CHAPTER 2 – Defiling the Environment

By the end of high school (1955), I was a rather disturbed young lad. The Canadian government had allowed the American military to install Bomarc missiles (aimed at the USSR) on Canadian soil south of a line of Distant-Early-Warning radar stations. People were building bomb shelters in their back yards, especially in the Toronto area. I didn’t think that the Soviets would be crazy enough to start World War 3, but I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that all adults were hypocrites, criticizing militarism in church and at tea parties, but otherwise doing nothing about it.

My father’s graduation present to me that summer was a 2-month canoe trip into Northern Ontario through a camp (Keewaydin) that specialized in long trips. One of my favorite stops along our route was at Welcome Lake, appropriately named because of the superb campsites that had been prepared on its central island. We had a “rest” day there and took time to enjoy the birds, the fish, the peace and tranquility.

Nine years later, my brother and two fellow graduate students asked me to lead them back to this wonderful spot. It took some persuasion of the Canadian National Railway conductor to stop the train in the middle of nowhere and let off 4 passengers and 2 canoes from the baggage car, but we took a compass heading and worked our way across many lakes to our coveted destination. After 3 days my brother began to complain about the cold, rainy weather, but I reassured him that he would soon be on an island in Welcome Lake, the Shangri-La of Canadian camp sites, with a wonderful place to dry his things by the fire. When we arrived, however, we found all 3 campsites were buried under thousands of beer cans!

Imagine my shame and chagrin. The cans were all American. Here I was, an American by birth, showing my Canadian brother and friends one of the prettiest spots in their country that had been ruined by the thoughtless action of fishermen. I railed in protest, shouting at my imagined spoilers: “If you guys had the means to fly these cans in here, then surely you could have flown the empties home!” Many years later (in 1997) I returned to that lake to check it out and found, to my relief, no sign that man had ever molested this lovely place. It had healed completely.

Another shock came in 1967. I was in Bermuda for a brief holiday, swimming on the beach near the southwest corner of the island. I wore a new bathing suit that was bright yellow, but it soon became irreversibly stained with bunker oil. I asked the Bermudans how their beaches could have become so fouled, and they calmly replied that sea captains often chose to clean out their holds in the middle of the ocean. Suddenly, I became aware that Jacques Cousteau was right: the oceans may be vast, but their capacity as a dumping pool was not limitless. Laws were passed eventually to stop this thoughtless practice.

A similar, yet different, example of human waste came bluntly to my attention in 2002, as I was exploring a remote island called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. I approached its northwest shore in predawn darkness, trying not to step on sea turtles that were laying eggs in their nests. As the character of the beach slowly became more apparent in the dawn, I was amazed to discover dozens of “flip-flops” littering the sand.

This photo was taken after a few more widely scattered scandals had been tossed together, but it represents the density of these things over an area of beach only 2 or 3 times as large as that shown here. Apparently they fall off passing boats and float for many miles without much prospect of disintegrating any time soon. Happily, they don’t release CO2, but they reflect man’s careless attitude toward Nature.

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