Dock at Lake Nipigon lodge, September 2009

 If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes.

If a tsunami sweeps across an inland lake in the boreal forest, and there is no one there to see it, did it happen?


It depends on the track it leaves.

I have paddled across a big lake in a storm, in the teeth of a gale, for a solid two hours, non-stop, because if I stopped, I was dead.  When I finally looked back, there was no track.  It might have never happened.

Lake Nipigon is one of Canada’s biggest lakes.  I have canoed it, but . . . never in a storm.  I was caught in a storm there once, and, apparently, I lived.

If I’d been out a couple weeks ago, I would have, apparently, died.

In this neck of the woods, they call a tsunami a seiche (pronounced SAY –sh).  A strong westerly wind piled the water into a ridge and sent it rippling across the broad expanse of Lake Nipigon into the southeast arm, where the steep hills and narrowing corridor exacerbated the phenomenon.

I know it happened because I saw its track, two weeks later.

In September of 2009, my friend Peter took me sailing up the arm and into the open lake.  I was researching the shoreline for my novel, The Beardmore Relics.  It was breezy, but pleasant.  And we returned safely, apparently, to the dock.

That dock is no longer there.  It was a huge dock, fastened to cedar pilings that have survived the battering of storms for better than fifty years.  It may be closer to a hundred years.  The dock is gone.  The pilings remain.

Just the pilings left, June 2011

The seiche drove debris six feet up the shoreline at the Royal Windsor Lodge.

I haven’t heard other damage reports, but I suspect the eastern shoreline of Lake Nipigon has changed dramatically in some places.

Years ago, I examined some Pukaskaw pits on an island on the east shore.  These are circular pits excavated in a cobblestone beach.  They are ancient aboriginal artifacts.  I, and perhaps a handful of people, knew they were there.  The academics whom I told about them, never took the trouble to verify their existence.

The summer of ’09, I went looking for them again.  The pits were gone.  Even the cobblestones were gone. 

Storm surges on Lake Nipigon have no doubt wiped out a lot of history. 

In my novel, a character takes refuge in a Pukaskaw pit about ninety years ago during a storm.  Today, in a similar situation, he’d be, apparently, dead.  Fortunately, he lives on . . . in my novel.

The Royal Windsor Lodge complex of buildings dates back almost a century.  Some years ago, a seiche took out the huge two-story boathouse that had withstood the battering from time immemorial.

It may be that only a few dozen people know about the tsunami that ravaged the east shore of Lake Nipigon two weeks ago.  It is almost certain that nobody official knows about it – and that most certainly includes Environment Canada. 

Some more history has been lost . . . and even the fact that is has been lost has gone unrecorded . . .

Till now. 

Tossed up by the seiche

About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website www.WhiskyJackPublishing.ca
This entry was posted in KENNET FORBES MYSTERIES, NATURE and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Fascinating. I’ve read of seiche on Lake Superior, but this is the first time I’ve heard of one on Lake Nipigon. And wow, what a powerful one it was.

    • EJ Lavoie says:

      Hi, Elle
      A lot of curious things happen on The Lake. There is a phenomenon called a wind burst – a downblast of air that can set off a seiche. It can happen under an empty sky. Read Ken Johnson’s comment on the weird weather of The Lake.

  2. Ken Johnson says:

    Back in the early 1960s, I worked as the Park Attendant at Blacksands Provincial Park. Mike Hardy, who resided in MacDiarmid, and worked at the Park, gave me a lesson in what Lake Nipigon had to offer. I had been down near the shoreline and noticed that the surface of the Lake was as almost totally calm – for a change! The surface ressembled a mirror. I mentioned this to Mike and he told me that there was going to be a very violent storm on the Lake, likely later that day, or over night. He was right – before too many hours had passed, I saw storm clouds darken the horizon to the North, and then the winds hit. It didn’t take too long for large rolling/white-capped waves to appear as well as sheets of rain. Mike mentioned, that if anyone had been on the Lake in a small boat, when the storm hit, they likely would have been swamped. The commercial fishermen from MacDiarmid always knew enough to get off the water when the ‘glassy surface’ appeared. I never saw a build-up of water as per your article – but I can well imagine that it did occur on occasion.
    The wave action often eroded the shoreline near the Lands and Forest base, and I recall seeing the flattened end of an old wooden coffin sticking out of a nearby sand bank. When I worked at the Thunder Bay Hist. Society Museum (1974-77) one of the summer employees who had been swimming in Lake Nipigon came upon two very old skulls in the water. They had been eroded out of the sandy shoreline. They were retreived by the student, who brought them to the Musuem, Shortly after, they were turned over to Prof. Ken Dawson at Lakehead University. They could still be there. He did a lot of work on rock-lined pits similar to the ones you describe – but they were on the shore of Lake Superior, beyond Terrace Bay. Perhaps he knew about the ones you saw. Hopefully you took photographs of the structures. Cheers. Ken Johnson.

    • EJ Lavoie says:

      Hi, Ken
      I traversed The Lake in, I believe, 1975, from east to west. The day our canoe party started out, it was glassy calm. We made it two-thirds the way across. The next day we were wind- and storm-bound. So I can relate to your experience.
      On another occasion, I recall visiting a camp owner in Cove Inlet (the bottom of the southeast arm). He had a machine dumping boulders and logs into a cavity left by a recent storm, which had torn away a good portion of his lakeshore property.
      That business of graveyards being savaged. I describe a case in my novel – I’ve been assuming that the Great Fire of ’99 destroyed it (It’s located just north of Poplar Lodge Park). That helped, certainly, but I’m thinking, now, that The Lake took a big bite of it, for I found a broken headstone on the beach sand.
      As for the pits, Ken Dawson was one of those I told – he was in retirement, or semi-retirement, at the time. He expressed interest, but he never took me up on my offer to show him.
      Yes, I took photos, which I haven’t dug out of my “archives” yet.

  3. marvinallanwilliams says:

    Facinating EJ, absolutely facinating. You certainly live in an interesting part of Canada. I look forward to reading your book.

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