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Illustration by Tim Yearington

by the

by Michael Enright



"You call someplace Paradise,
kiss it good-bye."
— Don Henley

To some, it may only be a metaphor, but to Adam it was crimson, shiny and quite real. He probably sat, suspended by the moment, in his lush glen of dark greens and bright whites and yellows while he contemplated this new situation. But the aroma of the forbidden was intoxicating.

He knew there was nothing quite as red or as plump in the entire garden, decidedly far too good to pass up. However, that immutable bargain did play heavily on his mind; eat the apple, lose Paradise. Simple.

How confused he must have been, having absolutely no frame of reference with which to make a decision. How was someone who has known only Paradise supposed to have any knowledge of its absence? So, with no available means to accurately determine the consequences, he probably just shrugged his shoulders and smacked his lips. And, as the story goes, one minor indiscretion, one seemingly insignificant act and Paradise was forever eradicated with no contingency for reconciliation and nothing left but a blanket of remorse and regret.

No big deal to you and me, though. We've never really known a true Paradise.

And while the precise formula for a perfect one would probably vary quite largely from person to person, I'd be willing to bet that the more popular version would have quiet, dewy mornings where weightless tendrils of mist dance silently over hundreds of pristine lakes, stunning sunsets awash in liquid gold and fiery oranges, thundering waterfalls and sparkling rivers escorted to their final destination by the gentle slopes of rugged masses of granite. Muskoka.

These are the elements to which Muskoka's residents and cottagers have hungrily attached themselves; in much the same way that the roots of the cedar tree at the water's edge cling to the rocks and soil to sustain their very existence. And no one wants to let go.

Well, don't look now people, but for the second time our Garden of Eden may well be slipping away. History, as they say. This time, however, it is not a single act of indiscretion, but rather the cumulative effect of an unprecedented attack on Ontario's cottage country that is threatening our Paradise. Worse yet, unlike Adam we have all the information necessary to understand and stop the problem. We know the whos, whats, whens, wheres and whys of it all. So why does it go on? Why do we continue to do nothing to protect ourselves? The answer, of course, is quite simple. Money.

I'm not referring to the controversial lakeside golf courses being built, or even the over-populated shores of our lakes enduring the on-going construction. In my opinion, these things pale by comparison. I am referring to the worst demon ever to have hit the districts of Muskoka, Parry Sound and Haliburton; the personal watercraft.

The PWC that was just towed from your gas station or motel parking lot to the lake, produces in one day of use the same amount of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (more commonly known as pollution) as a 1998 passenger car driven 160,000 kilometers. For those whose brow is not creased in disbelief, I'll repeat that statement; A PWC produces in one day of use the same amount of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (more commonly known as pollution) as a 1998 passenger car driven 160,000 kilometers. And if you're still not outraged, then you just might rank among the many who are fed up with bad news and who have become desensitized to statistics. Like thousands of others, your impetus to respond may well be experiencing anesthetization through environmental bad news over-load. These days, the best you can do is an occasional, "Gee, that's just awful."

But you do have a button somewhere and I think it's important to find it—and push it. So, in an attempt to interpret the very real catastrophe left in the wake of the PWC rage, let's put the statistics aside and look at things from a different perspective; you're sitting on your dock shaking your head and feeling a little irritated with the noise and pointlessness of the personal watercraft racing in and out of your bay. Then you look out at the poor guy in the rowboat and wonder how he tolerates the close proximity dared by the operator. You shrug your shoulders and hope it will go away, but it doesn't. In fact, it's probably joined by another. And whether the first one disappears or not really doesn't matter because there's always another one to take over.

Now, imagine this; the guy in the rowboat nears your dock and you smile at him, happy that there are still those who can take pleasure in propelling their own craft. But as the distance between you narrows, you notice that he has about 15 two-litre jugs lined up in the bottom of his boat. Then, to your horror, you realize two things. The first is that all 15 jugs are filled to the brim with gasoline and oil. The second shocks you into speechlessness and you begin to doubt your own eyes when he starts to empty each and every two-litre jug of gasoline and oil directly into the water. Your water! Your lake! Through your shock and panic, however, you manage to scream out four words: "What are you doing?!"

