Relaxing in the early evening sun with a friend on the deck of his Marsh Lake home, Don Sippel looks like any retiree living the measured pace of one’s golden years.
The serene scene is actually a moment of calm in what has been a frantic week for Sippel.
Record-setting water levels of Marsh Lake have forced Sippel and his wife, Penny, to work 12 hours a day filling and laying sandbags across three sides of their property.
The couple was probably the first in the area to start bagging, said Sippel.
“A lot of people thought we were goofy to start bagging when we did,” he said.
Now, several weeks after the first sandbags were laid on his property, water levels in the Southern Lakes region, including Marsh, Bennett and Tagish lakes, has surpassed the record set in 1981.
“We’ve officially exceeded the record and it’s still going up,” said Glenn Ford, a hydrology technologist with the environmental department.
The lake sat at about 656.998 metres at 11 a.m. Thursday, surpassing the all-time high of 656.994 metres set 26 years ago.
Forecasts suggest the water will rise to 657.23 metres at its peak, which is expected sometime in the first week of August and will hold for about another week.
A total rise of 31 centimetres was recorded in the last week, ending Wednesday.
Heavy rain caused the lake to rise 10 centimetres on July 17.
The Southern Lakes region can expect a daily increase of three to five centimetres, tapering off to two and eventually one, said Ford.
Three large piles of sand, flanked by a sand funnel more than two metres high, sit in the Sippel’s driveway.
For the past two weeks, their year-round residence has hosted sandbagging parties for Marsh Lake area residents.
“You can’t wait for the water to come up,” said Penny. “You have to do something. We all built on the waterfront and we’ve known what could happen.”
While his wife recounts summers filled with friends and family at what used to be a summer cottage, Sippel throws on his rubber boots and walks into a pool of mud and water on the side of his property. The water doesn’t take breaks, so he has to keep his short.
He tends a water pump that is working overtime. His neighbour has decided not to sandbag his property and the flood has moved across the property line.
Absentee owners, some of whom have yet to lay a single sandbag, are causing problems for year-round residents, who are forced to fight the flood not just from the lakefront, but from their flanks.
The relentless rise in water levels has kept residents busy.
Exhaustion is setting in.
Many people spend an entire day filling and laying sandbags, and then have to repeat the process the next day as the water rises faster than people can build walls, said Marsh Lake Emergency Measures Organization volunteer co-ordinator Mike Larsen.
“Most of the folks living here are seniors,” he said. “They could run me around the track, but they’re getting tired after a week of putting up walls.”
EMO is setting up a trailer this weekend to co-ordinate sandbagging efforts for residents because a streamlined system of filling, moving and laying sandbags is needed as demand increases and access roads to some residences are flooding, said Larsen.
“It’s tough getting the bags where they need to be,” he said.
The co-ordinated effort couldn’t come soon enough for former MLA Doug Phillips, who’s battling the rising water.
“When it comes to an overall plan about what’s going to happen, I don’t think they’re there,” he said Wednesday night.
After laying sandbags along the shoreline in front of his house, Phillips and a friend started work on a wall for a neighbour’s property.
His day started at 8 a.m. and he’s been working ever since.
“You set a row of bags down and you get to one end, you look back and the water has risen enough that you need to lay another row down,” said Phillips.
“The upside to the flood: I don’t have to water my garden.”
Phillips expects most of his property to be underwater once the lake hits its peak level.
“You do a lot of work on your property during the year, but all that can be replaced,” he said. “I’m not losing any family to the flood.”
EMO is stepping up efforts and prioritizing most at-risk areas for better use of time and resources.
Inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre filled sandbags Thursday and wildfire crews have been volunteering their time this week to help residents build barriers.
EMO officials will take over Marsh Lake day use area this weekend for co-ordination efforts.
“EMO advised us to start packing up our valuables and papers,” said Penny, who has resigned herself to the fact that flooding is imminent.
“We’ll have a little bit of cleaning up to do.”
Recreational boaters should be wary of submerged docks, which could rip the hull of a boat, said Larson.
Also, boaters have been asked to keep speeds down to lessen the size of wakes that add to the flooding threat.
“It’s a surreal scene,” said Larsen. “It’s really hot and you look over and see guys frantically bagging and then you see guys out on the beach enjoying the beach and out waterskiing.”
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