Just how much arsenic is too much arsenic, really?
I ask after visiting Long Lake on Sunday with my five-year-old research assistant Alexie Bryant and finding a sea of people enjoying its waters. There were jetboats pulling people on inner tubes, people swimming, kayaking, jumping off docks and jetting around on sea-doos. One fella was fishing. It was 27 C and every possible parking spot was full.
When it’s hot in Yellowknife people don’t jump into Great Slave Lake. Why would they when they have a nice, warm, shallow lake to swim in. It’s got a beach, boat launch and campground. And when Folk on the Rocks comes two weekends from now there will even be a concert stage and beer garden.
In preparing to visit every fish-bearing lake with higher than normal arsenic levels this summer I was surprised to learn that Long Lake is just barely on the side of the angels. Its 44 parts per billion of dissolved arsenic is not far below the orange dot threshold of 52 parts per billion. Ten parts per billion is considered the maximum amount for safe drinking water.
Long Lake’s penultimate position as a yellow dot lake on the Department of Health and Social Services’ arsenic concentration map means contamination levels are just low enough to make fishing and swimming there OK. An orange dot, such as the one affixed to Jackfish Lake where Alexie and I went fishing on Father’s Day, is A no-no for those type of things, apparently.
Anyway, I decided a yellow dot is a yellow dot so I intended to keep and eat a fish from Long Lake if we caught one. My daughter will have meatballs and spaghetti.
Unlike Jackfish Lake, for which I could find no information at all on what swims there, water depth, that type of thing, I was able to dust off an old report given to me by a biologist friend that is quite illuminating.
Authored at a time when governments still did these kind of things, the 1973 report on seven area lakes, including Kam, Frame and Grace lakes, tells us that due to the lake’s shallowness, no cool water remains at the height of summer.
This explains why Long Lake is susceptible to fish kills during the summer. People occasionally report dead stickleback on the shore. This is caused by a lack of oxygen in the shallows when the water gets too hot.
Pike were numerous when the report was written but whitefish were having a hard time. Several comparisons were made to Frame Lake, which lost its last few remaining fish only a half-decade or so before the report was written after pollution turned the lake anoxic.
I’ve never paid much attention to Long Lake before, and it certainly hasn’t ranked high on my list of places to go fishing. In fact, I can’t exactly remember when I last went fishing in it.
I vaguely recall dipping lines there during a rum-soggy excursion with Irish punk band The Mahones some years ago. I think there was a fish caught. Or maybe that was me?
Since I settled down and started having kids I have begun visiting more frequently.
Last summer, we camped at Fred Henne Territorial Park twice, with frequent visits to the beach and a nice walk on the nature trail to Fox Lake where we encountered our first arsenic warning sign.
Reaching the shore of Long Lake on Sunday at a busy little spot across from the airport, Alexie and I were into fish within minutes. Before long we had both caught a couple pike, and as planned I saved one for dinner.
Clearly, despite all the water tubing, sea-doos, beach goers and … arsenic, there are still a good number of fish in the lake.
I will point to one ominous passage from the 1973 lake survey: “It seems likely that Frame Lake was originally more similar to Long Lake, and that, as the city grows. Long Lake could become like Frame is today.”
Hope not. Whether people like to fish in Long Lake or otherwise, it would be a shame if fish there disappeared.
How was the pike we caught by the way? Delicious!