The man in the rowboat looks a little startled, but remains undeterred. He smiles politely and says, "What—this? Why the sudden concern? You've been watching others do this for years now."

Now you're over the edge, completely flabbergasted. You wish he was close enough to whack with a paddle because no verbal assault, no matter how venomous, would come close to expressing your internal commotion.

"Excuse me," he says, calmly, "but I'm not doing anything different than your neighbour out there." He points over his shoulder to the PWC operator still racing around.

Turning to the last jug, he empties it into the water and watches the rest of the blood drain from your face. Then, he quietly and pointedly says, "Friend, I can see that you're upset, so I want you to listen very closely to what I am about to tell you." He pauses for a moment to make eye contact, then continues. "Every time one of those things spends a day on the lake, it does exactly what you just saw me do. It dumps 15 of these old Kool-Aid jugs worth of gasoline directly into the water—exactly as if the operator went to the gas station, purchased 30 litres of gasoline, mixed it with oil, drove to the beach and dumped it into the lake." You're confused now, but your outrage over having witnessed the shocking act has not been diminished. "Now," he says, "why don't you think of this as your wake-up call?"

The noise produced by the PWC, now just a few yards off the end of your dock, startles you from your sleep. And for the first time, you're happy for the noise, as you notice that there never really was a guy in a rowboat dumping gas into your lake. My, what a dreadful dream. You shrug your shoulders and wonder what to make for dinner.

A silly dream? Perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that the imaginary guy in the rowboat was deadly accurate. Now, consider this:

PACs operate on two-stroke marine engines. Two-stroke marine engines dump 25 to 40 percent of their fuel, uncombusted, directly into the water. Remember the outrage you felt over the Exxon Valdez spill? Well, talk about a drop in the ocean. Every year, two-stroke marine engines dump 15 times that amount into North American waters (1). That's the equivalent of more than one Exxon Valdez disaster every month of the year. Certainly, you recall reading about the spill, but do you also recall thinking that if you lived in the area that you'd be willing, even eager, to pitch in on the massive clean-up job? Well, now's your chance. Our lakes are teeming with hundreds of miniature Exxon Valdezes spilling oil and gas everywhere they go! Have you stopped shrugging your shoulders yet?

Lake Tahoe has instituted a ban on PACs due to high levels of pollution found in all sections of the lake. Vermont and Maine have banned these vehicles on all lakes smaller than 300 acres and 200 acres, respectively (2).

One of the first studies on two-stroke engines was conducted in 1973 by R.E. Kollman, S.S. Lestz, and W.E. Meyer. They were members of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., and Pennsylvania State University. Their report is entitled "Exhaust Emissions Characteristics of a Small 2-Stroke Cycle Spark Ignition Engine." The report reads: " was determined that 25 to 40 percent of the fuel air mixture was short-circuited to the exhaust in the scavenging process ... [or] 25 to 40 percent of the fuel leaves the engine unburned."

Guess where that gasoline goes.

Almost any PWC operator will tell you that a day on the lake can easily require $70 or $80 in gas, or about 100 litres. Between 30 and 40 of those 100 litres of gasoline are deposited directly into the lake. Regardless of new technologies, two-stroke engines have remained basically unchanged since the 1940s (3) . But now, they're bigger and faster and are utilized in more ways than ever before. And the most prolific growth of two-stroke marine engines can be found in the personal watercraft industry.

Currently, there are no environment-related laws regulating the use of personal watercraft in Ontario. For reasons obvious to all, however, it is quite illegal to emulate our imaginary friend in the rowboat. It is illegal to knowingly or unknowingly dump gasoline into any lake or waterway.

