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'They Killed My Beautiful Lake'

Skeed Borkowski built his lodge, and life, on Quesnel Lake. Then the Mount Polley dam burst.

Tom Hawthorn 19 Aug

Veteran Victoria-based journalist Tom Hawthorn is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Read his previous pieces for The Tyee here.

A telephone ringing in the predawn darkness does not bring good news.

It was 5 a.m. on the morning of B.C. Day, a statutory holiday for much of the province but a regular summer workday at the Northern Lights Lodge on Quesnel Lake. The eight rooms in the lodge were occupied, as were five cabins.

The owners were enjoying what they expected to be their final summer operating the fly-fishing lodge before retirement. The property had been recently listed for sale. A lifetime of labour was nearing an end. "We were cramming for finals," said Skeed Borkowski, 66, who owns the lodge with his wife, Sharon.

It is the kind of rustic retreat where guests become friends and a first stay is followed by an annual visit. The final scheduled guest was making his fifteenth visit. Americans come to the lodge for the bounty of burbling trout streams. Europeans seek the peaceful solitude to be found on the shore of a crystalline lake, a lake so clear and with water so refreshing Borkowski liked to quench his thirst by dipping a tin cup into the lake on which they floated. The lodge was solidly booked for what the Borkowskis expected would be their final season.

Then the phone rang and bad news came and all plans went into limbo.

On the other end of the line was Sam McBurney, Sharon's brother. "Mount Polley's tailings pond has breached," he said. "The dam has broken. It's in Quesnel Lake."

Borkowski thought, How is that possible? He also knew that what is a pond by name is much, much larger than a mere pond. He takes guests berry picking on Spanish Mountain to the east and has scanned the Mount Polley operation through binoculars. Imperial Metals' open-pit copper and gold mine had a tailings pond in a crater about half the expanse of Stanley Park. It holds as much water as 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Only this pond held more than just water -- the mine lists 31 solids impounded in the tailings, from aluminum to zinc.

Roar of a dam collapsing

The couple stepped onto their deck, which faces the lake along which they own a 2,000-foot frontage. It was still dark, though dawn was nearing, and the usual morning still was shattered by an odd, thundering roar. Like thunder. Or a jet. Only wetter.

"It was like standing next to a large waterfall," he said. "It was so loud."

They decided they needed to warn campers down the lake at Winkley Creek. In the country, there is no shirking responsibility, no one else to pick up the slack. So, the couple boarded their 22-foot Silverline cabin cruiser and set off south.

In the distance on their right, they spotted the site where waste and debris were slushing into Quesnel Lake. The mouth of Hazeltine Creek, a stream narrow enough to be jumped over, had been obliterated by the torrent from the mine's retention basin.

"It was mud. Logs. A slurry coming down," he said. "You could see grey waves."

High above, the breach of the earthen pond dam allowed 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of fine sand to drain into Polley Lake. When it in turn overflowed, the mixture followed the dictates of gravity along the creek bed, washing away trees and scraping the mountainside into Quesnel Lake. A creek less than two metres wide had been replaced by a churning, muddy wall of water as wide as 150 metres.

On the lake, the debris piled up. "Logs stacked up in log islands," Borkowski said. Some of these were seven-metres tall and 50-metres wide.

The roiling waters bubbling around log islands presented a surreal image, one Borkowski struggled to describe.

"It was something they couldn't even duplicate in the movies," he said.

The couple continued on to the Winkley Creek campsites, where they told campers what they knew and what they had seen. The campers were asked to spread the word.

Once back home, the telephone rang constantly, as neighbours shared what information they had. The Borkowskis also had to deal with a workday in which 20 guests had to be fed.

Life at the end of the road

The Northern Lights Lodge can be found along Cedar Creek Road driving south from Likely, an old Cariboo mining town originally known as Quesnelle Dam and later named after "Plato John" Likely, a gold prospector who liked to lecture fellow miners about philosophy. You find the turnoff for the lodge about a kilometre south of Cedar Creek Provincial Park, the entrance indicated by a wooden sign decorated with the lodge's name and a set of bear paw prints. A long driveway ends at the lakefront, where stands a log cabin made of cedar, which was originally built for a wealthy Vancouver family in 1942.

The Borkowskis, who were high-school sweethearts, purchased the lodge with partners in 1995, turning the lodge into a fly-fishing operation to take advantage of bountiful rainbow and bull trout streams feeding into the wishbone-shaped lake. Quesnel Lake is B.C.'s deepest at 530 metres, deeper than the greatest of the Great Lakes and the second deepest in Canada. The glacier lake has long been known for its pristine water.

Skeed Borkowski was born on the family farm at Mink Creek, a hamlet in the rural Manitoba municipality of Ethelbert. His grandmother delivered him. When he was aged six, the family joined his father's brothers in Williams Lake. The boy, who was named Terrance John Joseph Anthony on his birth, gained the nickname Skeed for his exploits in a high school basketball game. (The name came from a code word used in the game.) He and Sharon operated their own logging operation (Summit Cedar Products Ltd.) for nearly 20 years. They also have done some placer mining for gold.

"People are here by choice," he said of Likely. "It's an end-of-the-road town. I thought if the world was coming to an end this was the place to be."

He did not expect the end of the world, nor even the end of a way of life. When he sent the photo at the top of this article, he provided this caption: "Sharon & I, married for 45 years & the SOBs just stole our pension but worst of all... they killed my beautiful lake!"

'It'll never be fine'

Borkowski considers himself pro-development and has had plenty of miners stay at the resort. (Three were on hand even on the night the dam failed.) Family members have worked at the Mount Polley mine.

He did not find any comfort in the words of Premier Christy Clark, who vowed to return the scarred landscape "to the real pristine beauty we all know this lake is for our province." 

"You can wave your pom-poms all you want," he said. "The cheerleading stuff will not work."

He cannot imagine how his resort and the other tourist- and fishing-related businesses around the lake will survive. A simple Google search by a potential customer seeking a fly-fishing outfitter will connect Quesnel Lake with a mine breach.

"The stigma will hang over this lake forever," he said. "It'll never be fine. It'll never be safe. Maybe a generation from now." He let the thought linger for a moment. "I don't have a generation from now."

The provincial government took a water sample from the lake just off his property. He was told the water at his intake was safe for consumption, but he cannot bring himself to do so. "My brain won't let me drink it," he said. Instead, he has spent a few thousand dollars to hook up a spring on his property to his residence.

In a fortnight, he and his wife have gone from preparing for a deserved retirement into a limbo from which the future is only uncertain.

"These two weeks," he said, "have been a helluva 10 years."  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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