People and Places

“…my ‘dark night of the soul’ moment” — Homeowner shares her 2017 Flood story

tsu·na·mi:  a long, high sea wave caused by an earthquake, submarine landslide, or other disturbance; an arrival or occurrence of something in overwhelming quantities or amounts

I have this recurring nightmare in which I am looking out the front window of my cottage. In the distance, I see a tsunami coming across the lake. The dilemma is always the same: do I leave the cottage and make a run for it, or do I stay in the cottage and face the onslaught?

The writer and her sister in the aluminum boat that became key to combatting the rising water levels. This photo was taken on May 18, an unseasonably warm day when temperatures reached 28 C. Photography: Remi Theriault
The writer and her sister in the aluminum boat that became key to combatting the rising water levels. This photo was taken on May 18, an unseasonably warm day when temperatures reached 28 C. Photography: Remi Theriault

The Backstory

I grew up as a cottager, spending summers at a lakeside home built by my dad and his brothers in 1961. At that time, you could build pretty much anywhere you liked on your land. So Dad built close to the water. So close, in fact, that every spring we lost frontage to the receding ice. It was a constant battle to retain the land.

From those early days, I knew I wanted to retire at the cottage, which I had come to call Blue Heron (because of its colour and the avian visitors that frequented my beach). So in 2012, I fully renovated Blue Heron; it was no longer a cottage — it was my retirement home.

To be close to work, I rented an apartment in Ottawa. That’s where I was on April 18, 2017, when I received an email from a neighbour saying my cottage was totally surrounded by water and ice. She attached photos that were unbelievable to me. Never in 56 years had the water been this high.

After receiving the devastating news, I asked my sister Linda, who lives a short drive from the cottage, to go and turn off the breaker and empty the fridge. She called me later that night to say the water was over the top of her boots and still rising. I knew I had to be there to try to do whatever I could to save my home.

I had never driven on water-covered roads before and found it terrifying. I parked on a small island of gravel near my driveway. I didn’t want to ruin my shoes and I knew I had dry socks in the cottage, so I rolled up my pants and walked barefoot through the knee-deep, ice-cold water.

Inside I found Linda moving boxes up off the floor, stacking them on beds and the sofa. We worked until dark, knowing that if the lake rose another four or five inches, water would be inside the cottage. But there was nothing more we could do.

My younger brother Tim, a truck driver, was on a long haul back from Texas. He’d heard about the situation and thought for hours as he drove, finally calling me with a plan.

“We’ll build a wall,” he said, “surrounding the cottage as close as we can get with sandbags. We’ll use trash pumps to pump out the water that comes in between the wall and the cottage, keeping it down below the level of the floor.”

I had never heard of a trash pump, but Tim had volunteered with the fire department and knew these portable pumps could move large amounts of water and debris.

 

 Pumps were filled every few hours. The writer spent nearly $2,000 on gas over five weeks. Photography: Remi Theriault
Pumps were filled every few hours. The writer spent nearly $2,000 on gas over five weeks. Photography: Remi Theriault

Working together with friends and family, we filled bags with dry sand. The sandbags were too heavy for me to lift onto the truck, so the men did that part. We’d put 25 bags into the back of the truck, which was parked in the driveway; someone else would wade out to the truck with the boat, and the team at the cottage would transfer the bags onto the boat to be placed around the cottage. (Before the flood was over, we would place almost 3,000 bags around the cottage.)

As the lake continued to rise, we also rose to the occasion, filling more sandbags and renting a second, larger pump. Both pumps were running 24 hours a day, but they couldn’t keep up with the rain. We needed a third pump, and by sundown, I was $750 dollars poorer and the owner of yet another pump.

With all three pumps running, we were finally able to get the water below deck level and there was a sense of relief. We were making visible progress. Blue Heron was the only dry spot on the lake. It looked as though the lake was trying to swallow my little home.

It was all I could do to sit down and eat. I paced from room to room, checking the corners for water. The constant drone of the pumps made it difficult to talk. The noise was ever-present, day and night. Blue Heron had always been my place of solace and refuge; now it was a battlefield.

That first week, the water level dropped by nine centimetres, and we thought the worst was over. But Mother Nature had other plans for us.

