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Family trapped for days in Kananaskis backcountry

If you’ve wondered what it’s like to weather the flood of the century in the backcountry, just ask Bruce Steiner.
The raging Kananaskis River blocks Three Isle Trail and Bruce Steiner’s exit from Kananaskis Country.
The raging Kananaskis River blocks Three Isle Trail and Bruce Steiner’s exit from Kananaskis Country.

If you’ve wondered what it’s like to weather the flood of the century in the backcountry, just ask Bruce Steiner.

The retired 64-year-old Minnesota native, his wife Julie, daughter Morgan Botting and son-in-law Christian Botting found themselves trapped in the Kananaskis wilderness through the worst of the storm, with no chance of hiking out.

“There was no crossing the Kananaskis. We knew we couldn’t go back the other way and we knew the water would keep rising,” Steiner said.

A family reunion at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis left Steiner with a chance to plan a backcountry hike to Three Isles Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. After much Internet research, he determined the trail would be gentle enough for the entire family, spending two nights at the Forks campground and two more at Three Isles Lake Campground. The gradual 30 kilometre round trip trek includes a mere 490 metre of elevation gain, which is what he was looking for.

“The trip looked really easy and basic. There was information on the web about people taking their kids there,” Steiner said. “We had never been there and we knew it was a popular hike.”

The first two days of the trip went smoothly, although it rained steadily. On Tuesday (June 18), Steiner and his son-in-law set out on a day hike to scout out Three Isle to see if it was passable. The hike was tough going in less than ideal conditions, and the duo spotted a mother grizzly and her two cubs on the way.

“It rained quite a bit, but we made it to the pass, even though there was a lot of snow along the way. It looked like people had gone through, but we decided it would be too hard to get everyone up there,” Steiner said.

The rains intensified on Tuesday night, but the group kept their spirits high. On Wednesday (June 19), Turbine Canyon became their next destination, but again they were turned around by snow, and headed back to the Forks. That’s when they caught their first glimpse of trouble.

“As we descended, there were a few places where there was a lot of water. It was flowing aqua marine, and hadn’t changed that much.”

They got a small campfire going and hunkered down for the night at the Forks Campground, when the rain hit with full fury.

“It was a deluge. It was coming down really hard. We talked about going out, but thought we could ride it out. But when we got up the next morning, all of the sudden, we’re looking at the river.”

The river, which had been 40 yards from the cooking area, was now much closer.

“Now it was 15 feet away and the water wasn’t aqua marine, it was brown. It was really moving in the middle. We saw trees going by down the river.”

They knew they had to move quickly to cover the seven km back to Kananaskis Lakes. By 11 a.m., they were packed and moving, but slowed by the waters.

“Three hundred yards from the Forks, the trail was under water. We were knee deep.”

They came to their first bridge. The far end had collapsed into the water, however the foursome decided to brave it, despite the rushing water surrounding them.

“We thought we were home free. We knew there was a larger bridge ahead, but when we came around the corner, it was gone. If we had gotten over that bridge, we knew the hike from there was on higher ground.”

Saturated by a torrential downpour, the day was disappearing and the group had to make a decision. They consolidated their tents and camped upstream of the large collapsed bridge, hoping Kananaskis Public Safety would inspect the destroyed bridge. By late Thursday, a helicopter streaked the sky at a high rate of speed, but didn’t see them.

The group laid out several multi-coloured tarps and items in hopes of being seen, and markers on the trail to signal other hikers, all the while trying their best to stay dry.

“We were all pretty wet. We had to develop a system to keep everything dry — strip and get into the sleeping bags. At that point it was a matter of staying warm. I was weighing the options between hypothermia and bears. We ended up eating in the tent and putting the food out. I didn’t have it in me to find a suitable tree to hang our food.”

Through the night, the rain turned to snow, threatening to collapse the tent.

“We were constantly reviewing decisions. It was pretty clear didn’t make sense to go elsewhere, so we decided to stay put and make ourselves obvious.”

They kept warm through the night, and by Friday, they heard another helicopter — this one moving slowly.

“It was hovering around. We knew they had to be pretty close. We then looked up and they were right there. I looked someone in the helicopter in the face.”

The helicopter sped away, returning 45 minutes later to an ecstatic group. There was nowhere to land, so conservation officer Arian Spiteri and Kananaskis Public Safety Officer Jeremy Mackenzie had to heli-sling the family to safety, two by two. The eight-minute ride to Kananaskis Lakes turned out to be the highlight of their trip.

“It was one of the most amazing rides of my life. It was snowing but it was an incredible view.”

They were flown by helicopter to the Kananaskis Emergency Services building. There, they jumped into a firefighter’s pick-up truck, which took them to the Delta at Kananaskis to grab their bags and passports. From there, a military troupe transported them to the casino, where they were put on school buses to the Calgary Airport. The family slept on mattresses at the airport, and made their Saturday (June 20) flight to Minnesota with ease.

“It was an incredible co-ordination effort,” he said. “Now we’ve got a story for our next family reunion.”

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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