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The demon river

An account of last year’s devastating flooding of the Nicola River

This article was produced by the Hakai Institute, which conducts scientific research from ice fields to oceans in B.C. and beyond. Read the full version here: hakai.org/the-demon-river.

 

On the night of Nov. 15, 2021, British Columbia’s Nicola River sounded like thunder.

Boulders boomed beneath a raging current that was bursting its banks, taking out everything in its path.

Residents along Highway 8 were devastated. But they were not alone.

Communities all over southwest British Columbia felt the impacts of flooding and landslides unleashed by an “atmospheric river” rainstorm. 

It was the costliest disaster in the province’s history, resulting in an estimated $13 billion worth of damage.

Yet no place experienced flooding like the Nicola Valley, a dry-belt area that rarely sees extreme rain. 

A year later, J.B. MacKinnon recounts an extraordinary flood on the Nicola River that laid waste to homes and lives—and the idea that we control nature.

* * *

To the list of moments when automotive GPS has given very bad directional advice, we can now add the case of Const. Brett Schmidt of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

On the morning of Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, Schmidt was on an off-duty visit with his girlfriend in Kamloops, a city in the arid plateau region known to British Columbians as the Interior. From there, he planned to make the long drive to his home in a suburb of Vancouver, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. 

In between Kamloops and Vancouver are the Coast Mountains, which roughly divide southern B.C. into wet and dry country. Slopes and valleys westward of the peaks catch precipitation blowing in from the sea and are famously soggy, while the Interior to the east lies in their rain shadow and, in places, resembles a desert.

Unfortunately for Schmidt, heavy rains on the wet side of the mountains had triggered floods and mudslides there, blocking three of the four highways he might have used to get home. Schmidt was unfazed. Road closures in southern B.C. come as no surprise in any season but summer.

He was left with Highway 99, a less-travelled road that would, on a day with better weather, be described as the scenic route. A couple of hours into the journey in his black GMC pickup, driving through rain even in parts of the drylands, he learned that Highway 99 had closed somewhere in the Coast Mountains ahead of him—another mudslide, or what geologists call a “debris flow.” 

Vancouver, which is Canada’s third largest city and most important seaport, had now been completely cut off by road or rail from the rest of the country.

By a rainstorm.

There was nothing Schmidt could do but turn around. He had been on the road since about 8:30 a.m. It was now around 11 a.m. He drove back to the ruins of Lytton, an Interior town that had made international news earlier that year when it hit the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada—49.6 C (121 F)—and one day later burned down to its metals and concrete in a wildfire. 

From Lytton, Schmidt turned north to follow the Thompson River. He soon reached the hamlet of Spences Bridge, which had also been evacuated during the wildfire season. There, his GPS recommended a right-hand turn onto Highway 8, a quiet connector between two more major highways. From Spences Bridge, Highway 8 follows the Nicola River upriver to the town of Merritt, retracing a route he had already driven that day.

Schmidt quickly noticed a difference. Earlier, the Nicola had looked swollen. Now it had an air of menace. The water barrelling through the near-desert landscape seemed unreal.

“The river beside the road was three times as high. It was flowing really quick,” Schmidt would later recall. “Like you could go white-water rafting on it.” 

He carried on. The valley is normally a lovely one, the narrow river swaying between steep walls of rock or clay interspersed with terraces of sagebrush and bunchgrass. This year, though, wildfire had reduced whole mountainsides to black sticks jutting out of bare earth. The flames had not, at least, razed the scattered homes, or the roadside fruit and vegetable stands.

Schmidt was on a stretch of road running low along the river when he felt the ground shake under the wheels of his truck. Glancing into his rearview mirror, he saw that the asphalt he had just passed over had caved in and fallen into the churning water. 

“Holy shit,” he said under his breath.

There seemed to be no better option than to keep going and hope for the best. After another few kilometers, he could see a hill in the distance where the road climbed up and away from the hungry river. If he made it there, he’d be out of harm’s way.

The hill was looming up in front of him when, as he crested a rise in the highway, he had to jam on the brakes.  The road was gone. It simply ended, a jagged break. In its place was the raging Nicola River.

A river in the sky

Nearly a century ago, in 1929, Aldous Huxley observed that there were signs we might be winning the age-old battle of “man against nature.” 

It had become impossible to see a mighty river or mountain without also seeing the possibility of a mighty bridge or tunnel. 

