Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada by Allan Casey. Greystone Books, 2009.

When Allan Casey went looking for books about the lakes of Canada, he found plenty of information about the Great Lakes, those huge inland seas that dominate the centre of the continent. However, he found very little about Canada’s other lakes, the myriad of glacial scours and kettles that so define the Canadian psyche. Indeed, so numerous are these lesser lakes that Canada could be named Lakeland. No other country in the world is so blessed. Canada contains an amazing 60% of the planet’s lakes.

Thus, Casey set himself the task of travelling throughout Canada to explore a subset of lakes and examine our human relationship to each of these bodies of water. Lakeland, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction in 2010, is the result.

He begins with the place he is most familiar with, Emma Lake. Emma is located about 3 hours north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Casey’s parents built a small cherry-red cabin on the lake in 1960. In those more innocent days, the cabin was simple, with bedsheets serving as room dividers and a path to the outhouse leading to the only ‘amenities’. The lakeside population gradually grew, and with more people came more change, more demands. Cottagers brought fogging guns to spray insecticides through the forest against mosquitoes. A tent-caterpillar invasion brought Malathion and even DDT. The municipality road was oiled to keep the dust down, and the waste oil spilled over into the lake. Cottagers cleared the shoreline of vegetation, the lake’s natural defence against uphill pollutants. And the people keep on coming, demanding ever more of the lake. Tiny cabins continue to be replaced with ‘Super-Size-Me’ houses with multiple bathrooms, or A Vinyl Villa, A Taj McMall, A Plastic Fantastic as Casey labels them. The story of Emma Lake is pretty much the story of every lake within driving distance of population centres in Canada.

From Emma Lake, Casey travels to Ajawaan Lake. While not a long distance from Emma, Ajawaan has the advantage of lying within the protective boundaries of Prince Albert National Park. Grey Owl, the famous Englishman-turned-native resided and wrote in a cabin on the shores of Ajawaan and Casey joins others who make the pilgrimage to visit his former home. I was surprised at Casey’s charges of alcoholism and infidelity, neither of which differentiate Grey Owl from writers like Hemingway and no doubt many more. As for his appropriation of Native American culture, this is surely a modern sensibility to place on a man who clearly respected a culture so different from his own. Casey notes that Grey Owl was instrumental in rescuing beavers from extirpation. Beavers are associated with Canada not because we are all as busy as beavers, or because we really really like large rodents, but because the early wealth of Canada was built on the pelts of beavers. The wilderness was opened up as trappers moved from lake to lake in pursuit of beavers until large areas were completely without this vital keystone species.

In all, Casey visits eleven Canadian lakes, journeying from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Casey is a pleasant travel companion and Lakeland is an enjoyable and accessible read. Casey’s introductions to the people he meets and the surroundings he finds in each new location are evocative and thoughtful. He offers an introduction to the ecological concerns most relevant to each lake, from the nutrient overload in Lake Winnipeg, now considered the world’s most eutrophic major lake, to overfishing on Lake Nipissing. However, he doesn’t pass judgement or write prescriptions, a sort of ecology-lite approach. Other lakes that Casey covers are Bras d’Or Lake, Nova Scotia; the lakes of Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland; Lake Athabasca, Alberta/Saskatchewann; Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec and Waterton Lakes, Alberta.

In the end, all of the lakes Casey visits suffer to a greater or lesser degree from a common plight: too many people. As a nation, we are failing our lakes. There is too little science funding (how can we protect what we don’t understand?); parks promote the very uses of nature that they stand against; an Environmental Impact Assessment is little more than the first step in paving Paradise.

I noticed that there is a ‘Boil Water’ advisory in place for Lake Emma this summer, presumably related to human uses and abuses of the lake. Casey wrings his hands over his own little cabin on Lake Emma, now dwarfed by its neighbours. Should he sell out, take his money and find a new place on a more distant, less exploited lake? Or should he join a cottager’s association and stand up for his beloved Lake Emma?

Environmental action begins at home and Casey notes that citizens must rediscover economy, modesty , and simplicity not just within the bounds of a government map, but in our own families, house by house… Our greatest need is to want less.

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