Canoe Trippers be Dammed
By: Conor Mihell

A series of hydroelectric dams are threatening to silence the waterfalls and rapids of a historic waterway and an important link for contemporary canoe trippers in the Boundary Waters region. Ontario's Lac La Croix First Nation and a Toronto-based developer have completed a draft environmental assessment (EA) for a 6.4-megawatt facility on the Namakan River, a free-flowing, wilderness corridor that connects Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park to Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park. The proponent, the Ojibway Power and Energy Group (OPEG), has indicated that damming the 20-foot drop of the Namakan's High Falls will be the first of three hydroelectric facilities on the river.

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OPEG states that the "run of the river" developments will provide jobs for residents of the remote community and help meet Ontario's "green" energy objectives. But environmental organizations from both sides of the border are opposing the development on recreational, environmental and economic grounds. The Namakan is the last remaining waterway on the historic 19th century voyageur route in eastern North America that's yet to be dammed, says Stephen Challis, a paddler from Winnipeg and vice-president of Paddle Manitoba. "The St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Mattawa, French, Kaministiquia, Rainy and Winnipeg rivers all have dams on them," he says.

In 1830, the 25-mile-long Namakan River became the preferred route for Hudson Bay Company fur traders transiting the network of lakes and rivers along the Canada-U.S. border. The river turns up many times in the journals and sketchbooks of countless European explorers. Unheralded cartographer David Thompson, the man who mapped the Boundary Waters and much of the Canadian West, spent two summers in the area, says Challis. "When you're walking those portages you're literally following in the footsteps of these great explorers. That to me is a very powerful experience."

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Challis says the isolated river is most frequently paddled by American canoeists because it's more easily accessed from the U.S. side of the border. The Namakan is the only large, "wild" river in the region, making it an ideal route for more experienced paddlers looking to add a dash of whitewater to the area's typical lake-to-lake tripping. Other waterways like Quetico's Maligne River simply don't have the volume and power of the Namakan, says Challis. "There's no other waterfall that approaches the size and volume of High Falls, and Hay Rapids [a Class III drop located just downstream] is the longest stretch of whitewater in the area."

Meanwhile, the Namakan River provides key habitat for lake sturgeon, an endangered fish species whose fossil record dates back more than 200 million years. Paddlers like Challis have long observed sturgeon "surfacing and doing back rolls" while canoeing down the river. In Ontario, the species is labeled "threatened"—reason enough for provincial and state biologists on both sides of the border to launch a special study on the Namakan River after the hydroelectric projects were proposed in 2005. According Cory MacNulty, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Voyageurs National Park Association, a nongovernmental group that aims to protect environmental and recreational values along the international border, the sturgeon research is clearly demonstrating the waterway's importance to migrating fish. "We're just beginning to learn how sturgeon are using this [river] system," says MacNulty. "At the very minimum we should be postponing any project until we have a better idea of how sturgeon are using the river." Economically, opponents are also questioning the minimal local benefits of the project and the fact that the regional energy grid is already dealing with a surplus of power.

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Challis is urging paddlers and environmentalists to review OPEG's EA document (available online at "It's not as if you're just going to bump into a dam at High Falls," says Challis. "The entire river is going to be industrialized."