If citizens of Western civilization were falling in love with wild nature, Huxley said, there was a simple explanation. “It is easy to love a feeble and already conquered enemy.”

Sixty years later, nonfiction writer John McPhee published a book, The Control of Nature, describing an epic human battle to manage geological forces at supersized scales: keeping the Mississippi River from changing its course, say, or preventing flash floods from moving the San Gabriel Mountains onto Los Angeles. Were we still under the control of nature, or had we taken control of it?  

In recent years, that question has come to seem firmly decided. Many now describe our times as the Anthropocene, or Human Age, with the implication that—for better or worse—we are dictating the terms of Earth’s future.

Among many such indicators provided as evidence, we have made the chicken the world’s most numerous bird. The weight of the technosphere—everything we build and make, our stuff—now outweighs all living things. Faced with a deadly pandemic, we created a vaccine in less than one year.

Most astonishing of all is climate change. As terrible a threat as it is, it’s hard not to stand in awe of our own powers: we are heating an entire planet. Our solutions to the problem include proposals for even grander engineering schemes, such as fogging the worldwide atmosphere with reflective particles to scatter sunlight back into space. History teaches that we often turn such dreams into realities, complete with unintended consequences.

Lately, though, nature has seemed to reassert itself. It has reminded us that it can be, as Huxley put it, “alien and inhuman, and occasionally diabolic.”

We have been content to think of climate change as a gradual process. But here and there, and with increasing frequency, it lurches. Unlucky people wake up to weather that doesn’t just set a new record but smashes it, that renders a familiar landscape suddenly and shockingly unfamiliar. Not just a bad day, but a bad day out of another epoch.

The makings of a very bad day on the Nicola River first took shape in the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2021—three days before Const. Schmidt turned onto Highway 8.

Just north of Hawaii, a vast reservoir of moisture had pooled in the sky, fed by a humid tropical jet stream and evaporation from an unseasonably warm Pacific Ocean. 

Like water spilling out of a lake into a canyon, the moisture began to flow northeast, squeezed between a low-pressure system and a high-pressure system. In less than a day, the plume traveled 2,000 kilometres to North America’s West Coast. From space, it looked like a rushing river, and the comparison is more than fair: it probably carried more water than the Amazon, the world’s largest river by volume.

We never truly saw atmospheric rivers, as these flows in the sky are now known, until scientists produced the first images of them, based on satellite readings, in the early 1990s. In everyday life, they go by other names, such as Pineapple Express or Tropical Punch—storms that cruise up from the tropics, mainly in the late autumn and early winter, bringing stiff winds, warm air, and heavy rain.

Over time, we learned that dozens of atmospheric rivers flow up to the North American shore between California and Alaska each year—it is one of the most active atmospheric river zones on the planet.

Most of these precipitation events are valuable: a single storm can deliver one-fifth of an area’s annual rainfall, replenishing groundwater, rivers, and lakes. Sometimes, however, they’re trouble. More than three-quarters of B.C.’s disastrous floods have occurred when an atmospheric river fell out of the sky.

Atmospheric rivers have never yet been given names the way windstorms have, such as Hurricane Ian and Super Typhoon Noru. In the United States, however, a five-point scale to describe the intensity of atmospheric rivers—not unlike the ranking applied to hurricanes—was proposed in 2019. A “weak” Category 1 atmospheric river would be a beneficial rainstorm, giving comfort and succor to farmers and ducks. A Category 5 might do billions of dollars worth of damage. A lot depends on exactly where a storm’s rain falls, and for how long.

The one pouring toward the North American shore in mid-November of 2021 was 400 kilometres wide, about 4,000 kilometres long, and looked powerful. The question was where it would land.

Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist at the Meteorological Service of Canada, compares an atmospheric river to a fire hose. (Hawaiian Fire Hose is another of the nicknames sometimes given to these storms.) If the nozzle is aimed at you, you’re getting drenched and pounded. Stand a little to either side, and you might not even have to worry about your suede shoes. But, also like a fire hose, atmospheric rivers tend to twist and snake. They most often move across large regions of the coast, rather than steadily drown one particular place.

“You would never ring the alarm bell early, because you can be off by a thousand kilometres as to where it’s going to hit,” Castellan said.

