Too much noise at the lake?

Published: July 30, 2020

peaceful dock view Alessandro Cancian/shutterstock

Caroline Brooks expects noise at her home in Toronto. But after the drive and boat ride to her in-laws’ place on Lake Rosseau, Ont., she wants to hear little more than wind in the pines and the gentle lap of waves against rock. Caroline, a musician, craves quiet. But quiet at the lake, she says, is hard to find.

As I sit in my cottage on Lake Huron—writing this story on quiet and the value in preserving it where we’ve, historically, sought it—I take note of the sounds around me. Yes, there are the calls of throaty tree frogs, which grow more insistent as the sun melts into the lake. There is what my uncle, who’d lived in seven countries over his lifetime, insisted was the quintessentially Southern Ontario sound of wind moving through the poplar trees. But there is also the nasal drone of inboard boat engines, the whine of a distant lawn mower, the subtle slosh of a dishwasher, even the gentle whirr of my computer. 

Later, though it’s an ordinary summer Saturday, subtle night sounds are pierced by the pop and whizz of fireworks, driving my dogs to quiver beneath the beds and me to grit my teeth. Because…seriously? Again? We’re celebrating what exactly? 

There was a time—can you recall?—when the expectation of quiet at the lake was not only reason­able, but routine. No dish­washers. Often no phones. Rarely even a TV. Fireworks may have ushered in and out the summer, leaving the remainder explosion-free. There were boats, of course. After all, we were at the lake. But not so many. Not so loud. And PWCs were still few and far between. 

Perhaps you’ve had that conversation on the dock with your cottage friends. The one about your neighbour’s unhealthy love of his chainsaw, the one about why boat mufflers don’t seem to muffle, the one about stereos blast­ing Top 40 across the water. The one about how bloody noisy our lakes have become. 

But here’s a conversation you might not have had. The one about how quiet isn’t just lovely, it’s necessary. About how the World Health Organization has declared noise pollution to be the second leading environmental cause of illness and death in Western Europe after air pollution. About research published in the medical journal The Lancet that found noise exposure can lead to hearing loss, heart disease, disturbed sleep, and increased blood pressure. The one about how noise isn’t just annoying, it’s toxic. How too much of it can, literally, kill us. 

But let’s back up. Because of course the noise levels in cottage country aren’t as high as in say, London, New York City, even Toronto or Vancouver. Noise levels on our lakes might be increasingly annoying, and more noticeable than in an urban setting—but lethal?

Maybe not, but intrusive noise is a stressor on the entire body, says Barry Truax, a professor emeritus in acoustic communication at B.C.’s Simon Fraser Uni­versity. And the converse is true: quiet—and the sound of nature—is restorative. Science tells us that quiet reduces the stress in our body, it lowers our heart rate. And, the higher the stress level, as measured by brain scans, breathing rate, and heart-rate monitors, the greater the benefits of listening to nature’s sounds. 

Despite knowing this, finding quiet is proving more and more difficult. Just ask Jon Kawchuk, a composer who, while in residency at the Banff Centre, sought out quiet in the Kananaskis area of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. He was looking for total quiet, but even in a very remote location, he couldn’t get a window longer than 10 minutes. And that’s not even excluding human voices from hikers. In an area with helicopters ferrying tourists through the mountains, “my biggest challenge was air traffic,” he says. “Quiet was very, very hard to find.” 

That change is something Truax helps catalog as part of the World Soundscape Project. The ambitious work, spear­headed in 1969 by Canadian classical com­poser R. Murray Schafer, argu­ably launched acoustic ecology. The researchers record soundscapes over time, and as they did, they noticed the rising levels of noise pollution. Part of the problem is that we’re acclimatizing to noise and also to the incremental absence of nat­ural sounds, says Truax. “People are becom­ing more environ­mentally con­scious, but they don’t necessarily put the soundscape on the endangered list. The acoustic habitat is essential for wildlife species, but we are just as vul­nerable.” Fifty years into the project and even our quiet places are noisier than ever. 

