That Pesky Fourth Dimension

landscape (noun):
3) a view, prospect or vista of scenery or tract of land
with its distinguishing characteristics either natural and/or man made
University of Chicago

I frown out the car window at a landscape distinguished by a complete lack of distinguishing characteristics, natural or artificial. The Big Guy seems to hear my thoughts, and offers the only defence possible, commenting on the one thing that could be characterized as a distinguishing characteristic.

It’s flat.

“Flat” doesn’t do it justice. If it weren’t for the occasional windbreak (natural? artificial? both, somehow?), I think I could see my old family home in Calgary, a 13-hour drive to the left, and our current home in Ottawa, a 23-hour drive to the right.

Mere days ago we were driving between Calgary and Edmonton. Where now are the Rocky Mountains, that inspiring vista in Southern Alberta? Where, even, are the wooded, rolling hills, that comforting presence in Central Alberta?

No, as I stare out the rented car’s window at the flatness — the grey, leafless, dreary flatness — I swear there is nothing to catch the eye between Winnipeg and Selkirk. Unless the flax is in bloom, and flax does not bloom in these parts in late November.

DReary view from car window in southern Manitoba

The word landscape first appeared printed in English in 1603
and has origins in Middle Dutch ( landscap ) meaning region,
German ( landschaft ) and Old Norse ( landskap ).
A previous formation in English was landskip.
University of Chicago

Sigh. I would be ready to skip this landscape, that’s for sure. But the Big Guy isn’t done.

“That’s because it used to be a lake bed. Lake Agassiz.”

What? When was this benighted prairie a lake? Well, not mere days ago, that’s for sure.

Here’s the gist of it. About 11,500 years ago, when the continental glaciers melted for the last time (Or the most-recent time, anyway; I cannot speak definitively about their plans.) they made a lake: a big honking lake. Over about the next 4,000 years, the lake drained every which way — to the south, into Lake Superior, Hudson Bay, and the St. Lawrence River system, and maybe into the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River. Today it’s pretty much toast.

The final drainage of the lake occurred about 7,700 years ago north into Hudson Bay.
Only remnants (e.g. Lake Winnipeg) remain today.
The former lake basin and sediments have provided
valuable (Ed’s note: And flat!) agricultural land.
The Canadian Encyclopedia

But wait! There’s more! It was the biggest glacial lake in North America, covering most of what we now call Manitoba, large parts of NW Ontario, and bits of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Minnesota. This drawing shows its extent over its whole life, not at any one time, but still. It was big.

And there’s more! Where we were driving would have been under about 200 metres of water. How high is that, anyway? It’s about one-third of the CN Tower. It’s roughly the Statue of Liberty standing atop Big Ben, or three 747s, wingtip to wingtip. It’s a stack of 18 telephone poles, 30 giraffes, or 100 beds. Stacked the tall way.

That’s a whack of water. But it gets more amazing.

That continental glacier — the one that melted and made the lake — was 4 km thick, covered 13 million km2, and was about 25 km3 in volume. I get the 4 km (although not straight up into the air), but I can’t even begin to visualize that volume of ice. Collectively, the continental glaciers locked-up so much water in ice that sea levels dropped, and not just a little. Remember the Bering land bridge, by which humans might have entered the New World? I always thought of it as a narrow strip of land. Apparently, it was 1,500 km wide, or roughly the distance from Winnipeg to Calgary. That’s not a bridge, that’s two provinces. In Europe, that would be two countries.

Will the view out the car window be any better, now that I know all this? Time will tell. I hope the viewer will be more thoughtful.



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14 Responses to That Pesky Fourth Dimension

  1. Barbara Carlson says:

    Fascinating! A big lake! 11,500 years doesn’t seem that far back to me these days. And can you imagine the storms on it? But THE best statistic: fun fact, if you will, is the “Bering land bridge” was 1,500 km wide. Just wow!

    My first (and only) time crossing Canada — in 1965 — my then husband and I took uppers to keep awake. And an occasional swig from a gallon of apple cider, nicely fermented by the time we reached Montreal. It’s the wideness and the mammoth height of the sky, the low horizon that is interesting for the first few miles… But then..are we there yet?…are we ANYWHERE yet? because worst by far is the straight road — like being on a conveyer belt and travelling in place. No GPS back then so we couldn’t follow our trek, which must have looked like an ant crossing six runways, on his knees.

