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Anecdotes: Prairie Provinces

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1975 Spring Flood – Waterton Lakes National Park

by Tom W. Smith

Each spring in the mountains, the creeks swell with water runoff. Placid streams become swift-flowing and fill their banks. If the spring snowmelt is steady, no major change to stream channels takes place. However, if snowmelt is quick, then the streams overflow their banks and erode and scour the surrounding area. Anyone living on the banks of a mountain stream becomes closely attuned to its moods and watches it carefully.

In Waterton Park, the townsite of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, the spring runoff question is twofold: how high will the Upper Lake rise, and will Cameron Creek bust loose? The Park staff drive or walk by the creek during each spring day to see how it is doing. For some of us, it is a morning and evening ritual.

The spring of 1975 was late. The weather had been cool and the snowpack had not yet melted a great deal. In mid-June, there was still a considerable amount of snow on the surrounding mountains. A cool, drizzly rain started on June 15, 1975. Previous rain had raised creek levels, but not significantly. As the rain continued on June 16 and 17, the creek remained as it had been. By June 18, the rain had really started to pelt down, but as I checked the creek level that night, it did not seem to be any higher than before.

At approximately 6:30 a.m. on June 19, 1975, Max Winkler, the Park's Chief Warden and Ernie Brennan, the Park's Administrative Officer, left for Lethbridge to conduct interviews for some staff vacancies. As they drove past the creek, it did not appear different to them from the night before. At about 7:15 a.m., I was preparing to go to work when I heard a knock at my front door. When I opened it, Frank Campbell, the Park's Works Manager, was there. "I think you had better come and look at Cameron Creek," he said. Since I was all ready for work, it was only five minutes before we were standing on the banks of Cameron Creek at the old campground bridge.

My, had that creek changed! Where before water had only covered the streambed, the water was now several feet deep. Brown, silt-laden water was rushing along only six to eight inches from the top of the rock walls lining the creek channel. Frank noted that the level had come up some more in the short time it had taken to come and get me. One of the Park's Maintenance Supervisors, Kay Kenly, joined us. I was asked what I thought we should do. No campers in the campground were up yet on that cold, rainy day. If the creek was going to flood, a lot of people would have to be alerted to move quickly out of the campground. As well, Allen's Lakeshore Bungalows, near the mouth of the creek, would be in the path of any floodwaters.

I decided we would be on the safe side. I asked Kay to wake all the occupants in the trailer area on the west side of the creek and to ask them to leave the campground. If the bridge washed out, they would have no means of getting out of the campground. I asked Frank to wake all the occupants in the tent area on the east side of the campground and to ask them to vacate their campsites. I, in the meantime, ran through the campground to the tourist bungalows and was fortunate to find the manager at the front desk. When I told her it looked like the creek was going to overflow its banks, she looked at me in disbelief. When I pointed out we were asking people to leave the campground, and that she should do the same with her guests, she agreed. I returned to my vehicle and radioed Max Winkler, the Chief Warden, on his way to Lethbridge, but he was already out of range. However, Keith Brady, the Senior Warden, responded. I told him what we were doing and asked him to get the other members of the Park Warden Service to assist.

The staff began to spread out through the Park to determine what was happening elsewhere. As was to be expected, every creek was pouring. The culvert at Lineham Creek on the Cameron Lake Road could not accommodate the volume and the creek had started to flow down the ditches, washing out the roadway. Quick action by the staff in getting a backhoe up to the scene and digging a trench across the highway to drain off the overflow saved the Cameron Lake Road. Only about one-half mile was damaged.

A crane was positioned at the Blakiston Creek bridge, on the main entrance road into the townsite, to prevent debris building up against the piers of the bridge. This was instrumental in saving the bridge and access to town. The entrance road to Crandell Mountain campground was lost. Not only did the road wash out but also the Bailey Bridge over Blakiston Creek had its east abutment washed out.

Finally, with all the creeks pouring into Waterton lakes, the lake level rose also.

As we monitored all these happenings and took action to protect the access roads and highways, Cameron Creek reached the top of its banks and began to flow through the now evacuated townsite campground. In case the falls and lakeshore bridges were destroyed by this flow, we also evacuated all residents in the houses to the west of the campground.

