My daughter is going away for a year. We were to travel down the coast of Oregon and California for a week and meet up with her mother. The hotel rooms were in place, the rental car, the flights – Saturday morning, out of Calgary (me) and Toronto (her) to Portland via Vancouver. But on Wednesday of last week, I noticed how hard it was raining. Normally in the mountains a shower lasts 20 minutes. This was a deluge. Biblical. Not that Biblical weather is unusual around here.
By Wednesday evening, cellphone pictures of Cougar Creek in Canmore were circulating around Banff. Cougar Creek had been dry every time I’d seen it – a long V of rock running up into the mountains. People built their houses out to the edge of it. To an outsider, they seemed a little close, but what does an outsider know? The residents have intimate knowledge of how changeable and angry the natural world can get; they don’t often take chances.
But Cougar Creek was suddenly very much not dry. It looked like a huge dirty blood vessel about to have an aneurysm. And according to the TV, High River and parts of Calgary were under water already.
By lunchtime on Thursday, the pictures were more alarming. By Thursday afternoon, houses on Cougar Creek were beginning to sag, and I started to wonder if Jerry Kobalenko’s place on Cougar Creek was going to be in one piece, if the Warshawskis would be needing to re-renovate the basement of their lovely place in Canmore.
Meanwhile, you know how it goes – you wait, you hope for the best, you neurotically replay your options: Should I make a dash for Calgary? Should I cancel that flight and drive to Vancouver? … What about a helicopter? The rest of the time you ride your cellphone and feel for people in worse situations.
When people started cancelling their plans to paddle the Bow on Friday to celebrate the solstice. I knew things were serious. The solstice is a big deal in Banff – the longest day of the year in a town benighted by nine months of winter.
Cougar Creek was now undercutting the Trans-Canada to the east, blocking access to the Calgary airport. The last person I knew of made it out Thursday before lunch. There were reports of mudslides closing the road to the west as well, between Banff and Lake Louise, between Lake Louise and Golden.
Banff was cut off from the rest of the world. It was a strange sensation, unthinkable in the modern world. It was also a serious situation. Banff has a resident population of about 8,400, but the town’s daily working summer population approaches 30,000. With the road out, trucks couldn’t get through: The Banff Centre reportedly had enough food to last until Sunday.
People were walking around with their phones in their hands all the time, gathering over each other’s screens to see pictures from friends: windows with the water outside rising to the top of the curtains, offices with water breaching the tops of doors, roads become lakes. Aunts tried to convince their 20-year-old nieces that yes, an order to evacuate Hillhurst meant West Hillhurst as well.
It was surprisingly hard to get reliable information. The TV had pictures it kept running over and over, like a stretch of a bad dream, but its estimates of how long it would keep raining, how much the river had risen and how long the Trans-Canada would be out were as unreliable as meteorological reports usually are in the mountains. Estimates for the drive to Calgary varied hourly: I heard everything from six hours to 14 days.
Picayune as my concerns were compared to those directly affected, I agonized for hours before figuring that there was no way the highway would be repaired in time to make a flight early Saturday morning. But the drive west from Banff to Golden – normally 90 minutes – was reportedly taking four to six hours. It was then another eight hours to Vancouver.
Then, in a hallway, I heard an angry guy say that three of his employees had made it to Golden from Banff in two hours – the road was clear because no one was using it. I took off for Vancouver an hour later, at 4:30 p.m. last Friday.