By Sharon Weatherall
BEAUSOLEIL FN –Low water levels in the Great Lakes have had a costly impact on this First Nation’s ferry service, as well as created a lot of inconvenience for residents of Christian Island in Georgian Bay.
The Sandy Graham — a 100 passenger, 26- vehicle ferry, recently returned to service after spending the winter at Purvis Marine in Sault Ste. Marie for extensive repairs to damage caused by running aground on a submerged log in late December.
Arnold Jamieson Jr. says low water levels and “not substantial ice” in the past five years are both to blame.
“The lake water is down five feet — its lowest since 1986. Docks that were constructed that year during the highest recorded lake levels are no longer suiting our needs,” says the Beausoleil transportation coordinator.
“My father, who is a ferry captain, remembers the lake levels being this low in the 1960’s and recent reports say lake levels are now two inches lower than at that time. We hope it will rebound but I think it will go lower before it gets higher.”
Earlier this year Beausoleil petitioned the federal Indian Affairs department for emergency funding to carry out dredging operations at both Christian Island and Cedar Point docks. The work wrapped up March 31st , but Jamieson anticipates more dredging will be done this August. With the Sandy Graham gone, there was concern for the island’s back-up, a passenger ferry which was touching bottom while in terminal and had to have its passenger capacity drastically reduced to 40 people per trip. This posed scheduling problems for Island residents since 35 students use the ferry twice daily on weekdays to attend mainland high schools.
While the Sandy Graham was out of service, community members relied on a push-barge to bring vehicles and supplies across to the island. The inconvenience affected not only passengers but island businesses, including a store that receives merchandise three times a week. Jamieson said scheduling became a hard task to co-ordinate and took its toll on ferry crews and staff in the 20-person Transportation Department. He has raised the issue with Bruce Stanton, MP Simcoe North, for action by the appropriate federal departments.
In the many years he has been operating ferries to Christian Island, Captain Henry Jackson has never seen the water so low. He was thankful that hydro cables powering the east end of the island were removed from the dock area three years ago as they were almost in the path of the boats.
“It was a Godsend the power cables were not there or we would have been hitting them. Cedar Point also has rocks embedded in the sand and we were worried about hitting bottom and ruining the propellers. Before the dredging the ferry was stopping two feet from the dock and had to be pushed full force through a sand bar. Since the dredging the water is 8 – 10 feet deep and we can dock safely again.”
The First Nation has been lobbying Ottawa for a new ferry to replace the aging Sandy Graham. The vessel which is 57 years old, was built in 1955 and purchased by BFN from INAC in 1998 as an interim solution to service. Jamieson says the project needs a “political push” to get the ball rolling.
“A feasibility study was done in 2006 but that data is getting old and we have to conduct a new study to update it. Like everything else the cost keeps going up. A new ferry and terminals then was $22 million but based on inflation we are now looking at $25 million and designs may need to be amended due to low lake levels,” said Jamieson. He notes that the shoreline has receded 40 feet since he took over the job and low water is also having an effect on recreational boating.