***

There’s something primal in the sounds of our natural world, the experts tell us. It begins in the womb, of course, where we can hear long before we can see. Our ears deliver information to our brains over much greater distances than our eyes. For millennia, sound has helped to keep us alive. But noise? Noise is the muffling of sound, the erasing of quiet. Noise makes our connection to the natural world more tenuous. Consider, for instance, that our peak hearing sensitivity matches birdsong, their alarm calls and communications landing squarely in the range our ears have evolved to hear. We are uniquely attuned to creatures whose song generally indicates habitat that also is good for humans, explains Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who has traveled the globe recording sounds in the world’s most quiet places. “Our ears are tuned to hear the sounds that allow us to survive,” says Hempton, “both by attracting us to positive sounds such as birdsong, which signals, ecologically, that there’s food, water, and generally favourable weather, but also by repelling us from sounds that rob us from gathering relevant information.” So the more noise there is, the less of the reassuring sounds our ears can perceive.

Younger generations of kids, unexposed to regular quiet, establish a new normal as their baseline soundscape. Dan Kraus, a senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada who cottages near Algonquin Provincial Park warns, “the wild soundscapes are often drowned out by human sounds and now so many people grow up without hearing them.” Cue the metaphor of the oblivious frog being boiled alive. 

And about those frogs. Noise, of course, doesn’t just affect humans. Kraus calls noise pollution a growing threat to biodiversity conservation. “Because so many species, from birds to frogs, find each other through sound, when they’re having to compete with human sounds, it can be more difficult to do things like find a mate or set up territory.” 

Lindy Weilgart is an ocean policy consultant and adjunct professor in biology at Dalhousie in Halifax, N.S. She’s been monitoring the impact of noise on coastal marine species and notes that underwater noise affects everything from zooplankton to whales, and it can cause anatomical, behavioural, developmental, and physiological damage. “It’s across the board,” she says. Whales, in what researchers believe is a panic response to underwater sonar (specifically naval anti-submarine warfare mid-frequency sonar), change their dive pattern  and get decompression sickness, a.k.a. diver’s bends. “They hemorrhage in their brain and in their hearts and die within four hours,” she says. B.C.’s orcas, already experiencing disturbingly low numbers, are endangered by a host of stressors, including the noise pollution of increased ship traffic. Authorities have introduced incentives, including reduced port fees for quieter ships, and Transport Canada is leading a world-wide effort to reduce ship noise. Researchers are unsure whether it’s enough to help the orcas, but Weilgart says the changes are certainly worth doing. 

Nicola Koper, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who cottages on Bird Lake in Nopiming Provincial Park, has been studying the impact of noise on songbirds. Koper’s research along with others has found that birds exposed to noise, particularly unpredictable noise—think chainsaws, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, PWCs—get so distracted by it that they stop or change their normal behaviours, such as hunting for food, caring for their young, and remaining vigilant for predators, all of which affects their survival rate. Koper and her research partner, Miya Warrington, call birdsong a “message in a bottle,” warning us of the dangers of too much noise to the health of various species but also to our own. 

***

But what, exactly, is “quiet”? The sound engineers and acoustic ecologists and, well, cottagers, that spoke to me for this story note that quiet can include sound but is marked by the absence of human-caused noise intrusions, such as traffic and construction. Human voices, how­ever, are generally considered sound, not noise. We can be part of a healthy sound­scape; after all, we’re animals too. 

Jon Kawchuk calls quiet “the white space of a painting.” The composer who searched for quiet in the Rockies elaborates, saying, “We can’t really understand a shape without that ‘white space’ acting as a foil—showing us its bounds. I think the same is true of understanding sound. That quiet gives context to the sounds that punctuate our lives. We need silence in order to truly listen.” 

What’s important to note too is that none of these crusaders for quiet are anti-powerboating, or anti-doing-work-around-the-cottage, or anti-fun. Caroline Brooks delights in the sound of her children and others chatting on the dock or joyfully flinging themselves into the water. She doesn’t take issue with the shrieks of cottagers being pulled on a tube behind a boat. It’s just that some­times she needs…quiet, which she finds when she goes for a run on the old hydro line that zigs and zags the island where she cottages. “It’s really a special place for me,” she says. “It just allows me to reset.” It’s partly this urgency to reclaim quiet that motivated cottagers like Caroline to get involved with the Muskoka region’s Safe Quiet Lakes initiative. Formed in 2011 through a collaboration of cottagers’ associations, Safe Quiet Lakes encourages a more respectful environment on lakes, which includes recognizing that noise can be a part of cottage life, but that quiet is equally crucial.

