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Flooding Bowness



Living in the small town of Bowness means to parlay with a flood plain. The watershed feeding the Bow river, that downward slope of mountains and foothills that starts with the Bow Glacier, extends over the southern half of Banff National Park and collects the tributary Ghost and Kananaskis rivers, all lie uphill of Bowness. Below ground, impetuous and unseen, rain and snowmelt flow through glacial drifts of sand and gravel, ancient aquifers beneath the topsoil of Alberta prairie. All that water finds its way to the Bow Valley and the Bow River; through the hamlets of Banff and Canmore, Cochrane, and then finally Bowness. A quick few turns into the big city of Calgary proper, and then on to dissipate into eastern irrigation ditches, eventually joining the Oldman River. To live beside such a river as a child in the actual riparian zone, that floodable green belt of poplar and willow means to live in Eden. This has always been true of children and rivers.


Bowness forms an obtuse triangle of a community, bounded on the short sides by a corner of the Bow River, with Highway One running down the long hypotenuse, and the vivifying chord of the CPR track steeling its way between the two. The train announces its entry into Bowness a quarter mile east of the crossing at Sunnyside Greenhouse, and blasts again before crossing the twin trestles and heading west for the mountains. The trestles and the whistle once inhabited the dreams of Bowness children, who might look up from their dinners to see the windows vibrating in their frames and realize a train was passing, so used were they to its leviathan comings and goings. The river twisted into their dreams as well, played along, and added its own crescendos with the rise and fall of its flooding.


I speak of the 1980s, before the babble of the Internet, when children could still hear rivers and trains. I also talk of a time when no one paid any thought to the weather. An early spring meant lilacs and crabapples blooming the first week of May. A late spring meant they bloomed the first week of June. Easter egg hunts happened properly, indoors on carpets, because the yard was thick with snow and minus ten Celsius. No egg rolling down grassy slopes in Alberta. Three scant months of fragrant, ephemeral, light filled summer, and then the first September frost morphed gardens into macabre boiled spinach tableaus. On Halloween it snowed. Then winter settled in, minus 20, minus 30, broken now and then by the relief of madcap Chinook winds that ricocheted the mercury thirty degrees in the opposite direction. “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. This is Calgary.” In the middle of every winter, predictable two-week spells of minus 40, counting wind-chill, made the air so dry that lips cracked and bled in people’s sleep. Car engines whimpered if they turned over at all.


The river froze thick and even grownups bragged with jaunty bravado, of crossing the heaving terrain of ice on excursions to Deer Island. Some winters the river piled up ice at the restricted bend of the point bar. The worst happened in 1951, an ice jam flood that spilled into Bowness Park and engulfed Bow Crescent. The river invaded the houses, filling them to their first-floor ceilings, and the owners retreated to attics and roofs.


One family, with the black water rising all around them, panicked and tried to walk out on the train tracks in the night. Their toes, frozen in their sodden boots, apparently fell off some days later. Kids used to wonder about that family. What became of them? Were they like Weebles, tipping and rocking on their useless feet? The next morning the army rumbled into Bow Crescent and rescued people. They wrenched embedded cars out of the ice with tanks and dragged them to higher ground. The 1951 flood precipitated the building of the Bearspaw Dam. In 1954 it was completed, and ice jam flooding and toeless families became legends of the past. Bowness stood on solid footing and floods reverted back to jolly rites of spring.

An Alberta spring starts when you find the first pallid silky haired crocus, emerging from muddy patches of dun-colored grass. No rhododendrons or swathes of daffodils on the prairies. Here spring signals its arrival only by the change in the light and the lengthening of the day. The harbingers of spring, the crocus, pussy willows and catkins, seem intent on catching and retaining that light, so early spring in Alberta comes dressed in grey and flashes of silver. In a few weeks the yellow buffalo bean (a leguminous wild flower, perhaps a favourite of the lumbering bison?) bursts into flower and the first green leaves emerge.


Any old time Bowness gardener will tell you buffalo beans means it’s safe to plant seeds that can take a little frost; onions, peas, pansies and spinach. When the Saskatoon bushes bloom you plant all but the most tender things. When the lilacs flower, dahlias and squash and lobelia go in.


