The white line above the sand

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Many moons ago I wrote about John Eacott’s book Becoming John, which is about John growing up in Tillsonburg in the 1940s and 50s. I quite enjoyed learning about the town in that era as I am usually immersed in Tillsonburg’s more distant past.

There was a situation in the book which I did not write about, but which has amazed me since I read it. I did believe John went through the experience but my brain just kept thinking ‘that can’t happen here’.

In June of 1947, John and his Wolf Cub Pack went to for a wiener roast and campfire in Pt. Burwell. Although not allowed to go in the water the boys did play at its edge while they waited for the roast. John noticed a white line on the horizon and then noticed that the water started to recede and expose wet sand. The boys naturally wanted to see what treasures might be uncovered and started to follow the water out from shore.

John noticed the white line was now much closer and looked like a wave. A shout from shore had them running as fast as they could to shore. John made it to some small poplar trees, but already the water had caught up to him and was around his knees. One boy was climbing the tree so he went for the next tree grabbing on as the water went over his head. The water swirled and pushed him, but he managed to hang on. Terrified in the silence of the deep he clung for his life. Another kid went by under the water so he grabbed him thinking he’d be able to help him climb the tree but he was limp.

I don’t know how long you can hold your breath but being submerged and needing to breathe is the most terrifying experience. Just when John was at his last he could suddenly see above the water. It was still coming in but not as forceful but it had reached the cliff. He could see kids in trees and kids and leaders running toward the cliff where it was not as deep.

Then the water began recede trying to suck everything back out into the lake. Somehow John managed to not only hang onto the tree but also to the boy he had grabbed. Now the leaders could race out to help the kids. It was then John realized he just about drowned and chances were the kid he was holding onto was dead.

But the leaders were good they worked on the boy until he brought up the water and lived. As you might expect John was honoured for saving the boy’s life.

Now what did that sound like to you? Who would have thought you could have a wave of that size in Lake Erie? I immediately thought it must have been from an earthquake in the lake somewhere but John notes in the book that this four or five-foot wave was a freak of nature caused by weather pressure shifts over the lake.

That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but there didn’t seem to be another explanation. I had to find out more about this and how often they occur. Now a seiche (pronounced saysh) is when the wind blows from one direction for a long period of time, pushing the water levels higher on the far side of the lake and if it is a strong wind it can happen with a wall of water. Some would call it a storm surge, much like that with Hurricane Sandy in the States. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes has the most seiches some of which have reached as high as 20 feet, killing people and causing major damage on the lakes.

There have been reports however, of the wave coming at a 50 degree angle to the wind which could be from an earthquake, although those who have experienced that say it is not the same and just called it a rogue wave.

While doing research recently from the oldest Tillsonburg newspapers which are on microfilm, I ran across two articles about Lake Erie tidal waves. In 1877, one hit Pt Stanley and they knew it was from severe squalls pushing the water and another in 1880 again reported at Pt Stanley that had one large five foot wave and several smaller ones over the next hour or two.

In 1882 and again in 1942 monstrous waves did incredible damage due to a thunderstorm. In both cases there was no wind nor earthquake which left the thunderstorm as the only explanation. There have been hundreds of waves that have hit both sides of the Lake that you can read about on the Internet with the most recent one in Cleveland May 2012!

Although these seiches or waves, what ever you want to call them, have been going on forever on both sides of Lake Erie and I have lived near Lake Erie all my life, I have never heard of this phenomenon before reading John’s book. I will however, be much more aware when I am on Erie’s shores from now on and cast my eyes on the horizon looking for the white line.




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