Survivors of Kananaskis flash floods share stories of harrowing ordeal
CALGARY- One year after the 2013 June flood, Kananaskis Country continues to rebuild. Over 300 millimetres of rain fell in the mountain park, sprouting pop-up mountain creeks that quickly became angry rivers gnawed through highways and bridges. About 1,200 people had to evacuate from the park, including many who became stranded.
“Everyone had their close calls throughout the flood…mine was a little dramatic,” says Gareth Short, a Kananaskis park ranger.
Short could have drowned when his truck broke through the damaged Rocky Creek bridge. Well after midnight on June 20, 2013, he was headed north on Highway 40 after checking some mudslides further south. From his truck, the bridge appeared to be in good shape.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but the water had eroded all the soft material underneath this asphalt and left it hanging in the air,” he remembers. “I took it at 60 or 70 kilometres an hour and I felt a large, jarring jolt to my front end. My front wheels actually caved in a portion of that asphalt.”
Instead of sliding backwards into the three metre by three metre hole and down into the icy, fast moving creek, Short got a flood miracle that night.
“My truck sort of skipped over the hole, my back end went in, shattered my leaf springs, and I ended up on all four tires on this side of the bridge.”
“I don’t know how exactly I ended up being as lucky as I was.”
Minutes later, his luck — and foresight — would also save the life of RCMP Cpl. Jane Boehr, who works out of the K-Country detachment.
She had stopped further south on Highway 40 at Grizzly Creek. She could see water on the road, but not how much.
“I sat there probably for five to 10 minutes trying to figure out what I needed to do,” Boehr says.
Eventually, through the downpour, she spotted a road sign flickering ominously ahead, and made a frightening realization. Had she continued to drive she would have run straight into a wall of water, flowing about two metres deep over the road.
“The water was just pouring over this road sign, and… it would ebb and flow up and down,” she says. “I don’t know if you would have been able to stop in time, it was so dark out.”
She turned around and headed back north towards the bridge that crumbled under Gareth Short’s truck as he drove over it minutes earlier. Fortunately, he radioed her to tell her about his experience at Rocky Creek, and warned her not to try and cross. It would be a second close call for the officer in just a few minutes.
“That would have been a whole different story. I potentially could have ended up in the creek,” she says.
But the police officer was now stranded near a steep slope, between two raging creeks. During her career, she has she has worked through a tornado and an armed standoff. She says spending the night in her truck next to a steep slope where she was vulnerable to another mudslide, was “more” harrowing.
“I was scared. At one point it was like, I have no control. That’s when you really realize you have no control.”
20 hours later, a helicopter plucked her out — one of 70 rescue flights during what would be a massive evacuation of the entire park.
“No one was hurt, no one was injured in Kananaskis during that evacuation, and I think we can be proud of that,” says Michael Roycroft, manager of Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park.
Among the evacuees was a group of 16 Grade 12 students from Prairie Christian Academy in Three Hills. They were on a school camping trip to Carnavon Lake, in the Highwood Pass area. They were wet, cold and stranded in the backcountry, with a lot of people very worried about them.
“The rain was too thick, we couldn’t get in, and we tried literally three times. It was the third time we got in and we were finally able to sling them out,” Roycroft remembers. He was helping coordinate the evacuations from the Emergency Operations Centre in Canmore.
“They said afterwards they weren’t sure they were going to make it another night…there was some very appreciative parents and teachers, that we got their kids back,” Roycroft added emotionally, tearing up.
It was one of over 70 rescue flights, with support from the army. Frank Doll and his wife were camping at Mt. Kidd RV Park in Kananaskis when soldiers knocked on their trailer door. Bridge washouts on Highway 40 on either side of the RV park had stranded everyone in the campground.
“The army trucks were on the other side of the washout so we went down ladders and so on and loaded up into the backs of these [army] trucks, Doll says. “Good people helped us out and we’re very thankful for sure.”
The students who were rescued from high in the backcountry were cold but uninjured. The school now has a satellite phone it sends along on all camping trips. Their bus was stuck near Highwood Junction for several months after the flood until the highway was repaired.