    Stopping for the night camping (or even a picnic lunch) was impossible — mosquito swarms. You have to be born in the middle of Canada to have any appreciation for it, IMO.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Mosquito swarms? Sounds like Manitoba or points east: Canadian Shield territory. A small exposure suffices for me, that’s for sure. Southern Saskatchewan is endlessly flat, I agree. But I suspect we are all ill-served by the route the TransCanada Highway takes across this land. I understand the practicalities but, like the interstate highway system in the USA, it doesn’t take us past the most scenic of our scenes.

  2. Being a prairie girl, I have always loved the prairie landscape. Doesn’t seem flat to me. Mind you, I don’t drive across the prairies as often as you do.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Oddly, this seems flatter to me than anything I’ve ever seen around Calgary, even to the east. But of course, the November aspect of the landscape didn’t help any.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    You and I, Isabel, find our spirits lifted by the front range of the Rockies rising up out of the Alberta flatlands. I remember travelling through Europe, many years ago. Most of Europe, the Rhine lowlands, the coastal plains, is beautiful, yes. But I found myself suddenly at home as we moved into the Bavarian Alps. I found myself singing aloud — yes, even “The Hills Are Alive…” as we swung through Austria and Switzerland.
    And yet I have to acknowledge that the vertical dimension is rare in this world. Most of the earth is flat, or more or less flat, and erosion keeps trying to render the rest of it flat, eventually. I’ve never taken the Trans-Siberian Railway (maybe you and the Big Guy should try it someday) but those who have taken that trip tell me that Siberia is an even bigger flat than Manitoba.
    We mountain people are the odd ones, it seems.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Boy, maybe we should sort ourselves out by preferred landscape, rather than by the accidents of history which dumped us in a given spot. All mountain/prairie interface lovers here, all true flatlanders over there, lake types down in front, and so on. I enjoy many types of scenery, including high desert, but draw the line at the dead flat. Thanks for the tip about the Trans-Siberian Railway: armed with that knowledge, I think we’ll pass. 🙂

  4. Ralph Milton says:

    Well now, you’ve pushed this prairie boy’s button. I once had (but unfortunately have lost) a beautiful letter from Margaret Lawrence about the beauty of the flat, flat, prairies. She was born in southern Manitoba, as I was. She went on for several pages of delicious prose extolling the subtle beauty of her prairie home.
    The beauty of the prairies is there for the discerning, refined palate. It is an acquired taste which only those with finer sensibilities can appreciate. The prairies are to landscape what a finely aged and gentle wine is to a jug of plonk like Kelowna Red.
    Anyone can enjoy mountains. Anybody can enjoy hamburgers at MacDonalds. Mountains speak to the eyeballs. Prairies, long, flat, big-sky prairies, speak to the soul.
    P.S. But I prefer living in the mountains

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – Now you’ve done it. I believe we may soon hear from someone in high dudgeon who enjoys plonk (if there’s anyone out here besides me who knows what it is). As for sophisticated taste in landscapes, I cede southern Manitoba to those whose discerning palates can appreciate it fully. I’ll be at Timmie’s in Pincher Creek, eyeballing the mountains.

  5. Wade says:

    Isabel, I can’t attribute this but I did read somewhere in the past the there was a huge release of water when an ice dam broke and water flowed north into Hudson Bay and into the Atlantic. In any event it was postulated that the cold rush of water pushed the warming water of the Gulf Stream off of its path and Europe had a pronounced cold snap as a result.

  6. Marilyn Reynolds says:

    As we travelled on our 10,000 mile trip around the States and into Canada a few years ago, we both sighed with relief when we drove onto the beautiful flat prairies after driving through mountains and trees, trees, trees. I guess if you were born on the prairies, you appreciate them and see more than flat boring land as some people describe it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marilyn – All right, youse guys. There’s prairie and then there’s Flat Flat Flat Flat Land. Don’t make me call a field trip to Selkirk. You’ll be sorry. But I admit that the Canadian Shield gets on my nerves after the 500th mile.

  7. Tom Watson says:

    Been there where you mention. But there are parallels. Have you ever driven between Chatham and Windsor, Ontario? I think that if you had enough propulsion you could, with little difficulty, roll a marble between the two places.

    I think there should be a poem entitled “In Praise of Flat.” The poem, would be a prize, I’m sure.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Careful! We’ll have the Chatham/Windsor Reputation-Protection Society on us to extol the virtues of their own local version of flatness. But I like your idea of a poetry contest . . .

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