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Manitoba cottagers return to their properties as evacuation orders lift

After waiting weeks for water levels in the Whiteshell area to subside, Manitoba cottagers are now getting their first look at their cottages since flooding levels forced Manitoba’s Ministry of Environment, Climate, and Parks to declare a state of local emergency in Whiteshell Provincial Park and issue evacuation orders for surrounding areas.

Brian Thompson, a long-time cottager on Eleanor Lake, says his return to the cottage was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. “I’ve never seen this. I would never in my life have expected to see water like this out there,” he says.

The province announced a phased reopening plan to allow locals back into the area starting on June 10. In a statement, the province said receding waters along the Winnipeg River allowed them to reopen the area for local residences, cottagers, and businesses. While the long wait for water levels to subside may be over, the journey to deal with flood-damaged properties and continuously high water levels is just beginning. 

Thompson says he and his family left their cottage in late May prior to the evacuation order. Like many in the area, Thompson’s cottage has been in his family for generations. The family decided to leave after they realized the creeping water would eventually restrict their road access.

Since then, Thompson has been monitoring the water levels near his cottage through a doorbell camera connected to his phone. Despite being able to watch the situation from afar, Thompson couldn’t shake the feeling of powerlessness while waiting for water levels to recede. “It’s a very helpless feeling watching it happen but not being able to get down there,”  he says. 

Thompson and his family were finally able to return to their cottage on June 10, but the trip itself was no easy task. The road to Thompson’s property is still partially flooded, which meant Thompson couldn’t simply drive to his cottage. “When we got out there, it was just water as far as you could see,” he explains.

Thompson parked his car down the road from his cottage, threw on his chest waders, and began trudging through the flood waters. He retrieved his canoe from his property, then turned back around. Thompson loaded up the canoe with his family and their supplies and paddled them out to their cottage. “It’s a surreal moment,” he says.

Despite the massive amounts of water, the Thompson’s cottage was unharmed due to its elevated placement on their property. The family’s boathouse took in some water, but as far as damage goes, Thompson considers himself fortunate. “We’ll see if the water does any damage, any mould, or rotting of the wood around the boathouse,” says Thompson. “But, I can’t see too much damage for us, fortunately.”

Thompson says many other cottage owners in the area weren’t as lucky. “We actually have a friend just down the highway at Otter Falls, which is about a kilometre away from Eleanor Lake,” he says. “They have mould growing at the base of the cottage, so they got it pretty bad.”

Ian Baragar, president of the Whiteshell Cottagers Association, has been monitoring the situation from a different vantage point—he’s been flying over Whiteshell in a helicopter with members of Manitoba Hydro and the Lake of the Woods control board. He’s been relaying the information to cottagers in the area via the organization’s Facebook group. 

“It’s one thing to see it on the ground,” says Baragar. “But when you get up there, you see the absolute vastness of the Winnipeg River and the flooding.” 

Baragar says despite decades spent cottaging in Whiteshell, this situation feels different than anything he’s ever experienced. 

“The cottages look like little tiny toys. You see this mass of moving water and you realize ‘this is mother nature,’” says Baragar. “The cottages just look like little pebbles along the way.”

The Lake of the Woods Control Board, monitors water levels for the Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul, two bodies that flow into and affect the water levels of the Winnipeg River. They say this year brought record highs along the river in terms of water levels and flows. 

The board says the current positive change in water levels is mostly due to recent dry weather. They still expect it will take a number of weeks and continuously dry weather before most lakes and rivers return to normal summer levels. 

While Baragar says he’s glad to see folks returning to their properties, he believes the situation is far from over. He says cottagers will now have to assess their damages and begin to sort out difficult insurance situations. For many, Barager says, cottage insurance and disaster relief won’t provide coverage. 

“We’re just at the top of the mountain getting ready to start our way down,” Baragar says. “But we’ve got a long way to go yet.” 

Baragar also says he’s concerned about how tumultuous weather might affect cottagers going forward. “We need to take a bit of a new approach to this because these extreme weather events are no longer anomalies,” says Barager, noting that emergency preparedness should be emphasized going forward. 

As for Thompson, he also worries about what this summer’s flood could mean for those with insurance that doesn’t cover overland flooding. “Some of those cottages have been gifted down from generation to generation. So some people might not have the money to repair their cottages after this is done,” he says. 

As far as this year goes, Thompson says he and his family might not make the journey through the water up to their cottage anytime soon. “We’ll probably wait a little bit. I’ll keep my phone on the doorbell and watch the water as it goes down, and then we’ll get back out there and enjoy the rest of the summer.”

Still, Thompson’s overall outlook on the future of cottaging is optimistic. “This has to be a once in a lifetime sort of thing, I would think.”

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