Thursday (June 20) was supposed to be conservation officer Arian Spiteri’s day off.
She arrived at Elevation Place for an early morning workout, saw some of the early waterflows on Cougar Creek, and was puzzled when she encountered a check-in table set up for evacuees.
Two hours later, she was in a helicopter, evacuating the disaster zone that used to be the Bow River and Three Sisters Camgrounds. It was the beginning of a four-day ordeal that would see her and 22 other conservation officers work non-stop pulling stranded staff and hikers out of the biggest flood in Kananaskis Country history.
The first glimpse of Cougar Creek led her to believe it would be a 24-hour ordeal. She was evacuated from her home, but the extent of the damage didn’t truly set in until she saw Dead Man’s Flats, where Pigeon Creek flooded the area.
“The road going up to the Wind Valley trailhead was a river. There were trailers in it and stuff all over the highway: drums, a deep freezer. Water was lapping up against the houses.”
For the next 10 hours, Alpine Helicopters pilot Paul Maloney flew Spiteri and conservation officer Donna Schley from rescue to rescue. Often, they had no idea what they were flying into before they arrived.
“Sometimes we were flying into things and we didn’t know the background, and it wasn’t important to ask, since we just kept going,” Spiteri said.
The calls came at breakneck speed, as they rushed all over the region, plucking people from danger.
“We had to evacuate the Spray West campground. There were people in tents and a group of mountain bikers who were cycling from Banff to Mexico. They were from Europe and here to ride for three months. They had to abandon their ride,” Spiteri said.
Some campers were moved, while others were told to stay put and weather the storm, even as water severed them from evacuation.
“The Spray campground was cut off one end from the other. They couldn’t get out of there. The people we left were in trailers,” Spiteri said. “The first part of our work was rescue, the last part was evacuation. It was interesting to watch.”
The crew went until dusk, and awoke to do it all over again on Friday (June 21). This time partnered with a Kananaskis Public Safety Officer, Spiteri had to hunt down backcountry campers in the Highwood Pass area, while sweeping the region for others in trouble.
“We got a call there was a concerned backcountry group in the Ghost. They were fine, but we encountered another youth group and had to evacuate two people from there,” Spiteri said.
Flying through heavy rain was one thing, but the rescue team wasn’t prepared for what awaited them in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
“It was full on snow. It was a blizzard.”
They knew a group of four campers from Minnesota were somewhere on the Three Isle Lakes backcountry trail.
“We started up Three Isle, and all we noticed was bridge after bridge was out. The trail was covered in snow. The Forks Campground was under water. We went to Turbine Canyon and there was no tracks or sign of movement.”
No bridges had survived. The helicopter went back to The Forks, and kept creeping up and down the Valley. The rush of water, scenes of destruction and lack of signs had Spiteri thinking this rescue may end poorly.
“At one point, I was really concerned something could have gone wrong. I don’t think I was thinking the worst, but I started getting really concerned.”
Suddenly, next to a steep canyon, next to one of the biggest bridges on the trail, relieved campers were spotted. They had jumped out of their tent barefoot, waving tarps and towels to get the helicopter’s attention.
“The pilot noticed people waving. They were so excited to be out. There was a lot of adrenalin, but they were so calm and relaxed,” Spiteri said.
After rescuing the foursome via heli-sling, the chopper refueled at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and was sent to Canarvon Lake, where a school group from Three Hills had been stuck for three days. Helicopters had dropped off extra supplies, but snow and rain meant they couldn’t get through until the weather cleared. Thankfully, it opened up while Spiteri and Mackenzie were nearby.
“We wanted to get them out of there right away,” Spiteri said. “We landed at the lake, got out and the two leaders greeted me. When I walked around, I’ll never forget it. There were 21 people with wall-to-wall biggest smiles. They were standing in a group, like they were posing for a picture. When we landed, we didn’t know how many people we were rescuing. Their spirits were high, they were just cold.”
Spiteri can’t recall how many rescues she had after that, but was back at it on Saturday, sweeping backcountry trails. She found no more campers or hikers, but plenty of destruction.
“Almost all of the bridges are compromised, damaged or gone. It’s shocking to see; Ribbon Creek, Galatea. It will take a long time to repair.”
Wildlife were seen roaming the water-ravaged landscapes. Heards of elk, bears and others scoured the region for food. While flying, she marvelled at the dedication of Alpine Helicopters.
“Their base is under water and they had to be moved to the Canmore Nordic Centre, they have a major emergency, some of their pilots are dealing with flooding in their own homes, but they were there every day.”
By Sunday, Spiteri evacuated the rest of Spray west campground, and dropping people off at the Stoney Nakoda Casino. The casino was the epicentre of the co-ordination efforts, with up to 10 helicopters flying in and out, bringing in campers and residents from Mount Kidd R.V. Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, William Watson Lodge and others. In all, 396 were evacuated via helicopter, and the Canadian Military escorted out another 800 on roads. That also included multiple cats, dogs and other odd requests.
“We even had a macaw.”
She was then sent to Cataract Creek, where she had to evacuate the campground managers from their home.
“That was their home, so we took time to help them pack. That was tough to deal with, as they won’t be home for a long, long time.”