Eyes wide. Fists clutching bedcovers. Rain hammering at our worrisome old roof. The atmospheric river had woken me again. The roar reminded me of the relentless boulder field we pinballed our canoe through on the Nicola River a few summers ago. Reminiscing about paddling during one of British Columbia’s most catastrophic storms might seem weird, but my husband and I have slid our canoe through many of the southern Interior waterways that have been making the news lately.
“Left!” “Right!” From the bow position, I had yelled back at him as we pivoted past hazards in the canyon where the Nicola flows toward the Thompson River. The ride had been exhilarating then, but on my sleepless night in mid-November, torrential rains had already turned the pretty valley between Merritt and Spences Bridge into a disaster zone.
The first of three storms destroyed much of the southern part of the province. Helicopters evacuated people, horses, and even a pregnant cow from ledges left at the bottom of the Nicola’s siltstone cliffs. Meanwhile, houses, peach trees, vegetable gardens, and the road itself crumbled into the current.
Our local Chilliwack River — quite raucous at the best of times — had swollen too, carving new swaths across its bed, especially in the lower reaches that we often ride. A friend who lives near the Tamihi Rapids — a whitewater kayak training grounds — told me about his own white-knuckle night of listening to the roar and snap of trees that had crashed into the flow.
In September, we had cycled past copper cliffs on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail along the Tulameen River, east of E. C. Manning Provincial Park. We imagined canoeing the clear, moss-coloured water next summer. On November 14, the river peaked at ten metres. No one paddles it above forty centimetres. The mass destruction caused by that much water — 250 homes flooded in Princeton, smaller places like Coalmont and Tulameen cut off — is still hard to fathom.
By the morning of November 15, the beefy Coquihalla Highway (star of reality TV’s tow-truck porn offering Highway thru Hell ) had been shredded by landslides in more than twenty places. Five multi-lane bridges were destroyed. All roads leading to and from Hope were closed, and more than a thousand travellers were trapped. Five people died, many others were rescued, and then we had a sunny weekend after that first set of storms. But a week later another atmospheric river started to flow.
As the rain battered our roof in waves, I tried not to think of soaked soil loosening the tree roots behind our house or to worry about the crawl space, which we’d already drained once.
Although our hillside Chilliwack home is high above the flooding that closed Highway 1 through the flats of Abbotsford, our entire city was cut off for over a week. Panic shoppers emptied grocery stores and bought every drop of gas for kilometres around. Still, our problems were nothing compared with the fate of hundreds of farms in an old lakebed that was now waterlogged.
I had been worried about water filling those lowlands ever since I learned that immigrant farmers in the early twentieth century had begun draining a 12,000-hectare seasonal lake, because they felt it was covering wasted land. Before 1924, when a series of canals and pumphouses redirected the water, Sumas Lake used to fill up every winter as Washington State’s Nooksack River overflowed and ran downhill toward the Fraser Valley.
The lake was like a grocery store to the Semá:th, whose village is still located above the flood line. When the dike broke, right at the spot where the lake used to drain, aerial photos showed the ghostly apparition rising again.
I’d always thought the Fraser River would cause a catastrophic flood, perhaps because it already has — twice: in 1894, the largest on record, and in 1948. A 2015 report prepared for the Fraser Basin Council found that 71 percent of the dikes in the Lower Mainland were at unacceptable heights or states of repair, which means Canada’s eleventh-longest river could inundate some of the country’s most expensive real estate if the water reaches the volume it did more than a century ago. With climate change and rising sea levels, there’s a one-in-three chance that this failure could happen in the next fifty years.
“Atmospheric river” sounds a little too Zen to describe what hit southern B.C. in the middle of November. Early reports suggest it will be the most costly disaster in Canadian history. But if the same thing were to happen in spring, when the snow melts, hundreds of thousands of people in cities like Richmond and New Westminster would have to clean mud and silt from their basements, just as homeowners did in small towns like Merritt.
As the dull grey light of that stormy winter morning rose and the noise on our roof quieted, my husband suggested that maybe the storm was eddying out. Paddlers swing into eddies to escape the current. It’s a place to stop for a breather — for time to assess where you are, where you’ve come from, and how far you have left to go.
When the rain finally ceased and the water receded, B.C. was left with one heck of a mess. I’m not sure where the term “atmospheric river” came from, but in light of the destruction it brought, “angry river” seems more apt.