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The Perplexing Problem of Manitoba’s Nameless Lakes

There are some 90,000 anonymous lakes.

Manitoba's Dorothy Lake, one of the 10% of the province's lakes that do have an official name.

Manitoba’s Dorothy Lake, one of the 10% of the province’s lakes that do have an official name. (Photo: Robert Nunnally/CC BY 2.0)

Canada has a heck of a lot of lakes. Back in the last Ice Age, the country’s landscape was repeatedly dragged by glaciers. This pocked it with holes, many of which have since filled up with groundwater and rain. Some estimates have put the country’s terrain at about 8% fresh water.

This means a lot of things—swimming, fishing, sunning on the shore. It also means that the person in charge of assigning names to geographic markers, Des Kappel, has a whole lot of work to do. Particularly when it comes to lakes: “It’s safe to say that Manitoba has more than 100,000 lakes,” says Kappel over the phone from his office in Winnipeg.

As the province’s official toponymist, Kappel has the Adam-esque task of pinning names on its many anonymous features. Although the Manitoba database currently contains about 8,000 lake names, they’re just a drop in the bucket. Go through some simple subtraction, and the scale of anonymity becomes clear: “About 90,000 of our lakes currently do not have an official name,” Kappel notes.  

Manitoba's Swampy Lake, likely named to help fur traders like these figure out where they were going.

Manitoba’s Swampy Lake, likely named to help fur traders like these figure out where they were going. (Image: Library and Archives of Canada/CC BY 2.0)

The numbers for Canada as a whole are harder to come by, but geographical maps show this trend continues throughout the country. Even the most comprehensive ones, like the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base, feature plenty of nameless blue blobs.

A Lake With No Name may seem romantic, but there are plenty of reasons it’s better to know what to call things, says Kappel. Some of these are resource-related: loggers, builders, and mining crews need landmarks, and surveyors can’t keep writing “half a mile past that anonymous shoreline.” If two parties are arguing over fishing rights in a particular lake, they have to be able to pinpoint the fish they’re fighting about.

These needs are longstanding: the Geographical Names Board of Canada, the inter-provincial group that puts names to landmarks, was established way back in 1897, when the Yukon gold rush was raging and people were pouring in from Europe and the United States. “As the country was being explored and developed, it was important to have standardization, and not to have a hodgepodge of miscellaneous things occurring in the landscape,” says Kappel. The Board has existed in some form ever since, and currently has 31 members, including Kappel. 

The name of Manitoba's Lake Athapapuskow, officially registered in 1948, is derived from the Cree word for "rock on both sides lake."

The name of Manitoba’s Lake Athapapuskow, officially registered in 1948, is derived from the Cree word for “rock on both sides lake.” (Photo: Lake Athapap/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many lakes, especially those within or close to communities, actually do go by something—their monikers just haven’t become official. If a resident thinks they know a lake’s true name, they’ll take it to Kappel, who will investigate, asking around and sniffing out historical evidence, like newspaper articles or birth certificates. “Names in longstanding local use take precedence,” says Kappel. Often, the most longstanding locals are indigenous people, and recent initiatives have focused on surfacing Cree and Assiniboine names. “There’s a fear that we’ll lose some of that information, because elders will pass on, or it will be forgotten,” says Kappel.

Even after these background checks, there are still plenty of lakes that need names. Luckily, there are also plenty of names that need lakes. In the mid-20th century, the country set out to name a piece of land or water after every Canadian casualty of World War II. Manitoba liked the idea so much, they expanded their program, and maps of the province are now dotted with the names of soldiers killed in the War in Afghanistan, the Korean War, and World War I.

Mackie Lake in Manitoba, named for World War II Flying Officer Alexander Morton Mackie.

Mackie Lake in Manitoba, named for World War II Flying Officer Alexander Morton Mackie. (Image: Geographical Names Board of Canada

Thanks to this initiative, Kappel says, “I will not be running out of names anytime soon.” Once he’s done, he will have christened about 10,000 new features after the Manitoban dead. Although he cherishes the stories that come up with each, he refuses to matchmake, instead randomly scattering the names throughout the province. “We don’t want there to be an appearance of favoritism—naming a big feature after a Major, or something closer to a popular area after a decorated person,” says Kappel.

Still, the province runs into the occasional lake name controversy. Back in 2010, a previously unnamed lake about two miles square was named for Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a Manitoba native. Some military families were less than pleased: the father of one fallen soldier from Afghanistan who also has a lake told the Toronto Sun that the decision “detracts and takes away from the significance of naming a geographic feature after war dead.”

According to Kappel, this was a special case: “Toews’s exploits and his representation of Manitoba are fairly exceptional,” he says. 

Manitoba on Google, full of nameless blue specks.Manitoba on Google, full of nameless blue specks. (Map data © 2016 Google)

Despite all of these efforts, there’s one popular place you won’t find very many of these names at all: Google Maps. Pan over Manitoba’s northern reaches, and it looks like you’re floating over a series of nameless blobs. This may seem innocuous, but Kappel, who is chairing a working group to address this issue, sees a certain amount of danger in it. A few years ago, he recalls, an ambulance with an outdated GPS ended up speeding to the wrong lake. “Nothing bad happened, fortunately,” he says. “But that’s an example of how, without there being a standardized database, someone could have potentially lost their life.”

In Kappel’s experience, people tend to take this aspect of their surroundings for granted. “People see names on a map, but they don’t really think about it,” he says. That is, until there aren’t any.