As a member of the Safe Quiet Lakes board, Caroline is aware that there are competing desires among cottagers. “I recognize that other people’s enjoyment of the cottage includes high-speed loud boats,” she says. “But I need to have quiet.” She pauses. “I struggle a little bit with coming in and saying ‘it should be more quiet.’ Is it my place to do that?”

Safe Quiet Lakes did a survey of 3,300 area cottagers and residents in 2017 that suggests that a majority of respondents wished there was more quiet. “Regardless of the type of boats you own or the activities you participate in, if you perceive your part of the lake to be less noisy you enjoy it more,” says Safe Quiet Lakes board member Greg Wilkinson, a Lake Joseph cottager. “And half of the respondents feel that their part of the lake is noisier today than it was five years ago.”

People, Wilkinson says, are also unhappy about “lots of things that aren’t related to boats,” things such as chainsaws and ATVs. He walks his talk and now, for instance, uses a chainsaw that he says, “is about four times quieter than a gasoline-powered chainsaw.”

These cottagers and even those who have made the seeking of silence part of their work aren’t looking to restrict how people enjoy a space. Rather, they want to ensure that quiet is protected, at least some of the time. Otherwise, it’s becoming clear, we’ll lose it entirely.

***

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton’s newest initiative—after years lobbying U.S. Congress, unsuccessfully, to preserve the quietest spot in America—is perhaps the most ambitious. As quiet becomes an increas­ingly scarce resource, he says, it becomes more valuable. Just ask Finland, which is now banking on its branding as a silent destination to lure tourists keen to experience a noiseless nirvana. Based on this notion, and the success of Dark Sky Preserves, which brought attention to the impact of light pollution, Hempton has created Quiet Parks International (QPI), which, despite its name, isn’t just about preserving quiet in parks but also on trails and in communities and urban areas. QPI aims to establish an economic value to quiet by creating an actual certification that you can apply for. Cottagers in a quiet community are not only improving their health, Hempton believes that it will increase their property value. Those interested in becoming Quiet Park-certified need only contact the group and invite it to help. “So if somebody says they want to make their community a little more quiet, or have intervals of quiet,we can assist them in developing community codes and regulations,” says Jon Kawchuck, QPI’s Canadian rep. 

Hempton’s group has discovered that what doesn’t typically work is setting limits on decibel levels, because those tasked with enforcing such rules don’t have the necessary equipment to measure noise. What does work, Hempton says, is annoyance bylaws. “These are enforceable,” he says.

How to find quiet appliances

Hempton points to Green Mountain Farm, a Quiet Parks International planned community in rural North Carolina, which has tough community codes and regulations around noise. Everyone must agree to them before buying a home there.

Sometimes, says Nicola Koper, it’s a matter of understanding when quiet is most crucial and taking steps to protect it. For instance, the dawn chorus—which starts at sunrise and ends sometime between 8:30 and 10 a.m., depending on the temperature and time of year—is a really important time for birds, she says. Especially during May and June in Canada, birds are singing to attract mates. Through July, songs help them check their nests and guard against predators. After about 10 a.m., their communication usually drops off. “One thing we can do as cottagers is avoid making a lot of noise earlier in the day,” she says. “Pour yourself a coffee, go to the end of the dock, just enjoy yourself.”

I take Koper’s advice. It’s a weekday morning so the lake is less busy. I hear the whistle of the kettle letting me know I can pour my tea. I take my mug out to the deck and listen to the familiar sound of the waves— the wind is from the north and they’re huge—along with the poplar leaves. My 90-year-old father, who’s been cottaging on this lake since he was 17, joins me. It’s nice, we agree. For now, it’s quiet.

This story was originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Cottage Life.

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