Friday, July 27, 2012

Natural Disasters and Other Summer Pastimes

Stop talking about it, Mom.  Stop saying "we were so lucky to get out".  When you say that, it makes me think about what could have happened.  But it didn't.  We did get out.  That's all that matters.

* * *

This is our second year returning home to Canada for the summer.  Having learned a little bit from our experience last year, we decided to change some things around.  Just like last year, the kids and I came back to Calgary for a bit to visit with friends.  But this year, instead of spending our whole time in the city, we decided to follow our friends and hop one province over into British Columbia, renting a cabin in the beautiful little mountain town of Windermere.

Our vacation within a vacation proved to be a wise choice.  We went to the beach everyday, taking advantage of the 30C temperatures and sunny skies.  A friend took us out on his boat, and the kids knee-boarded, wake-boarded, and went tubing. We sat with friends on the grass beside the lake and grazed on all-afternoon lunches.  We'd meet again for potluck dinners, and drink wine by the campfire until midnight.

The amazingly good weather stayed with us until two days before we left.  On our last day in Windermere, with the rain pouring down and no chance of going to the beach, we decided to go to the natural hot springs in Fairmont.  My friends, Lisa and Randy, and their two boys, plus another friend of the boys', led the way in their van, with my kids and I following.  Randy and I parked our vans next to a creek at the resort, but were told we were parked illegally, so made our way up to the parking lot and found spots.

* * *

The serene hot springs, as seen from the opposite side of the creek.
The creek is in the lower part of the picture.
After the boys had spent about 40 minutes in the hot springs, they started a game of Marco Polo.  Thinking that they may be there for awhile, Lisa decided that it would probably be best if she came to tell me and Jacob not to wait, and that she and Randy would bring all the boys home.  She crossed the small footbridge—really, a couple of pieces of wood across the creek.  As she headed up the path on the way back to the parking lot, she noticed that the water level in the creek was rising, and returned to the crossing to warn Randy.

* * *

Randy stayed to watch the boys while Lisa returned to the parking lot to talk to me.  He saw her return, and she told him that the footbridge had been washed away, and that he should try to find something to use as a crossing.  Above the din of the waterfall behind him, Randy heard Lisa say that she was going for help, and saw her head back toward the path.

* * *

Lisa looked up the mountain and saw creek water pouring over the access road.  As she watched, she saw not just water, but mud and trees making their way down the waterway that had once been a small creek, and was now a 20-foot wide torrent.  Panicked, she tried to return to the hot springs to warn Randy, but the path had washed out, and she was now ankle-deep in muddy water.  Without a path, she was forced to scale the steep embankment by grasping tree roots and finding footing on rocks, while calling out to anyone who could hear her in the RV park.  Several people came over to help her, and they ran to a spot directly across the creek from the hot springs, where Randy and the five boys still were.

* * *

Suddenly, Randy and the boys heard a rumbling from up the mountain, sounding like thunder.  A wave of mud, trees, and rocks rushed down what used to be the creek.  A chain-link fence on the opposite side was peeled away like a sardine can.  A garbage can that had been cemented down was caught in the strong current and churned past.  Randy saw Lisa and others on the embankment opposite to where he was, gesturing wildly and telling him that he needed to get everyone out of there.  Ben and Nick saw a what looked like a path up the steep embankment from the hot springs.  From their vantage point, the campers on the RV side could see the same path up the embankment on the hot springs side, and yelled for them to climb up.

* * *
Jacob and I sat inside our warm, dry van while the rain poured outside.  We read, and occasionally turned on the engine to listen to the radio.  After about 40 minutes, we noticed people running up to the parking lot from the public pools, most in their bathing suits, some with bare feet.  When they reached the lot, everyone seemed to be looking in the direction of the road crossing the creek.  I wondered out loud if perhaps there was a bear there, and told Jacob I was going to go and have a look.

With my raincoat on and the hood pulled down to nearly my nose, jeans rolled up to as not to get the bottoms wet, and flip-flops on my feet, I got out of the car and walked in the direction of the access road.  I stared at the spot where Randy and I had parked our vans less than 45 minutes earlier:

Our cars had been parked on the near side of the creek,
where this torrent of water is now shown

* * *

Ben was the first one to scale the embankment, and was met by lifeguards from the public pools and emergency officials at the top.  Nick climbed half way, and then helped the other kids make their way before making his way up. In the pouring rain, after he had ensured that all five boys had reached safety, Randy scaled the cliff himself, grasping at tree roots and using rocks as footholds.

* * *

Frantic, I ran down to the public pools, scanning the crowd for our group.  They were nowhere to be found.  The pools had been evacuated, and as I made my way in the opposite direction of those leaving the pool, I was told that it was a restricted area and that I had to leave.  I explained that I was looking for my family and friends, and a supervisor at the pools had me write down the names and ages of everyone I was looking for, as well as my cell number, with strict instructions to call her when and if  I did locate them.  I returned to the parking lot again, looking for them.  In vain, I went to the pools again, which were totally empty of bathers by this point.  On my second climb up the hill, with the rain still falling hard, I spotted, with a wave of relief, Randy and all five boys standing on the walkway.  After a flurry of comparing notes and piecing together what had happened, I looked around the group and said to Randy, "Where's Lisa?"


Lisa had been stranded on the RV Park side of the creek after the road and the footbridge had both washed out.  She was able to borrow a phone (and eventually, dry clothes) from one of the campers, and after a couple of anxious phone calls to Randy and I, we all finally knew that everyone was accounted for and safe.  

The aftermath of the slide
The five boys were cold, wet, and muddy when I returned them home.  Lisa was later able to get a ride by helicopter, and was home by about 9:00 pm.

My kids told me at first that they felt they were never in any danger, and for that I credit Randy with remaining calm during the whole ordeal.  It wasn't until later, when we had pieced together stories from all seven people, and the media had descended on our neighbourhood in Windermere, that I realized just how close a call this was.  Lucky, for sure, and grateful that I am able to report this as a near-miss.


  1. Oh my gosh Donna! BC has had a bunch of horrible slides this year.

    The news of the mudslide at Fairmont was terrible and hit closer to home for us as Myron, Tamara & I have stayed at the resort visiting friends will live down the road from there. We even golfed at the Moutainside Golf Course.

    But this news of you & the family almost being caught up in it !!! Well! I don't have words to express how happy I am that everyone was safe.

    Your boys are right though. You did get out and that is what matters.

    Take care,

  2. I have some friends who had a near miss this summer as well. And I had a near miss last summer. Near misses have an unnerving way of making you realize how vulnerable you are at any point in time. Glad you are all safe & hope you soon feel safe in spirit.