In tandem with the yellow announcement of the buffalo beans, the Bow River changes its colour to a glacial turquoise with the snowmelt from the mountains. Next, the poplars burst their catkins and rain down fluff, “snow in June.” The tiny wolf willow flowers offer up their putrid scent, and the muddy river overflows its banks predictably and on schedule. The willows now up to their knees, along with submerged grasses, hang on by their roots till the runoff ends. Children wade in the icy backwaters, building rafts, catching minnows and water skimmers, and the frogs and red winged blackbirds belt out their songs for all they are worth. A really exciting flood meant water lapping the crushed red rock road that ran parallel to the riverbank around Bowness Park. Everyone rushed out to take pictures, riding bikes and pushing strollers. I tell you of the reliable progression of an Alberta year, so the certainty of that time won’t be forgotten.


That carnival feel, the riparian zone Eden, seemed evident from the beginning. Especially to John Hextall who established his ranch in the valley in 1908. He envisioned an exclusive garden suburb for the wealthy and named it Bowness Estates. In 1911 he donated his island cattle pasture to the city for a park. In exchange the City built an extension of the streetcar line from Calgary, and to cement the contract Hextall provided his own steel four span bridge. Bowness Park became the Calgary mecca for picnicking, boating, swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. A dance hall and various miniature golf courses and amusement rides followed. Calgarians came by the trolley-full across Hextall Bridge for a vacation from the big city, a place to “get away.” Other Bowness holiday destinations sprang up, Shangri La, Happy Valley and the Romeo and Juliet Inn. The Paskapoo ski hill emerged on the site of a Stoney Indian buffalo jump.


But “away” can tip towards convenient exile, and so Bowness came to house the Baker Tuberculosis Sanatorium, later the Baker Center for the severely mentally handicapped, and Wood’s Christian Home for Children. Bowness has a long reputation for “grit,” as well as bohemian ambitions. Duality persists today in tracts of subsidized housing, with wealthy homes on the river periphery.


In July the river slowed. The muddy tea color cleared, and the water settled on its customary malachite green for the season. When Bowness still meant getting away, people came to immerse themselves in the park experience; they came to forget, as hard as they could, the shortness of an Alberta summer. But the decades rolled on and by the 1980s Bowness no longer meant “away.” Ennui settled over the neighborhood. The paint curled off the plywood obstacles in the mini golf course at Bowness Park. The owners of Angel’s drive in gave up fixing their neon sign and boarded up a broken window. The no longer happening Romeo and Juliet Inn, with its musty basement bar, burnt to the ground in the early hours one morning.


For a teenager in 1984, summer meant lying semi-hypothermic with your belly on the sun-hot steel of the push merry-go-round, after a long float down the river. If you came from a rougher family, if you embodied more of that Bowness grit, perhaps you swan dived from the top girder of the twin trestles, your friends watching, clustered dark barnacles against the sky. One boy belly flopped and drifted four kilometers. You saw him taken grey-blue from the river, your belly on that hot steel, safe on the roundabout. You heard his poor deluded mother saying to the policeman “When I take him home, he is going to get it!”


And even your parents, middle-class and educated, weren’t perturbed or even conscious of your goings on. At Bowness High in the 1980s girls wore tight t-shirts with the ditty, “Some Do, Some Don’t, Some Will, Some Won’t. I Might…” and even if you did or didn’t, all teenagers roamed basically free in locales that would make a modern helicopter parent curl up in a ball. The train trestles in particular held a compelling draw, the intersection of the two most powerful forces in Bowness.


A teenager in Bowness in the 1980s existed in the middle ground of discontent, fought a bit against the backwater atmosphere but still clung to the nostalgic pleasures of childhood. Summer meant walking the burnished steel track of the railway line, the sun between your shoulder blades and the small of your halter topped back, the heat wafting sinuous creosote fumes up from the ties. If there was no getting away to be had, the trestles at least promised excitement. Crossing the trestles required longer than comfortable strides to cover two ties at a pace, and concentration against the vertigo of the sliding green water beneath. If a train came, we knew where to jump down into special compartments constructed on a lower outside beam. Provided by the CPR, these cubbies were there for our use. Of course, teenagers will cross trestles, and some allowance seemed reasonable. Visiting the trestles in 2014 those jumping down places no longer exist. Perhaps the CPR removed the outer railing? DANGER - NO TRESPASSING signs are prominently posted. Surely those signs hadn’t been there in 1984 when the trestles seemed more like playground equipment? Now the CPR makes no allowances for teenagers playing chicken with trains, and our collective reckless courage seems to have vanished just as irrevocably.


