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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.

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-coloured 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 of land, 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.