from the folks that came to help us.”
“The days we had lots of help lifted our spirits and gave us the power to keep going.”
Brent didn’t get to experience the summer he thought he was going to have. Instead of enjoying it, there was worry and work from start to finish.
Towards the end of August, they had to decide if they were going to keep the cabin. Brent’s mom knew she could never go through this again.
“In the end, she decided, and we kind of decided as a family, that this is a place we want to continue to spend as much time as we can,” said Brent.
After seeking quotes, they made the decision to raise the cabin and move it further back on the property. The cottage would be picked up and placed on a concrete foundation with a crawl space.
Misfits in Your Own Home
Dave and Evelyn Willison have lived in the Whiteshell for 20 years. They remember the date their names were added to the property title on Betula Lake — Dec. 21, 1990.
They didn’t expect a knock on their door in spring 2022 telling them they had to evacuate from their home the next day.
This is the third disaster they’ve gone through since living in the park full-time.
“I looked at them and I said, ‘Oh my god,’” exclaimed Evelyn. “We were in the city on Wednesday, and I got three loads of groceries in my fridge.”
The Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) — a Government of Manitoba branch which works to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazards and disasters — covered meals and accommodation for Dave and Evelyn during the evacuation.
The EMO is also the branch that offered the 2022 Spring Flood Disaster Financial Assistance to farms, businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and residential tenants.
Evelyn, 82, had broken bones in her right leg between the ankle and the knee in April. So, the couple waited to be picked up by the Lac du Bonnet fire department. They couldn’t bring their personal van when they evacuated because the water was already too deep where they would exit the park.
“They brought a big yellow-ton truck,” said David “He [the firefighter] needed a stepladder to get in, that’s how high it was.”
Looking back, Dave and Evelyn praise the firefighter who came to pick them up.
“I tell you, the guy was so kind because I had a wheelchair, walker, and a lot of cast,” said Evelyn. “I thought ‘I’m dead weight’ but the two young fellows just threw me in the back of this truck.”
The Willison’s evacuated their home at Betula Lake on May 21, 2022 and moved back exactly one month later on June 21, 2022.
While their property wasn’t damaged, Dave and Evelyn recognize how much they could have lost.
“We had enough groceries that could have lasted a month, but there was no way you’re going to stay because you can’t get in and you can’t get out,” said Dave.
Evelyn remembers passing Otter Falls and seeing the devastation the cottages were facing.
“All the people that we know, they’re good people and my heart ached for them,” said Evelyn. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness are we ever fortunate.’”
“We got the best deal. Those poor people really got a kicking,” added Evelyn.
Dave and Evelyn didn’t realize how serious the flooding was until they needed to evacuate because they didn’t receive any notice from the cottagers’ association. Usually, the association sends emails for major events, but they never came.
After the cottage season in 2022, the association released a survey to cottagers asking for feedback on what more they could’ve done.
The events of 2022 changed the way Ian and the cottagers’ association thinks of major natural events. He had already started to think differently in 2021 because of the forest fires that swept over parts of Manitoba.
“I was already on the page that we need to deal with these emergencies differently because we had park closures. We had evacuations,” said Ian.
The flooding was a wake-up call because it showed him these kinds of adverse weather events can’t be treated like they will never happen again.
“This was flooding, the other extreme of the  drought.”
Ian connected the flood to climate change. After these experiences with volatile weather events, he is committing to promoting smart climate choices for the park.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a forest fire, or if it’s water control, it’s going through and we have very little that we can do but there are little things we can do,” said Ian.
After they returned home, the Willisons admitted to feeling like displaced persons.
Evelyn said they felt like misfits when they were trying to settle back into their home.
In January 2022, Dave and Evelyn decided to put their cottage up for sale.
“April and May were terrible months where the weather was god awful,” said Dave. “We never did put it up and of course, the flood intervened and that was that.”
In August, they listed the cottage but there haven’t been any takers yet.
Dave and Evelyn are hoping the cabin sells. They are also hoping to get reimbursed from the EMO for the money they spent while away from their home.
Looking Forward But Remembering
The devastation of the 2022 flooding has Brent thinking about what the future might look like if nothing is done to help the environment.
“I think one of the saddest outcomes is those neighbours who helped us so much, who have lived in the park their entire lives. They’re the ones that are moving on,” said Brent.
The amount of future warming Earth will experience depends on how much carbon and greenhouse gases are emitted in the upcoming decades. We add around 11 million metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year.
“I think the bigger part of this story is we are living in a time where climate change has been a reality for a long time. But we are now living at a point in history where we are seeing the effects,” said Brent.
“As a society, we need to make changes to help mitigate that.”
Each year brings its own weather challenges. Will recalls 2016, which brought 150 millimetres of rain and led to flooding. In 2019 there was record autumn rainfall, meaning there was more precipitation when it came time for the spring melt.
“It’s tough with forecasting,” said Will. “You can only forecast so far in the future.”
Because of this, Will’s department prepares for the highs and lows. In March and even the start of April, they could’ve never predicted the amount of rain southern Manitoba would receive at the end of that month.
“It was insane how many emails we were dealing with. People were getting our personal emails and sending them to distribution lists with hundreds of people,” said Will.
Looking back at the work he and his department did, Will doesn’t have any regrets. They were able to get as much water away as they could, and the damage wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.
As Will and his colleagues look to the upcoming cottage season, he says things are looking good. Of course, with an unpredictable climate — a problem that will only get worse unless we find the collective will to take drastic measures soon — Brent, Ian and other cottagers will continue to monitor the flood forecasts.