Johnson’s Canal — cottage life at home

Ken and Lorrene Johnson don’t go boating at the lake. That’s because they brought the lake to their farm near Smiley, Sask.

Just shy of a kilometre long, 36 metres wide and about four metres deep, Johnson’s Canal, as they call it, is the only homemade body of water in Saskatchewan that has its own island, fishing hole and boat launch.

“The advantage is we can go for a ride whenever we want and I’m the only boat out here,” Ken said.

Added Lorrene: “Never wanted a cottage. Why would you go somewhere when you’ve got this. You can go down and have a boat ride and make a little bon fire and have a wiener roast. It’s all here.”

Ken said he got serious about building his miniature finger lake during the dry years of the 1980s. They had 10 acres of evergreen trees and a large vegetable garden to water.

“This serves two purposes: the water for the yard, which is also really important for wildlife and the recreation for the rest of us,” he said.

Using his 1983 4490 Case four-wheel-drive tractor and a pull-behind farm scraper, he started widening and deepening an old dugout that his late father, Albert, built in the 1950s.

Albert Johnson is the intrepid farmer famous for building the Great Wall of Saskatchewan, who over a span of 30 years constructed the stone monument by hand. It stands more than half a kilometre long and two to four metres high.

“The stone fence was father’s project. My project is the canal,” said Ken. “I guess you have to leave something behind.”

Johnson’s Canal is ideally located in a major natural runoff during the spring, which sits on 12 metres of a gravel aquifer.

“There’s so much water here that it’ll actually run through a 24 inch culvert for about a week,” said Ken.

Another advantage he said is that the geography of the farm is glacier till.

“This dirt is rich enough that I could put it out in the field and grow a crop in it,” he said.

Johnson said he got serious about building his canal in 1986, and that autumn following harvest he put 200 hours on the tractor scraping and digging. Load after load was hauled out, dumped in the field and then levelled.

For the next 10 years he worked after each harvest until freeze up. Wore-out cutting blades were routinely replaced each year and heavy duty tire rims replaced the originals, which kept cracking under the heavy loads of dense earth.

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“I bet you I put at least 2,000 hours on that tractor pulling that scraper,” he said.

“I dragged that thing until 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the morning. I moved all that dirt with an eight yard scraper, a drag line and a track hoe.”

He said he was never deterred by the opinions of others while focusing on his building project.

“There’s a lot of people who wonder why you put so much time and effort into it,” he said.

“It was just the thing I like doing. I like moving dirt. It was my hobby.”

Particularly rewarding, however, is the recognition achieved when he views Johnson’s Canal on Google Earth.

“It shows up just like a river from the satellite,” he said.

“It was all the blue water and the green and it shows up just perfect. When you can see from a satellite what you’ve done, it’s satisfying.”

Ken said boating on a natural lake is not challenging enough for him compared to his own sliver of water.

“Been up and down there about 10,000 times, but even after that many runs, I still have to concentrate on the corners,” said Ken, who is also a licensed pilot.

“The wind, the different people in the boat, the weight ratio — I’ve got to figure it out every time. It isn’t just going for a ride.”

As well, the still waters don’t stay tranquil for long with Ken behind the wheel.

“I like the thrill of what I’m doing. I’ve got the need for speed. Life gets short and it seems time is less. I like to go out and wind her up.”

Added Lorrene: “I could drive, but I’d be slow.”

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Some areas along the course have a dense and shady canopy of cottonwood and poplar trees that stretch across the water. Other spots are wide open to the sun with natural grasses and golden willows lining the banks.

However, both ends of the canal were built with a girth large enough that Ken can swing and drift his 115 horsepower Johnson outboard.

Ken has taken hundreds of tourists for boat rides over the years — up and down his canal.

“Anyone that comes along can have a ride. I’ll put the boat in the water just to take someone for a ride,” he said.

Many visitors took delight in throwing a line into the water, which used to be stocked with rainbow trout.

“It was one of the biggest attractions for tourists. The water was clear as a bell and you can see the fish swimming. You don’t get to see that at the lake,” he said.

Johnson’s Canal is also a migration point for many waterfowl and a haven for wildlife.

“There’s all kinds of birds, including Canada geese, that stop every spring,” Lorrene said. “They build a nest on the island and raise their family out there because the fox can’t get them there.”

Added Ken: “Moose will wander around the yard here. There’s probably been three or four at a time.”

Other animals make the waterway their home at different times of the year, including muskrat, beaver, deer and coyote.

Recently, the canal was a hive of a wildlife when their grandchildren came for summer holidays.

The fun-filled visit got Ken and Lorrene thinking about their little homemade oasis and appreciating their hard earned good fortune.

“Just this last week when the kids were all here, I was in the boat and I realized, amen, this is great,” Ken said. “The kids are enjoying themselves and they’re all having fun and it’s right here.”

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