bags of sand lining a lake near a house


Be Like My Daughter — Put Down Your Phone, Pick Up a Shovel and Start Sandbagging

Aug 5, 2019

Up until recently, the impact of climate change was something our family experienced only through screens.

We, from a distance, saw the 2016 fires that destroyed 2,500 Fort McMurray buildings and forced the evacuation of 90,000 people.

We witnessed the heartbreaking melting of the Arctic ice cap and the drowning polar bears. And the unprecedented droughts leaving once-thriving, agricultural land sun hardened and cracked.

Relevant Reading: What to Expect When You're Expecting...Climate Change

Even though it was through a phone or a tablet, it was alarming and frightening – but it was something that happened to other people in other places. It didn’t impact us. We were safe, secure and sheltered in the benign climes along the north shore of Lake Ontario.

Not anymore. This July is the hottest on record as the impact of a warming planet is being felt by every person in every corner of the Earth. We are no exception. 

Over the last few years, our family has experienced it firsthand, as the waters of Lake Ontario rise to record levels. It began in 2017, with the “once-in-a-century” flood. Now, just two years later, water levels have surpassed those seen in 2017 and, all along the lake, residents and businesses must deal with the devastating impact.

How We Helped

So, we offered our sandbagging services to relatives fighting to protect their waterfront cottage from the relentlessly rising water. That's how our efforts started.

I wanted my daughter to help, so that she could experience the reality of what it takes to combat the strains on our planet. I’ll admit, it was a tough sell — what tween wants her cell phone taken from her clenched hands and have it replaced with a shovel? But I promised her she would be released from the work detail after one trip.

When I stressed how important our efforts were, she gave me the thumbs up.

Next stop: the municipal sand pile where locals could fill large orange plastic sacs with sand. If you’ve never sandbagged before, take it from me: it isn’t easy. By five or six shovels full of sand, the bags become heavier than you’d imagine. By eight or nine, the weight is beginning to strain your wrists, knees and back, as you heft each bag into the rear of the vehicle.

While at first reluctant, my daughter was soon fully engaged in what had become a personal challenge. It was her against the lake.

As I watched her shovel, I couldn’t help but feel for her generation and the worries that must weigh on their shoulders. When I was her age, our biggest fear was nuclear war — which, as childhood fears go, is no slouch. But, in those days, the world was just awakening to the impact of human activity on the environment. It all seemed so abstract and so far into the future.

Relevant Reading: A child's question about climate change

How It Helped Us

Well, the future has arrived. Her generation is the first to be told that, if immediate action is not taken, the world as we know it will soon be a dark and catastrophic place. They are confronted with the notion that this is an angry planet locked into a self-stocking and irreversible cycle of rising temperatures.

As she struggles to drag a sandbag to the vehicle, I observe that her hair, buffeted by the lakeside breeze, is the colour of the sand. I wonder about the emotional impact of the barrage of negative climate news. I can only hope that she brings a fresh generation’s anger and fervor to tackling a challenge created by the inability of prior generations to act decisively.

As we work, an old truck pulls up to the sand pile and an elderly man and woman exit the vehicle. The woman’s skin is deeply tanned, her hair snow white against the cloudless blue sky. She uses a cane and unfolds a chair so that she can sit as she shovels sand with a hand trowel. The man’s back is stooped as he stabs the sand with his shovel.

“This is our seventh trip in the last few days,” the woman remarks.

I watch my daughter watching her intently. She asks: “Is the lake flooding your place?”

The woman laughs. “Sure is. But we’re not going to let this lake beat us."

We wish them luck and say goodbye as we lug the last of the bags into the vehicle. On the way back, I glance at my daughter in the rear-view mirror, gazing at the passing shoreline.

“What do you want to do after we unload these?” I ask.

“Go back and get some more,” she says.

Article Author Craig Stephens
Craig Stephens

Read more from Craig here.

Craig Stephens is an award-winning writer and producer passionate about projects that explore social issues, human potential and innovation. He lives in Toronto with his wife, a writer, theatre producer and podcaster, and their teen daughter — his most challenging and rewarding project to date! You can catch his latest work at