The Great Uncertainty
The flood of 2013 is now receding. I live at the headwaters of the Bow River, in Canmore, near the border of Banff National Park, and less than 700 meters as the crow flies from the now infamous Cougar Creek. Most days the Bow River along this reach is a swift moving, deep blue vein that pulses between banks of spruce and pine, along aspen meadows and past clutches of willow.
Since Wednesday (June 19) it’s been a wide, brown, and spreading conveyor belt of trees, rock, silt and mud that has enveloped everything in its path. Its feeder streams, like Cougar Creek, are normally ephemeral, rising for a few weeks in the spring to deposit snow melt and spring rain, and a few truck loads of gravel, into the main stem of the river.
Not this spring.
Life is uncertain. This is one of the fundamental tenants of human existence. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that someday we’re going to die, but we don’t know when. We know, in our gut, that everything that is important to us – our children, our partners, our parents, our friends and family, and yes, even those material objects that we clutch at with desperation – will one day vanish, before or at the moment of our own demise.
We know that life is change, but our difficulty accepting that truth causes no end to suffering in our day to day lives.
On Thursday morning many of us in Canmore woke up to learn how real that axiom really is as Cougar Creek, dry for 50 weeks of the year, and usually contained between its engineered banks of trap-rock and fill, had carved a new course through the residential community that bares its name. The creek, ten feet wide during a normal spring, surged to more than two hundred feet wide, carving a wide swath through its historic alluvial fan, and tearing away at people’s back yards, sheds, fences, and eventually foundations. That no homes toppled into the creek is a miracle.
Cougar Creek, and dozens of others – Exshaw, Heart, Jura, Three-Sisters, Pigeon – all amassed their unprecedented flows into the Bow, and meeting with the Kananaskis, Ghost and Elbow Rivers, it flooded a vast area of downtown Calgary. It is the largest flood ever recorded in Alberta.
And on it went: Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Bragg Creek, Morley; maybe the hardest hit was High River, where the entire town was evacuated and under water. Lives were lost, the financial cost of the damage yet to be calculated.
During the height of the flood we were evacuated from our east-Cougar Creek neighborhood. The flood has given us this new name for where we live. As crews worked valiantly to save the bridge over the Creek, the nine hundred or so residents who live on the eastern bank of the Creek’s alluvial fan were loaded on buses and shipped out over the fragile structure. We watched as all that water, the colour of chocolate pudding pounded against the road, the embankment, and the seemingly too narrow culvert that went under them.
Years ago I hiked up Exshaw Creek, into the South Ghost River, and down Cougar Creek from its headwaters with author and geologist Ben Gadd. Ben lived in Jasper then, and upon seeing the multimillion dollar homes built on the outside bank of Cougar Creek, and the culvert under the road, said something to the effect that they wouldn’t last.
Works crews laboured around the clock to save that bridge. They did. How remains a mystery; and one of the greatest success stories of that first day of the deluge, but on Thursday it looked very much in doubt.
As the water rose that afternoon we shut off the gas, power and water to our house, packed a few bags with everything from our marriage certificate to sleeping bags and left.
Life is uncertain. We had no idea what would happen if officials, as it was rmoured they might, diverted Cougar Creek down Elk Run Boulevard to prevent the creek from breached the bridge. Elk run is long, straight and steep and the velocity of water rushing down it would have been uncontrollable. Our home is just a hundred feet from that spill-way.
Nor did we know when we’d be able to return home, if we had a home to return to, or what condition it might be in if it was still standing. We put everything of value on the third floor, closed the door and walked away.
We spent three days and two nights at Gareth Thomson’s home, ironically just a hundred feet from the flood waters behind the dyke along the banks of the Bow River. We stocked up on groceries, put aside a lot of water, bought beer, wine and Tequila (the latter is listed as a critical item on the list of supplies to have on hand in case of any emergency) and settled in.
Through all of this my mother, who arrived on Wednesday night, and noted as we drove into town that the creek looked awfully wide, and wondered what all the fire trucks and police cars were doing on the Cougar Creek bridge – remained stoic. Sure, she had a few minutes here and there, as we all did, spent in frustration, but in general she went with the flow. So to speak.
Gareth, Jenn and I spent Friday driving around town, offering to help people in need, carrying their stuff (and holy crap do people have a lot of crap, but that’s another story) out of basements and garages at risk of flooding.
Friday afternoon I took a panicked call from someone just a few streets away saying that “a dam had breached and that we had to evacuate immediately.” We threw our gear into the back of Gareth’s car: whatever we had already packed, along with some valuables, computers, my camera, my mom. Someone grabbed a box of granola bars, and I grabbed the beer. We abandoned the tequila to the expected deluge.
Five minutes later we got another call: No dam had breached (more realistic concerns have arisen about the Lake Minniwanka dam since); it was only some rising water along the street. We noted the children still frolicked in the puddles; a surreal scene. We unpacked the beer and set about drinking it.
Saturday we were allowed to return home. Not a drop of water got into our house, the bridge over Cougar Creek remained standing, through the landscape around it will be forever changed, as will the lives of all those who lived along its banks.
Life is uncertain; we don’t know what will happen, or when we will die, and what will happen when we do. But there are foundations on which we build our existence, and for millennia humankind has based how we live on certain assumptions. One assumption is that nature has patterns that can be predicted and that we can shape our lives around.
That is no longer the case.
Climate change literally changes the game; all the assumptions we have made about where we live and how we carry out our lives must be thrown into the flood and a new set of assumptions created. The problem for humanity is that we like predictability, even if it is myth. Climate change reveals the hoax of this way of life.
Hurricane Katrina, the floods in Pakistan, Super Storm Sandy, two-kilometer wide tornados; these and a thousand other instances of bizarre, destructive, random and seemingly unpredictable weather events are the new norm, and from the perspective of people trying to live as we always have – where we crave certainty – they are anathema to our sense of security.
In the wake of the floods of 2013 Canmore, Calgary, and every other community affected has come together to work as a family to clean up and rebuild. I’ve got my tools in the back of my car and when I see someone posting they need help, I drop what I’m doing and head out the door. In Calgary a posting for 300 volunteers nets 5,000. That’s how we we’re going to get through the next year or two; working together. We use our hearts and our heads and our skills.
We’re going to need a whole new set of skills, and reinvent some old ones, to cope with that is coming. We’ll need to learn how to build bridges, fortify river banks, build on higher ground, store food, use less, love more, and remember that we’re all living downstream, in nature, surrounded by both the causes and consequences of our actions.
Maybe the most important skill we’ll need to face the Great Uncertainty that climate change presents is to sit with the knowledge that we simply won’t know what’s going to happen next.
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