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Exploring historical Lake Agassiz

Lauren MacGill

"Lake Agassiz" author Bill Redekop was in Morden promoting and signing his book on Feb. 6. (SUPPLIED)

"Lake Agassiz" author Bill Redekop was in Morden promoting and signing his book on Feb. 6. (SUPPLIED)


“Lake Agassiz: The Rise and Demise of the World’s Greatest Lake” author and Winnipeg Free Press reporter Bill Redekop was at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre on Feb. 6 to sign his book.

Lake Agassiz existed 8,000 to 14,000 years ago and covered most of the province, including the Pembina Valley region. The body of water fell within the Pembina Escarpment, which occurs in Manitoba as well as North and South Dakota.

Winnipeg-based publisher Heartland Associates commissioned Redekop to write the book, and as part of the preparation stages set him up for a meeting with distinguished geologist Harvey Thorleifson, who is now the director of the Minnesota Geological Survey.

“He is amazing,” Redekop said. “He just amazed me by the things he was telling me and the way he could tell me in such an interesting and exciting way. He had such a facility with the material that I also began to see that you could make a book. It’s actually a very colourful story.”

Redekop said he knew nothing about the lake going into the project. “I thought it was just a big, cold, sterile lake surrounded by ice,” he said. “I was intrigued but I thought at the same time, ‘What is there to write about? Who would read this book?’”

About one quarter of the way through his research, Redekop found that there was much more to the lake than what he had first assumed.

At times Redekop said he felt like he couldn’t do it, partially because of difficulty understanding some geological papers.

“All this information is out there but it’s in scientific journals,” Redekop explained. “It seemed like there was an opportunity to bring it out of that and put it into layman’s terms that people could understand.”

“I consciously said to myself, ‘I don’t care what geologists say, I’m not writing for geologists,’” he added. “They have their own books and papers. I’m trying to write this in such a way that cuts through the jargon. It’s not just to be a reference book. There is a story here, there is a narrative here.”

That narratives follows the discovery of the lake. “People didn’t know automatically that there was a lake there,” Redekop said. “They also didn’t know automatically there was an ice age. The whole concept of an ice age is so contrarian to everything we see around us. The narrative to this story is this chain of discoveries.”

The chain begins with Louis Agassiz, a prominent biologist and geologist and was the first to suggest that the planet had gone through an ice age.

With “Lake Agassiz,” Redekop aims to give readers a framework of Manitoba in regards to glaciers and the lake. “I want them to understand that they live on a dry lakebed,” he said. “When they read about other geological discoveries they have something that information can stick to. They have a base now.”

Redekop said the book also carries readers along his own journey of discovery. “One of the most interesting things I learned was that we live in a wet prairie here in the Red River Valley,” he said. “We always think of it as a prairie and combine it with the rest of the prairie in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but this prairie inside the escarpment is wet.”

“When the first settlers came it was almost unfarmable,” he added. “They had to drain it, build a vast network of drains that now run to the Red River. It was quite an uninhabitable land except the settlers built channels and drainage ditches and made it prosperous farmland that we have today.”

Redekop said researching and writing the book have changed the way he looks at the province. “One of the things I do in the book is try to highlight where some of the biggest former dry land beach ridges are now,” he said. “Those are still all around us. I followed Campbell Beach, one of the most prominent glacial beaches in the world. I followed it from the international border to Swan River.”

“It’s quite an amazing geological form that very few people know about,” he added. “Now I know where all these things are. I couldn’t write about it without telling people where to go and stand on these ridges and look out and imagine a giant lake was once there. That’s a big part of this book, to make it tangible.”

To find out more about Lake Agassiz and the rise and demise of the lake, CFDC has copies of Redekop’s book available for purchase.