On a Sunday morning this past June, I stood with Garth van der Kamp, a hydrologist with Environment Canada, along the shoreline of Sandy (Halkett) Lake in Prince Albert National Park.
Garth had recently read Merle Massie’s award-winning book, Forest Prairie Edge, and had questions about logging activities in the park area, in particular the damming of water bodies to control water flow. Merle included me in her email response to Garth because I had written a history of the park, Saskatchewan’s Playground (1989), and had spent time tramping around in the bush looking for signs of past activities.
At one time, logging had been Prince Albert’s leading industry, all because of the settlement boom that swept across the Prairies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of the steadily growing demand for building materials, lumber companies rapidly ramped up their production.
They would sweep into the nearby boreal forest, cut the best white spruce stands, and then move on farther north – without the slightest thought about environmental consequences. In 1900, 3.6 million board feet (1″ by 1′ by 1′) were cut. Four years later, when production topped 15 million board feet, Prince Albert mills accounted for 16 per cent of western Canadian lumber production.
The major player in the Prince Albert-based lumber trade was the American-owned Prince Albert Lumber Company with more than 2,000 men in over a dozen camps.
By 1912, it had pushed the timber frontier into the future national park forest and was harvesting an estimated 50 million board feet.
Not even the creation of the Sturgeon River Forest Reserve in 1914 deterred the cutting. There were 14 federal timber berths within the new reserve (south of Waskesiu Lake), and the Prince Albert Lumber Company controlled all but one. Logging operations were a carefully orchestrated affair. Felled trees would be skidded through the bush in winter to loading areas and then hauled by huge sleds to landing stations along the Spruce River.
There, the logs would be held until spring and floated downriver to the Prince Albert mill.
To ensure that the otherwise sluggish Spruce River could move the logs, all of the trees along the riverbank were cleared. But as the volume of logs increased, steps were taken to increase spring water levels by damming local water bodies.
That is what interested Garth. He wanted to find any surviving evidence of a dam on McKenzie Creek, the water body that connects Sandy Lake to the Spruce River.
He also offered a more satisfactory explanation as to why the Prince Albert Lumber Company closed operations in October 1918.
Saskatchewan’s Playground argued that logging in the park had ceased because of the distance from the mill; the costs proved too prohibitive.
That, it turns out, was only part of the story.
The remains of the Mackenzie Creek dam were found that weekend – nothing more than a crude earth barricade where Sandy Lake entered the creek. It was probably opened only a few times, maybe only once.
As Garth noted, as we stood on the site of the former McKenzie landing on the Spruce River, once the lake level was lowered by the opening of the dam, it could take several years to rise again.
The other complicating factor was the climate. Garth had Environment Canada precipitation data for the Prince Albert region that clearly demonstrated that the summer of 1917 was very dry and the winter of 1917-18 had little snow cover. The 1918 spring run-off was consequently much lower than average at the very time the Prince Albert Lumber Company was trying to move more than 500,000 logs. The dams would not have been able to provide much flow boost.
It is little wonder, then, that the company decided to suspend its Prince Albert operations.
The timing was fortunate. The exceptionally dry conditions spawned a catastrophic fire that swept through the region in the late spring of 1919. Fed by the logging slash, it burned a large part of the forest south of Lake Waskesiu.
Aspen groves stand today as silent reminders of this past disturbance.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.