A Small-Scale Natural Disaster

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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Like most people I watched the videos of the rushing black tsunami wave of water in Japan with terror. In some of the videos you can see people walking slowly and I just wanted to yell at the TV screen “Run! Run!” 

The nuclear disaster in Japan has taught us new terms like “double redundancy backup failures” and how quickly Mother Nature lays waste the arrogance of man’s plans. Turns out that nuclear power generating stations need electricity to keep water flowing to cool the reactors, and when these power stations have problems they need electricity from somewhere else. There’s a concept. First it’s diesel generators until the diesel runs out, or the generators are trashed by water, then it’s batteries, but they only lasted a few hours.  

Construction workers large and small can try and build systems to handle nature’s worst-case scenario, but it never seems to be enough. Just north of our home is “6th Depot Lake” which is part of the Depot Lakes system that was used by logging companies to float the winter’s timber harvest to market every spring. (This is described in a few novels, such as Michael Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of a Lion”) West of the lake there used to be a massive beaver pond, which was the size of a small lake. The size and scope of the beaver dam that held back this massive volume of water was staggering. For such small, ground-dwelling rodents, beavers can create works on a massive scale.  

Several years ago Michelle and I walked to this lake and we noticed that something was wrong. As we followed the trail of destruction to the west you could see that the beaver dam had been breached in a March rainstorm when the pond would have been at its fullest. The force of the water had basically removed everything in its path over a huge swath as it raced to lower ground. Later we were talking with the owner of the property who had seen the damage shortly after it had happened. He said that there had been an enormous pile of uprooted trees and other debris that had been swept on to the ice of 6th Depot Lake. He, too, was in awe of the force of nature.

I can just imagine the scale of this event that wasn’t witnessed by any human. I imagine the only creatures that took notice were the beavers, cuddled up in their lodge, thinking “Oh rats! There go my summer vacation plans!” 

On Friday March 11, the same day of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, we drove to Kingston to pick up our daughter’s fiancé from the bus terminal. As we were zooming along the road not too far from our house I slammed on the brakes when I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. We got to a low spot in the road that has beaver ponds on both sides and discovered that the road was completely covered in rushing water. The water on the west side of the pond, which would normally be two feet below the road, was now rushing over the road. This was after two days of torrential rains, but the rains would not have been enough to flood this area, even with the snowmelt.

The beaver ponds in this area form a chain, with a dam holding back water at the top of each pond. When I looked at the dam above this pond I could see the problem. The dam had a huge hole in it. This wasn’t in fact the only break. Above this pond is another large pond/lake that is controlled by a beaver dam. As you drive by this lake in the summer it looks like a just another small lake amongst the thousands we’re surrounded by. (Our tourist area here is called “Land O’ Lakes.”) But as you can see from these photos, the dam holding water back was also breeched here. Beaver dams are absolutely brilliant pieces of engineering and they last for years holding back enormous volumes of water. But when they go – when you have one of those rare massive rainfalls – they really go. And in this case they created a chain of events of massive cascading failures. Unlike a poorly engineered nuclear station though, it just means some beaver ponds will return to meadows next summer.

So we sat in our car, staring at this torrent of water rushing over the road. The only way around it was to drive back to Parham and then south to Kingston, which would have added 20 km to our trip and we had some book orders that we wanted to ship from the post office in Tamworth. If I had been alone I would have just plowed right on through. But Michelle and my daughter Katie were with me, so I suggested that we get out and scope out the situation. The road does dip slightly at the lowest point where there is a culvert. In the deeper water at the side of the road there was a massive whirlpool making loud sucking noises as it pulled anything near it under and through the culvert. It was a little disconcerting.

As I stood watching the water sweep across my road, I couldn’t help but think of all of the news clips that I’ve seen of people on the roofs of their cars in floods being rescued by helicopters or firefighters. I always think “how can these people be so stupid to get themselves into a situation like that?” And yet there I was contemplating crossing that water. If we’d had a SUV with big tires and 4-wheel drive and a high clearance it would have been a no-brainer. But we, of course, were in our Honda Civic, which is not noted for its high clearance or off-road stream-fording capabilities.

But after scoping out the situation we all agreed that it looked safe to continue. Just then two vehicles arrived at the flooded road from the opposite direction. A smaller car stopped at the water’s edge, and then an F150 pickup truck behind it drove through and gave us the thumbs up. “Sure, that’s easy for you to say” I thought, as I stared up at the driver, as he sat way up high in his truck. Then we watched the other small car make it through and so off we went. It was quite deep at the lowest point but the engine didn’t stall and since the Civic had 4 months worth of road salt on the underside, it all worked out for the best. Thanks to the beavers I won’t have to wash the salt off with my hose this year! 

By the time we returned home later that night the flood was over and the water had receded.

Living in the country has forced me on many occasions to do things I’m not really comfortable with. It’s one thing to drive through a flooded road when you are minutes from the nearest fire station with trucks and firefighters to help you get out. If my car had stalled in the middle of that flood, it would have meant a half hour walk back to my house to get my truck to pull my car out. I might have been lucky enough to hitch a ride with someone but on our road there are often long spells without a single vehicle driving through. I also didn’t relish the thought of having to get out of my stalled car and walking through cold sulphur-smelling water. Ugh. 

I am very disconcerted by the destruction in Japan. It is very unsettling. This is a very developed, technologically advanced society that has suddenly been faced with huge dislocation. Toyko is running out of food. People are hoarding. This is just another reminder of the importance of having some food stored for emergencies.I follow a blogger called “Rice Farmer” and he’s had to stop posting because his power is now being rationed in Tokyo.This reinforces my belief in the comfort and necessity of producing your own power.  

The moral seems to be that nothing lasts forever and that things can change quickly. Maybe the Boy Scouts got it right so many decades ago in our childhood with their simple motto… “Be Prepared.” 

Editors Note: Cam’s book “Thriving During Challenging Times, The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook” is available in book form or as an eBook from Amazon.

Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather. For more information about Cam Mather and his books and DVDs visit www.aztext.com or www.cammather.com