Thursday, June 23, 2011

All Right, Wye a Lake

Manitoba has a Dominion City, a Crystal City and a Rapid City, and none of them are cities. I always think that's really funny. Aim for the stars, little guys!

Being the outright dork that I am for curious historical tidbits, I've always been a sucker for the stories behind place names. Thinking about it, too, the really interesting thing about names for cities and towns and lakes and rivers and regions and what have you is that -- aside from the occasional secession or revolution or coup that leads to a country renaming itself -- there really aren't many opportunities left to name any of them. Back in the day you got to name something by being the first one to get there; now with satellite technology and post-colonial globalization and everything else, there isn't really anywhere left on the planet that civilization hasn't already found and identified and titled. So if you want to name a place nowadays (most likely to name it after yourself -- yeah, I'm on to you) you either have to aim small, for street signs, or huge, for unexplored sections on other planets. And both are way more difficult than they need to be.

(Though I suppose it's just as well; you don't get to name anything nowadays without lawyers and marketers and focus groups gumming the whole process up. Look how long it's taken to name a hockey team.)

Our famous provincial exception, of course, is lakes; the path to having a Manitoba lake named after you is as straightforward as dying in battle while serving with our country's forces, or being good at hockey. I mean, take your pick. But there is a perfectly valid reason for this willingness to name lakes, and that reason is: we have way too many lakes.

And you have to realize, our standards for naming things in this province have been set hilariously low for as long as anybody has been naming anything. Manitoba has more than a dozen things named for oak -- "Guys! There! There's another oak tree! Holy shit!" -- and a couple dozen different places named for Christian saints, and even by those standards our explorers and surveyors had some serious failures of imagination.

"Found this island yesterday."
"Had deer on it."
"What'd you name it?"
"Deer Island."
"Oh. Uh... well done."

Provincial place names with similarly imaginative origins include Cloverleaf, Pebble Beach, Grand Valley, Lakeland, Clear Lake and Clearwater, Lockport, the town of Overflowing River, Burntwood, and of course the leap of creativity that led to naming a reddish river the Red River.

(I do get a kick out of this one story, though. A bunch of Hudson's Bay dudes were looking for those goofy little ptarmigan birds and noticed that they could never find them anywhere except on one particular island, so they got together and named it... "Never Fails Island".)

I think the one that most gets my goat, though, has to be whatever mental malfunction led to naming the town of Cold Lake. Cold Lake, Manitoba! Guess what it's next to. "Cold" isn't even something you can look for, though, like keeping an eye out for the Granite Lake or the Grand Beach or wherever else somebody told you to find them. And you figure whoever named it had to be pretty desperate at that point if he couldn't find a single identifying visual feature for miles around and ended up throwing himself into the lake.

Small wonder the town's growth never really took off, either, since the name would have rendered it almost unidentifiable between September and late May.

"You find Cold Lake?"
"It's the one with the cold lake."

In the interest of fairness it's worth noting that some -- some, not all, not even most -- of the names were translated from their original Cree, the Cree having named them more for functionality than anything else. And even today people who speak both English and Cree eloquently are rare, so the names would have been conveyed with the simplest and most easily understood words in either language. I didn't come into this expecting highway signs for The Winding Narrows of the Evening Luminescence or anything. Although it makes you wonder how many now-distinctive place names we missed out on because the surveyor wanted a simple English name rather than a long Cree one.

"What do you all call this river?"
"I, uh... huh. How do you spell that?"
"With a 'P'."

There are quite a few lakes that retained their original names, thankfully; I guess at some point we all figured, if we're ending up with names like Clear Lake and Cold Lake, we should probably try something else. So there are probably-countless lakes out there named for notables and for soldiers, one being "Downer Lake". It was named for Private Michael Downer of the Winnipeg Light Infantry, who died fighting in the Second World War; his personal catchphrase, "Now that's a downer!", was never again more apropos yet more poignant.

There's also a "Drunken Lake, Manitoba", you may be surprised to learn. The tremendous 1980 book "Place Names of Manitoba" by Penny Ham says only that "The origin of this name lies in some forgotten incident of the past" -- but whatever the story was, it couldn't possibly have ended well. You could make up any story for that and it would sound both plausible and miserable, just as you could for our similarly-mysteriously-named -- but equally wonderfully titled -- "Wrong Lake".

There's also a stretch of the Churchill River named the Pull-and-Be-Damned rapids, like naming a creek "Don't Screw Up". And one of my favourite old possibly-apocryphal Manitoba place-name stories is that a bunch of miners up north lost most of their equipment on the ice in an unexpected spring thaw, so they grabbed the map and henceforth named the area "SON OF A BITCH CREEK". Ultimately abbreviated to "Soab Creek", because polite company does not write "SON OF A BITCH" on their maps.

Oh, man, and have I told you about Flin Flon before? Ah, you probably know it already, never mind. Ask me again later, maybe.

So there are a few really good stories, here and there, but not enough to name all of the surplus lakes we have kicking around. We have been naming lakes at as fast a clip as we can since literally before we were actually a province, and the number of remaining unnamed lakes is still estimated to be somewhere in the thousands. Thousands!

How tired did they get of naming lakes? This is how tired they got of naming lakes. Our fair province of Manitoba -- this is absolutely true -- Manitoba has a series of fourteen lakes named Payuk, Neso, Nisto, Nao, Niyanum, Nikotwasik, Tapukok, Uyenanao, Kakat Mitatut, Mitatut, Paykosap, Nesosap, Nistosap and Naosap. Know what those names are? Those are the Cree numbers one through fourteen.

And more famously, or perhaps more notoriously -- by the time that provincial surveyors made it all the way up to northeastern Manitoba, way the hell up near present-day Lynn Lake, they were so incredibly sick and god damn tired of charting and naming all these bullshit little lakes that they seriously and legitimately named three of them "Ex Lake", "Wye Lake" and "Zed Lake".

In conclusion, yo, we got too many lakes; one day the Province should just let us bid on having a random lake named after ourselves, just to knock a thousand or two off the to-do list. I'm not really building towards any nomenclatural crescendo with this post, really, I just like tricking people into learning things sometimes. Local history is awesome, guys!

1 comment:

Curt in WPG said...

My Dad was city engineer for East Kildonan in the early 60's and was asked to name a little cresent. He came home, looked at my Mom's cigarettes and had the inspiration to name it Cameo Cresent. There is a book about Winnipeg street names out there that claims it was named by the developer after the gemstone but that's just revisionist history. Honest :)