A radio reporter from CJOC in Lethbridge wanted to conduct an interview. I took him first to Cameron Falls. Gentle, picturesque Cameron Falls had become a torrent of tan-coloured water which arched way out from the rock face that it usually just flowed over. Trees were sailing over the Falls and plunging into the creek a short distance from the bridge near the Falls. It looked to us that if the creek flow increased any more, the uprooted trees would hit the bridge. I recall vividly the scene of this rushing, turbulent mass of water roaring down the creek bed, which at this point was higher than the street. If the banks gave way, we were in deep trouble. From our position, we could see where the creek had broken through onto the campground. Twenty to thirty-foot-long trees, bark and limbs stripped off, shot by us. I remember thinking that if one of these trees jumped out of the flow, it would shoot through a campground kitchen shelter like an arrow. The creek was an awe inspiring spectacle and even the reporter did not comment into his tape recorder, but sat there, like me, staring at this immensely powerful force pouring through the campground.

As the day wore on, the other Park staff and I became increasingly concerned for our town water supply. The intake was in Cameron Creek, above the Falls. We kept a close watch and drew up a plan to evacuate town residents if the water supply failed.

In some ways, the rest of the town carried on like any other day. People and vehicles entered and left the Park. School carried on, and my daughter, who had the newspaper route, delivered her papers to residents despite the rain and flood.

By 8:00 p.m. that evening, I was advised that the water intake was damaged and that we could not provide a safe supply of drinking water to the town. Staff went to each residence to inform the occupants and give them the option to stay, go to the Prince of Wales Hotel (which had its own water supply) or to leave the Park. We finally completed this task by 11:00 p.m. My wife and three children chose to leave the Park and stay with relatives, while I moved to the Prince of Wales Hotel.

That was day one of The Flood.

By the morning of June 20, the rain had still not stopped and the lake level had risen to flood part of the business section of the townsite. The dock area was under water, so that the large tour boats had to be moved. They were moored to trees across the bay in the picnic area. The entrance road at the Park gate was under water. One couple driving a Volkswagen bug had tried to enter the Park but found their car floating. They got out and pushed it back to high ground. Because of the water's depth and the poor road base, I decided to close the road to traffic. We were now physically cut off from the world. Finally, the telephone system flooded so we also lost telephone communication. Fortunately, electrical service was not affected. I passed a radio message to one of the wardens stationed at the Park entrance on the other side of the flooded road; he drove to the nearest telephone outside the Park to advise the Regional Park office in Calgary of our status.

In difficult times, people's ingenuity can be quite impressive. A number of residents had not left their homes and were without safe drinking water. Our staff rose to the occasion. We had just received a shipment of new galvanized garbage cans for the campgrounds. These new cans were thoroughly cleaned, filled with water from the Prince of Wales Hotel, and delivered to the residents.

The rain finally stopped on June 21. We had received a total of 7.18 inches over six days. This rain, together with the mountain snowpack it melted, created the conditions for the flood of 1975.

Waterton Park had also had floods in 1953 and 1964. After the flood in 1964, extensive work was completed to protect the townsite from Cameron Creek, and to restrain other creeks from leaving their channels. The banks of Cameron Creek, from the Falls to the creek mouth, were lined with large, square chunks of stone. Blakiston Creek had berms bulldozed along both sides. Neither measure was particularly successful in protecting the banks in the 1975 flood. Blakiston Creek jumped its banks and washed away the gravel berms. It spread across the alluvial fan, carving several new channels and washing out a picnic site access road. The stone blocks lining the banks of Cameron Creek were undercut by the streamflow, and collapsed. However, the stone blocks did stay in place to protect the Falls bridge as well as a portion of the townsite houses adjacent to the campground.

The lake levels quickly began to recede. By June 23, the entrance road could once again be opened for traffic. Repairs commenced immediately. The townsite campground had been extensively damaged. Not only had a large amount of gravel, silt and trees been deposited there but a new six-foot-deep channel had been carved through the area, ripping out water, sewer and electrical lines. Several structures were also damaged. The townsite water intake manhole cover and handrails had been ripped away. Many businesses and cottages along the lakeshore needed to dry their buildings and contents, and to repair damage to them.

