This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 4, 2009
Stranded by the Red River Flood
Eighty-five-year-old Ted Sabourin has lived alone in his Manitoba farmhouse ever since his wife, Bella, died a little over two years ago. Widowhood is already a lonely state, so Sabourin was perhaps almost too well prepared when, on April 6, the RED RIVER burst its seams and, joined by its tributaries, rippled out across the valley. The FLOOD waters eventually covered 1,680 sq. km of Manitoba, forcing the evacuation of some 2,200 people.
Through it all - for more than two weeks so far - Sabourin, a laconic farmer, has stayed put, his little home perched on a plot of land "like an island in the middle of the ocean," as his 57-year-old son Donald puts it. His road access to the nearby francophone community of St. Jean Baptiste, on the east bank of the Red some 80 km south of WINNIPEG, is frequently the first to close during flooding. So Sabourin stocked up on food and a month's supply of medication. For a week, chunks of ice flowed fast past his home, preventing him from leaving at all; now he is able to travel to town only by boat, when the winds aren't too fierce, and will likely have to do so for the next three weeks. Sabourin would have it no other way. "Leave to go elsewhere?" he asks in French. "Who would work my pumps?"
Sabourin anticipated the waters by moving his air seeder, tractors, hoes and his 1983 Chevrolet truck to higher ground and prepping his 16-foot, 20-h.p. motorboat. When that treacherous flow of ice gave way in the second week, "I was able to cross the river," says Sabourin, who dragged the boat off his lawn and into the flood waters. "As I said," he continues, "the only way we can leave is by boat. That's not really a life." It can be a treacherous journey. On windy days, waves swell beneath the boat while powerful currents work beneath it. "It depends how brave you are with your boat - we're not all daredevils on the water," says his second son, Sylvio, 56.
A typical day now consists of working the pumps that keep Sabourin's basement dry, making sure the electricity remains flowing (the Sabourins have generators should it fail) - and eating. "What do we eat? We eat as we do normally," says Sabourin. "We can do some shopping - we've been to the village once already, and we bring back provisions, enough for 10 days." He gets to St. Jean, which the locals pronounce so that it rhymes with "keen," by boating for 25 minutes to his waiting Chevrolet, then driving up Provincial Trunk Highway 75. The community of St. Jean, population 1,050, is also under siege. "When you stand on the dike, as far as you can see it's water all the way around," says Lucien Jean, who sits on the local government.
Sabourin's two sons each occupy farmhouses two kilometres away from his, each now on its own island and each now home to countless squirrels, rabbits and skunks that have found refuge there from the floodwaters. "He's got nowhere else to go," Donald says of one skunk in particular. "We keep our distance and go about our business." (Elsewhere, not far away, deer huddle on the occasional patch of high, dry land, says Sabourin, though many perish when, grown restless, they risk swimming toward a distant clump of trees and drown.)
Not that any of this is new to Sabourin. His farmlands, where he grows wheat and canola, have been passed down through four generations. "I have experienced all the floods," he says. "The first one in 1948, and the second - which was the worst - in 1950. Since then we've experienced dozens. But this time now is one of the worst, for the duration and isolation." Why stay? The question stuns Sabourin. After l'inondation du siècle - the 1997 flood of the century, when the Red spanned 2,000 sq. km and washed through Winnipeg - he raised his home more than two metres. "It cost me a lot of money," he says. Leave? "Who would work the pumps, to make sure they worked still, and all that? I have to stay."
Sabourin says the floods are getting worse since his childhood, and blames the trouble on modern drainage systems that spill the melting Prairie snows in spring simultaneously into the Red. He is not worried so much now about the isolation of his little island but his champs - the fields - the fertilizer he laid in autumn and the winter wheat he planted, which must now be rotten. "The prospects for us, the farmers who remain near the Red River, are very, very poor this year," he says.
After the flood waters recede, Sabourin and his sons will clear the fields of debris, the tree branches, the garbage and the sodden hay. They will have to wait a week or so for the earth to dry and then try to seed the spring wheat. "In 1950, we weren't able to," says Sabourin. "I hope that it's going to be better than in 1950."
Sabourin has a long memory, all of it bound up in a home that's now an island. "I've been living here all my life," he says. "Before I got married in 1946, I was living just next door with my dad and mum. After I got married I built this place here and I've been living here 62 years now. I lost my wife two years ago. We celebrated our 60th anniversary and then she passed away two months after that. So now I'm alone by myself."
Maclean's May 4, 2009