To solve the puzzle of where an atmospheric river might end up, meteorologists and flood forecasters crunch computer weather models from multiple sources to see whether they tell similar stories about what is likely to happen. In the case of the mid-November storm, the models initially did agree on a trajectory: the fire hose was expected to split down the Canada-U.S. border, then shift southward and leave British Columbia behind. 

Generally, the models estimated that 150 millimetres of rain would fall along the atmospheric river’s path, with some pockets receiving 200 millimetres. That’s very heavy rain even for the B.C. coast, where umbrellas sometimes seem to be reserved only for downpours so intense that breathing becomes difficult. The mid-November storm, though, was only the latest in a parade of severe weather events, including other atmospheric rivers, that had been striking the area since September.

“Nobody was in a particularly alarmed state,” Castellan said. “But going into Saturday or Sunday, it was like, ‘Oh wow, this is getting pretty strong.’” 

By that point, the weather-forecasting phase was largely over: the river had arrived.

Normally, atmospheric rivers that hit British Columbia run into momentous geography soon after reaching the coast. When that happens, the storms get pushed up to a cooler altitude, and the water vapour they carry turns to rain. Even before reaching B.C.’s southern mainland, which bristles with mile-high peaks, a river in the sky must get past the gateway formed by Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, both mountainous. 

As the mid-November atmospheric river rolled in, however, the high pressure system to its south nudged it onto a perfect path to avoid every barrier—“threading a needle,” as Castellan puts it. The core of the storm eased over the low country at the tips of the two gatekeepers. That same angle of approach took it straight into the broad Fraser River valley and nearly a hundred kilometres inland before it finally ran into mountains. 

There, the storm loomed over the Coquihalla Highway, which leads into the B.C. Interior. The river in the sky needed to flow just 35 kilometres, a tiny fraction of its length, to reach the roadway’s summit, Coquihalla Pass, where the wet, seaward side of the mountains switches to the dry, “rain shadow” side. Lush forests gradually give way to straw-gold bunchgrass.

The dry side is dry for the obvious reason that large amounts of water do not ordinarily fall there. Atmospheric rivers mostly peter out among ranges nearer to the coast. No Canadian weather model predicted that the mid-November storm, still sagging with water, would surge across Coquihalla Pass like a river flooding over a dam.

In the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 14, it did exactly that. Then it started to drop the kind of rainfall that the dry side might not have seen in centuries.

‘It’s not going to get any higher’

Doug and Marlyn Wyatt-Purden are used to having strangers on their doorstep—lost travellers who never meant to turn down Highway 8, or people with car trouble.  

The sign at the head of the driveway into the Wyatt-Purdens’ property, Nine Mile Gardens, welcomes these wayward pilgrims.

The use of mileage in that name, instead of the usual Canadian kilometres, is a holdover from the era before metric measurement. 

What is now Highway 8 was once a trail walked by the region’s Indigenous people, the Nlaka’pamux (if you pronounce this ing-khla-KAP-muh, you’re getting close). 

When colonial newcomers built a wagon road up the valley in the mid-1870s, they marked out locations by their distance in miles from Spences Bridge, and those areas are still known that way today.

Starting at Spences Bridge, then, Highway 8 runs southeast up the Nicola River for 65 kilometres to the larger town of Merritt. En route, the landscape divides into two moods. The first section, up to the point called 14 Mile, has a wilder, more remote feel, pressed in upon by mountain steeps. Upriver from there, the valley gradually takes on a more open aspect. In between the two sides is Shackan, a Nlaka’pamux community perched where the river starts twisting through canyon country.

Nine Mile Gardens stands just downstream from the canyon’s last narrow squeeze. The Wyatt-Purdens had originally settled in Ashcroft, a small town north of the Nicola Valley, where Doug had worked at a bulk oil plant and Marlyn was a nurse. In 1977, they acquired Nine Mile Gardens and became pioneering organic farmers.

People who don’t live beside rivers can often be heard to say that people who do can’t complain about floods—but that judgment should surely be shaded by how flood-prone a riverside property actually is. When the Wyatt-Purdens moved into their house it had been there for 66 years, and never to their knowledge had been flooded. They then proceeded to live there 44 more years without a flood.

When they got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 15 from Nlaka’pamux friends downriver who said the water was rising, the Wyatt-Purdens weren’t too concerned.

In the early afternoon, a black pickup rumbled down their long driveway. By then, the river was higher than they’d ever seen it, and rising—it had knocked over their irrigation pumphouse, and they had moved their farm vehicles to higher ground. Doug walked over to meet the arriving stranger. 

