The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes

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The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes
Directed by Bill Mason
Produced by Joe Koenig
Written by Bill Mason
Starring Blake James
Music by Robert Fleming
Bruce Mackay
Cinematography Bill Mason
Edited by Bill Mason
Distributed by National Film Board of Canada (NFB)
Running time
17 min.
Country Canada
Language English

The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes is a 1968 Canadian short film featuring a humorous geography lesson in which a canoeist travels abruptly through time as he crosses the Great Lakes, experiencing cataclysmic changes in different eras. The film is narrated in ballad form.

Some animation is employed in the film to show the coming and going of the Ice Age when the lakes were born, but most of the other episodes of lake history are suggested by camera tricks that affect the canoeman and so emphasize the change. There is, for instance, a scene where open water suddenly turns to ice, freezing the canoe in mid-paddle. Then, the canoe is left in mid air high above the water, illustrating the melting of the ice, and causing the intrepid canoeist to crash to the water below. At another juncture, he is almost run over by a huge freighter, illustrating the befouling of the waters by shipping. Such slapstick effects are employed to mark all the major changes in this history of the Great Lakes.

Sudden changes of level leave the canoe stranded, or submerge the traveller’s tent. Between times the camera examines surviving evidence of the passage of the Ice Age – the striations of the rocks, the folds in the earth of farm landscapes viewed from the air. Toward the end of the film the canoeman seems once more safe from violent change and contentedly paddles across crystal-clear waters. Casually he dips his cup for a drink and savours the good water. But on the second dip the lake has changed. This time when he drinks is not pleasant. The lakes that have survived so many changes without losing their purity are now seen to be sadly fouled by man. Poignant scenes, accompanied by equally mournful music, show dead fish floating amidst the flotsam, jetsam, and detritus of industrial waste and sewage.


The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes was created by the NFB for the educational market, with working title Evolution of the Great Lakes. The film proved so popular with children and teachers in test screenings that the film was blown up to 35 mm for theatrical distribution. However, Mason was disappointed when the NFB producer made several changes to his finished work, feeling he had lost creative control.[1]


The film won a BAFTA Film Award in 1971.[2]


  • Directed by: Bill Mason
  • Writing credits: Bill Mason
  • Cast: Blake James as Canoeist

Film details

  • Runtime: 17 min
  • Country: Canada
  • Language: English
  • Color: Color

See also

  • Waterlife, a 2009 NFB documentary about the Great Lakes


  1. Ohayon, Albert. "Point of view". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. NFB Collection page, The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes

External links