Or, is it? It seems that all one has to do to avoid being charged is to alter the container used. Ironic, isn't it, that it is quite legal and acceptable to pour gasoline into the lake, provided that the container you use is larger than a Kool-Aid jug, noisy, and a very real threat to the local wildlife population?

The blind eye turned toward these highly mobile environmental disasters is purchased by the operator with the dollars he pumps into our gas stations and restaurants. He bribes us by telling us that he helps keep the "no vacancy" signs flashing in our motels and resorts. And his pitch is easily accepted. The years of attempting to stretch the revenues of a short tourist season over a 12-month period has provided the tourist-area business owner with a very keen sense of exactly what makes the world go 'round. But has the scent of that money dulled our collective sense of priorities in the process?

Ontario's gateway to cottage country has always been open to the entire world; a wonderful playground for all to enjoy. Well, now that the red carpet has been drenched in gasoline, perhaps it's time to roll it up long enough to re-evaluate our position. The noisy personal watercraft invasion is silently taking its toll.

With the assistance of the media, manufacturers and distributors continue to hatch more and more operators every year, yet only a small handful of people seem to recognize this self-sabotage. In the United States, more than 30 National Parks have taken the initiative to ban PWCs without waiting on government policy. And although I haven't researched it, I'd be willing to bet that those particular parks have seen an increase in revenues from canoeists, hikers and wildlife photographers who are more than happy to pay for the silence. Meanwhile, north of the border, a travelling canoeist leaves Muskoka while a flashing "no vacancy" sign fades in his rear-view mirror.

At the risk of drawing fire from the minority, it's safe to say that the PWC is a thrill-craft whose majority of operators enjoy taking pleasure-crafting to the extreme. Motorized boats most commonly have a horsepower-to-length ratio of 4:1 (a 16-foot boat having a 65 horsepower motor) while most PWCs have a horsepower-to-length ratio of 12:1. This ratio offers extremely fast acceleration, speeds of up to 70 mph and sharp manoeuvrability as the three key elements in operator appeal. Unfortunately, however, this particular design is also the reason that while personal watercraft make up only nine percent of registered boats, they are involved in 46 percent of all boating related injuries (4).

Admittedly, the thrill of pushing the envelope or taking fun to the extreme spans thousands of cultures over eons of time. The risks taken by today's PWC operators, however, have inappropriately and unfairly grown to include the environment. But, in the stark light of reality, it's difficult to hide behind ignorance. To suggest that spending $8,000. on a watercraft and not know that it is powered by a two-stroke engine is an infantile evasion. In fact, the operator of the PWC racing in and out of your bay is basically saying that he has the right to his personal amusement regardless of all else.

When I was a kid cottaging on Lake of Bays, we used to drink the water directly from the lake. It was safe to do so. The fact that we can no longer even eat the fish is just a sign that our lakes will soon be unfit to swim in. Like the beaches in Toronto, there will come a day when signs are posted on our own lakes warning us not to enter the water.

And when that day comes, how many of us will be found sitting in the last vestige of our fallen Paradise, the Muskoka chair, desperately seeking a mantle upon which our anger can be placed? Speaking for myself and my family, I can't imagine anything worse than standing amid Paradise lost, choking on the awareness that I did nothing to prevent it. C'mon folks, wake up and smell the hydrocarbons—they're choking the very soul out of our land.

Or, just shrug your shoulders...and go have yourself an apple.

Editor's note: Anyone wishing to take action against the PWC invasion should speak with the president of their lake association and/or the Minister Of The Environment.

1 "Polluting for Pleasure," by Eric Nelson, Sail Magazine, November 26, 1994.
2 National Parks Conservation Association, May 1997.
3 The "Motorized Watercraft Environmental Assessment" prepared by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (June 1997) asserts, "two-stroke outboard engines exhaust, unburned, one-quarter of the fuel they consume."
4 "Injuries resulting from motorized personal watercraft," by Baron L. Hamman, Journal of Pediatric Surgery, July 1993.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 36, Winter/Spring 2001. Copyright Michael Enright.



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