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Manicouagan Reservoir is one of the world's most interesting geological features. This huge annular (circular) lake was shaped by a number of factors, earliest of which was an asteroid strike an estimated 211 million years ago which created an impact crater over 60 miles across. In more recent history, a hydroelectric dam built across the Manicouagan River in the 1960s deepened the water so that two crescent-shaped lakes in the crater became one.
Originally, Lake Mouchalagane (meaning "big dish of bark" in the Innu language) and Lake Manicouagan formed half-circles around a large raised plateau, the result of rebound from the original asteroid impact. The addition of the dam caused the two lakes to join around a huge central island named Rene-Levasseur Island. The original crater is the fifth largest on Earth, and the island in the center is the second largest island on a lake in the world.
Located on the Canadian Shield in northeastern Quebec, Manicouagan Reservoir lies in a sparsely inhabited area. The only settlement on the giant lake is the gas station/convenience store of Relais-Gabriel on Highway 389 east of the lake. Usual visitors are fishermen and those engaged in forestry or mining in the area. Quebec City is nearly 450 miles to the southwest along primarily gravel roads. In the other direction is little Labrador City in Labrador and Newfoundland. Manicouagan Reservoir lies at nearly the same latitude as the southernmost tip of Hudson Bay. The area is mostly boreal forest with many rocky outcroppings. Life here is harsh during the long winter months, and even the summers are often chilly. The huge lake draws anglers who pursue brook trout, lake trout, speckled trout, landlocked salmon, northern pole and lake whitefish. An outfitter located at Relais-Gabriel has a few cabins for fishing service customers. A boat launch, pier, picnic area and swimming beach are located nearby.
All types of boats are permitted; however, dangerous conditions can develop quickly when sudden winds churn up large waves. Swimming is limited to the few weeks in mid-summer when the shallow waters of the bay warm sufficiently. Many areas along the shore offer space for overnight camping but can't be reached except by water. Although the lake is narrow in comparison to its overall size, the circular shape allows for a long expanse of open water to be exposed to sudden winds. And, although a few have attempted to paddle the circular 821-mile shoreline, the effort is only for the highly skilled, preferably with sea kayaks, and takes upwards of two weeks. In case of emergency, there is no rescue. The lake is deep, reaching 1,150 feet, with small islands dotting the surface.
The huge island filling the center of the lake is actually larger in surface acreage than the surrounding water, 499,200 land acres compared to 481,856 water acres. Rene-Levasseur Island was named for the chief engineer of the Daniel-Johnson Dam which entraps the waters of the combined lake. The dam is one of the world's largest multi-arched dams and was completed in 1968. The reservoir filled by 1970. Hydropower generated is carried by underwater cables to more southerly, inhabited areas where needed.
A portion of the island is set aside as the Louis Babel Ecological Reserve. The 58,168-acre reserve is named in honor of Father Louis Babel who spent 50 years of his life on the 'north shore' as a missionary exploring much of the area. Father Babel provided much geographic and scientific knowledge of Northeastern Quebec and of the traditions and culture of its native peoples. The reserve protects a highly important example of geology created by 'shock metamorphism'. Mount Babel is the highest point on the island, reaching 3,084 feet. The metamorphic rock in the area is of great interest to scientists attempting to understand the forces which shaped early development of the earth's crust.
The landscape surrounding Manicouagan Reservoir is covered primarily in dense fir, mosses, spruce and heaths in the lower elevations, giving way to an alpine landscape of lichens and blueberry at the higher, more windswept summits. Wildlife is somewhat limited, given the sparse vegetation at higher elevations. Bear are often the only large animals seen in the area. The unique landscape is easily recognizable from space and has gained the name "Eye of Quebec". The lake is filled by the Mouchalagane River and several other streams, all of which have excellent trout fishing. The major outflow occurs at the dam on the Manicouagan River, one of five along the river system. The dam was formerly known as Manic-5.
The asteroid that stuck the earth at Manicouagan Reservoir was estimated to be over three miles across. Scientists originally suspected that this asteroid and others landing in the same general area within the same time frame could have caused some of the large extinction events of the past. Although it is estimated that the resulting fireball likely reached as far as today's New York City, the asteroid events were too early in the earth's history to have accounted for the known extinction events, which scientists believe occurred much later by millions of years. Glaciers also grew and receded across the area several times since the crater was formed. All of these events are recorded in the rocks surrounding the lake and are a continuing focus of scientific investigation in the area.
No real lodgings are located on Manicouagan Reservoir. But just knowing this unusual lake is available and seldom visited is enough to bring out the adventurous spirit among the fit and hardy. If you go, take plenty of warm clothing, adequate supplies and good maps.
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