Being suspended in mid-air can make a split second seem like a long time.
My feet were still touching a spray-slicked boulder, but my center of gravity had shifted from over my toes to over a deep pool of moving water. I and my boatmate Geoff were lining our canoe up a set of rapids on the North Lady Evelyn River (heading for the South Lady Evelyn River) in northern Ontario's spectacularly rugged Temagami region. All was well until that point and although a heatwave had lowered the river's level, forcing us to lift our heavily-laden craft over some of the countless glacier-rounded rocks, there was enough water to float the canoe for most of the ascent, which was our preference to carrying it on our shoulders up and down the cliffs to which the frequent portages inevitably lead.
But relative ease can lead to relative complacency. That leads to mistakes. Geoff and I pulled the canoe up one strong V of current, but it got caught on a submerged boulder above the drop. I saw I could reach out with both hands to push it off and so I did - or at least I started to. I barely grazed the boat with the tips of my fingers and that released it into the stream. That brief touch was enough to stop my downward momentum, but only for less than a breath. I had only thin air against which to push myself upright. I stared straight down into the dark fast water and the water stared back at me, waiting patiently for my inevitable plunge.
Lady Evelyn River flows into Lady Evelyn Lake, which is actually a reservoir created by a hydroelectric dam in the 1920s. The system has a pretty and genteel name, but while the river and reservoir display astounding beauty with steep shorelines of rocky pineclad hills, there is nothing ladylike about them - humans have made sure of that. After all these years the local fish may be free of mercury (that's the hope of many who catch the bass and trout), but a drowned forest still rings the banks. When the heavy prevailing winds whip up high waves on the bloated surface, as commonly happens, canoeists must be wary of getting blown into massive uncut trunks - all that remain of extensive stands of trees that had grown to dizzying heights, almost all of which fell victim to the saws of pioneer loggers. In the north of the reservoir the same high winds are assaulting and erasing strings of ancient eskers that reach like fingers across the waters. Single rows of trees now precariously perch on eroding ribbons of sand that were once high and thickly forested islands.
Everywhere you look on Lady Evelyn you can see the destruction even a small dam can cause and how that destruction can continue unabated for what is almost a century. The river has fared better. The banks the two channels cut through the bone-jarring terrain of broken bedrock were only slightly altered by human industry in those early years after Confederation. The stoney hills and valleys were denuded of their primordial forest, but trees have grown back. In only another hundred years or so the white pine, black spruce and cedar will once again stand mature. The waters that waited to embrace me is filled with life, supporting numerous plant and animal species within it and on land.
The parks and nature reserves in the Temagami region show how terrain can recover from a devastating industrial onslaught, but only if further destruction is prevented and what remains of the natural conditions is preserved.
The lesson for Labrador is clear. The Grand River system from the drowned Lake Michikamau to the mouth of the Hamilton Inlet can heal itself in 150 years or so of the harm inflicted by the flooding of the Smallwood Reservoir, but only if no more dams are built.
Oh, and that waiting pool of water? Well, when you're unbalanced by the wiles of a mischievous lady, it's good to have a friend nearby to set you straight. Geoff, always on alert, caught me in time and saved me a dunking.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.