 In order to leave or enter the cottage, the writer and her crew of helpers had to scale a wall of sandbags. At one point this corner of the wall collapsed, causing water to flood the deck. (Later it was determined that the sandbags disappeared into a sinkhole.) The wall was made up of nearly 3,000 sandbags. Photography: Remi Theriault
In order to leave or enter the cottage, the writer and her crew of helpers had to scale a wall of sandbags. At one point this corner of the wall collapsed, causing water to flood the deck. (Later it was determined that the sandbags disappeared into a sinkhole.) The wall was made up of nearly 3,000 sandbags. Photography: Remi Theriault

On the Tenth Day

More rain began to fall — 34.6 millimetres one day, another 39 millimetres the following. The snow and the ice were still melting, leading to rapidly rising water levels. I shifted into battle mode again. My sister and I returned to round-the-clock pumping, filling sandbags, and gassing up the pumps every two hours; the alarm clock became our lifeline, reliably beeping to remind us of our duties.

We ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches, cheese and crackers, apples and oranges. We craved hot coffee, and I finally broke down and asked my neighbour Steve if he would make us a pot. He obliged, and I crawled into my chest waders, hoisted myself over the cement-like sandbags, and stepped through the floating debris to make the trek over to his home to transfer it to my Thermos.

We were so tired of being cold. We slept in the same clothes that we wore during the day, including our winter jackets, snow pants, wool scarves, and hats. 

Days later it poured again — a total of 48.8 millimetres of rain. The lake level rose by another 11 centimetres. The road was now officially closed except to local traffic.

Try as we might, we could not stem the tide. We put the word out on Facebook that we needed help filling sandbags. Within an hour, friends and family showed up, bringing shovels and coffee and doughnuts. Three strangers who had travelled from an hour away arrived in a white van with their own chest waders.

Photography: Remi Theriault
Photography: Remi Theriault

That morning, stinky septic water began seeping from the base of the toilet. The septic system was so full of water that it was backing up through the toilet pipe. I wondered if this was the chore that was finally going to break us.

The next day I stepped out of bed into ankle-deep water. The lake had moved in since our last pump check. Even though we’d known it could happen, it was still shocking to wake up to a full-on flood. We’d become complacent, even moving some boxes back onto the floor. Everything that could float was now floating in dirty lake water. Twenty-three days in, and it seemed as if Mother Nature had won. 

We were surprisingly calm. Together, Linda and I raised the pumps up out of the water and throttled them up to high speed. We had no idea how the water was getting in, so Linda waded around the cottage to look for anything unusual.

I had decided a week earlier what key items I wanted to save: my quilts, my photos, and my cottage scrapbooks. They were already packed and ready to go should an evacuation be necessary.

I have to admit that a small part of me was relieved. It meant we could now give up the battle and return to drier ground, where we could hear the birds sing, watch the tulips bloom, flush the toilet, and sleep for eight hours.

But then Linda’s brother-in-law Gerard showed up full of hope and promise, telling us we hadn’t lost yet. He was going to figure out where the water was coming in. While taking a smoke break, he discovered a hole in the sandbag wall — and patched it. With the help of the pumps, the water drained out of the cottage, doing minimal damage. Exhausted, Linda and I left the cottage for a break in nearby Wilno.

Later that evening, chaos returned. At midnight, Linda and I got a panicked call from our friends minding the cottage saying they needed more gas. The sandbag wall had collapsed again and water got into the gas cans, causing two pumps to stop. Linda offered to race to a 24-hour gas station in Pembroke. I went along to keep her awake on the drive.

On the way back to Wilno, I had my “dark night of the soul” moment. In my dehydrated state, I cried waterless tears, wailing loudly while Linda silently held my hand and drove. I said I couldn’t fight anymore and that I was ready to let it all go — the cottage, the contents, everything. I wanted everyone to get out safely while they could and didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

As if my tearful prayers had been answered, the situation stabilized, and except for the leaking toilet, things were calm. Thankfully, the water had peaked and was starting to drop. We were finally able to turn the pumps down to a lower speed, which meant we could sleep for three hours at a time.

Photography: Remi Theriault
Photography: Remi Theriault

Life’s a Beach

As the weather warmed, I would pull on my hip waders to go for walks around the cottage, amazed by all the minnows and tadpoles in the water. Bloated earthworms floated everywhere. A perennial garden, which I had planted the previous season, had been washed away — all the bulbs and soil taken with it. A few of the hardier plants were still clinging to the rocks.

Recalling my dream, I now know how it ends. As I watch the tsunami coming across the lake, the answer is obvious: I stay and face the onslaught.

The writer standing where the beach normally begins and water is typically ankle-deep. Photography: Remi Theriault
The writer standing where the beach normally begins and water is typically ankle-deep. Photography: Remi Theriault