In making Park repairs, we tried to take advantage of the lessons we had learned. Protecting the Cameron Creek banks had partially worked. The bank walls were rebuilt after this flood with gabions. These were placed below the creek bed and, instead of retaining the old vertical configuration, they were installed in steps. The theory was that if they did get undermined, they would slump yet protect the banks. The campground bridge, which had lost its middle pier, was replaced by a clearspan bridge upstream from where the banks were breached. The Lineham Creek culvert was replaced with a culvert much wider in diameter to handle a larger flow.

By summer's end, the Park was fully repaired. We could look forward to winter and whatever the next spring would bring.

Tom W. Smith was Superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park from 1973 to 1976. Mr. Smith is presently Director, Program Support, Alberta Fish and Wildlife.

Return to: Flooding Events in Canada - Prairie Provinces - Alberta


Wind, Hail and Rainstorm at Buffalo Gap, Saskatchewan

by Agent, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Wind, hail and rainstorm struck the Hamlet of Buffalo Gap and surrounding district. The time 4:15 p.m. M.S.T. May 30, 1961. The wind was so strong it moved an empty boxcar upgrade for 500 yards and sent it 30 feet over the derailer. The front part of the car is axle deep in the mud. This report is 24 hours after the storm and the hail is still piled up 3 to 4 feet deep. I can look out of my elevator office and see the hail at the elevator corner. It looks like after a winter's snowstorm. Miles of snow fences and railway fences have disappeared. The town looks like a hundred old rotten straw piles were scattered. I got a phone call in the middle of the storm to help receive two families. One lady, 87 years old. Both homes were surrounded by 2½ to 3½ feet of water and ice. Floor coverings and furniture were floating around the two homes.

One Fargo 3/4 ton truck got in the ditch 100 yards to the west of the post office. At 7 p.m. all you could see of the truck was 3 inches, the rest was all under water. Pigpens, full and empty, gas barrels, toilets, timbers, C.P.R. ties and telegraph poles went through the town like sail boats. From 3/4 to 1 mile of railway was swept out like so many match sticks. When I saw that the storm was going to strike us, I started to close my elevator doors and windows. When that was done I cut the power switch on account of lightning and then made my way to the cottage. I was knee deep in hail and water. From my hips to where my shoes started, I have more than 50 black and blue marks made by hail stones, some the size of golf balls.

Return to: Flooding Events in Canada - Prairie Provinces - Saskatchewan


Reflections on the Winnipeg Flood of 1950

by Peter M. Paul, Ph.D., Gloucester, Ontario

The Winnipeg flood of 1950 affected a great many people in the short run and others for a much longer period of time. In my case, it directly dictated my choice of a career.

In the spring of 1950, I was a second year Arts student and had just started a summer job in the downtown warehouse of a hardware firm. It was located close to the river and flooding threatened the basement. Pumps had to be manned 24 hours a day and I was asked to look after one of the shifts. Actually, it was a pleasant respite from the tedious chore of replenishing shelves with small hardware items!

In 1950, I was living with my parents in Fort Garry, a suburb of Winnipeg, just to the south. Our home was a considerable distance from the river on relatively high ground, but even so, disaster relief boats were being launched on the road outside our door. As for so many others, our basement was badly flooded, but we were lucky. [The Paul home was situated across from the charred foundation of the Wildwood Badminton Club.] In my cousin's house, for example, the high water mark was within two inches of the second floor.

The City responded magnificently to the challenge presented by the rising river. Thousands of citizens manned the miles of dykes that were hastily constructed with sandbags. On the team of volunteers working with my father was Vern Phelps, District Forest Officer for Manitoba-Saskatchewan.

In those years the federal forestry department hired a great many summer students, many more than could be attracted from the forestry schools. Mr. Phelps asked my father if I would be interested in a summer job. I wasn't at the time but the next year I thought again about the offer. And after two enjoyable summers employed in forestry, I decided to study forestry. In the fall of 1952, I enrolled in the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, and now nearly 40 years later, I am still in Forestry. Thus, my career can be directly attributed to the 1950 Winnipeg flood.

Return to: Flooding Events in Canada - Prairie Provinces - Manitoba

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