Memories of summer and adolescence involve my feet. Of walking on the tar- patched asphalt of Bow Crescent. Standing barefoot on the hot crust and feeling the ooze and slip of the sun-molten layer just beneath the surface. Or the snaking power of the train telegraphing itself, an anticipatory vibration through your runners on the steel rails; the mundane grey Alberta silt abrading your toes in their flip flops while you dragged a rubber raft over the poplar roots on the river bank. Your feet washed clean by the cold water. For the river could always be returned to, glacial melt twisting across the valley, following its “meander zone.” Nosing through channels of river rock and gravel put down long, long, before a teenager’s angst, or John Hextall, or maybe even the Blackfoot people.


The big historic floods of Bowness: 1870, 1897, 1932, 2005. And finally, it’s 2013. June 19th. Nature transcended even Alberta’s unpredictability for weather. A high-pressure system parks the Jet Stream against the eastern face of the Rockies, where it proceeds to hemorrhage for three days. Two hundred millimeters of rainfall just west of Calgary. Canmore receives two hundred and twenty, High River three hundred and twenty-five. Easily half a year’s predicted rainfall delivered in under thirty-six hours, falling on ground saturated from an unusually wet spring. By June 21st, the flow rate on the Bow reaches 1,458 cubic meters per second. Five times its normal volume. The Elbow and Highwood Rivers are estimated to reach ten times their average flow. Thirty-two states of local emergency are declared. People evacuate their homes.


After school on the 19th, you drive the kids in the minivan to Bowness Park for a festive seasonal outing, witnessing a spring flood. People are there with their bikes and strollers. A carnival feeling prevails. When the water creeps steadily over the red shale road paralleling the river, you all exclaim that this is a new record. When it keeps on coming and encircles the van’s tires, something propitious makes you start the engine and drive out, despite the protests of kids who declare there’s no way it can go higher. In less than ten minutes Bowness Park lies entirely submerged in a torrent. The unimaginable has occurred: the flood crests the Bearspaw Dam.


When the water subsides, you’ll go back to see the damage. Willow shrubs doubled over, poor hunchbacked witches with filthy clots of river junk in their hair. The riparian landscape of island and back channels, that evolved gently over the years like an old friend’s face, now lies quarried and routed and heaved, as if by some gargantuan bulldozer.


For some days after the flood Bowness becomes an island. Its three bridges are closed due to questionable pillar stability, the muddy boil of water washing the underbelly of the decks. Trains are cancelled from both east and west. Residents buy everything off the shelves of the Bownesian Grocer. They ride their bikes around the river locked triangle ofland, slapping mosquitoes, estimating damages, and wondering who is lucky enough to have “sewage backup” and therefore coverage from insurance.


Bow Crescent, once River Avenue, is now just a river, the houses evacuated and filled variably from basement to second floors. You stop your bike at the Y intersection. Here the road drops in elevation, the three meters that will determine market value, saleable or permanently not so, of the real estate along this four-kilometer stretch. Now that floods can breach dams, a new normal is set in a string of increasingly reliable freak weather events. Or can we distract ourselves and call it a hundred-year flood?


In the distance an intrepid canoeist paddles down the drowning road: perhaps to retrieve something from his home, or because there’s just not much to do in a flooded Bowness on a Sunday afternoon. The sun finally comes out. The little canoe turns sideways for a moment and the light catches the red of the paint. And you remember the historical photos of the now submerged Bowness Park, of weekend canoeists come from Calgary by the trolley-full across the Hextall Bridge. You remember your own flip flop clad feet in the mundane grey dust along the riverbank. And it hits you in the chest now, the aching silky transience of that alluvial silt between your toes.


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