“Are you here to evacuate us?” Doug said, joking.

“Well, I actually am with the police force,” Const. Schmidt replied.

Schmidt hadn’t driven far from the dead end he came to on Highway 8. From there, it was only a few hundred metres back to Nine Mile Gardens. Schmidt was hoping the Wyatt-Purdens had a landline telephone. Mobile phone signals get lost in the valley’s complex topography, and Schmidt wanted to alert his police colleagues in the RCMP that trouble was brewing in the Nicola Valley. 

The Wyatt-Purdens did have a landline—unfortunately, it was no longer working. Somewhere to the north, downriver, the flood had already broken the link. Doug knew, though, that their neighbours at Clapperton Ranch, a mile upriver, were on a separate landline that ran to the south.

To get there, Schmidt would have to scramble across the steep, rocky slope above the bend where the river had erased the road.

Schmidt promptly set off for Clapperton Ranch. As he did so, one of its owners, Alan Simpson, was watching him.

Simpson’s day had started much the same as the Wyatt-Purdens’: a neighbour had dropped by to say the river was high. What struck Simpson was how strange the water looked.

Clapperton Ranch sits at the head of a short slot canyon, and just before that constriction, the water slows. The Nicola normally runs somewhere between sparkling clear and brown as mud. On this morning, it was black. It looked like a cooling lava flow, ebony and oozing. Simpson realized it was choked with ash and charcoal—somewhere upstream, rain was falling hard on the fire-scorched landscape.

Like the Wyatt-Purdens, Simpson and his partner Christine Rimmington weren’t initially too worried. Their house was separated from the water by broad hayfields and a slope that lifted them to the height of a four-storey building. They had lived at Clapperton Ranch for almost 20 years, and they knew the land. Even before moving here, they had researched it as an ideal place to grow quality hay. 

“Developing this farm was the highlight of my working life,” said Simpson, who has the air of an artist or writer as much as that of a rancher and farmer. Simpson and Rimmington knew the 100-year-flood mark on the ranch, and as the river climbed well past it, Simpson drove his rugged-terrain vehicle—a Japanese brand of micro-truck—along the highway to a bend with a view downriver.

He saw Schmidt, far away and out of earshot. Schmidt, who was standing near his truck on the dog-toothed stub of pavement where the road had failed, was sussing out how to cross the scree slope above the missing section of highway. Simpson could see that the river had dangerously undercut the pavement that Schmidt and his pickup were on. If it collapsed, Schmidt would trap-door into the rapids.

“Well,” Simpson thought, “I can’t do anything for him.” 

Turning for home, Simpson soon saw that running waters now threatened the ranch’s two barns and other outbuildings. He headed down to open the barn doors so that the river could run through them, hoping this would lessen the chances that the current would tear them down. It was the same trick Hercules used to clean the Augean stables.

Driving up from the lower fields, Simpson saw the water surge behind him, rising suddenly by a metre. “It was like a tidal wave,” Simpson said. “Then it started to pull the buildings apart. And then the river really started to come up.”

In the midst of it all, Schmidt arrived at Clapperton Ranch. Using Simpson’s phone, Schmidt called an RCMP friend in Merritt. Schmidt’s fellow Mountie hadn’t heard any reports of flooding on the Nicola River. So, Simpson called the emergency line.

He also sent a message to Steve Rice. Rice was the area’s regional director, and with his wife Paulet owns a popular Spences Bridge restaurant called The Packing House; most of all, he’s known as a can-do guy. In his message, Simpson told Rice that there were people along the highway who might need evacuation.

After all of this, Schmidt was left with the sense that he could get a ride out of the valley when Rice came upriver to check on people. Relieved, he made the treacherous walk back to his truck, then drove again to the Wyatt-Purdens’ neat red house with the white trim, where the backyard was now more river than yard.

“Steve’s on his way,” Schmidt told the Wyatt-Purdens.

In fact, Steve was not on his way. The Rices already knew there was no way upriver. Their home and small farm was on the Nicola close to Spences Bridge, and by mid-morning the rising river had convinced them to head into town, where they have a suite attached to their restaurant.

Steve had shuttled back and forth to their house two more times, grabbing things they might need for what they imagined would be a short stay. By his second run, both lanes were flooded on one section of road.

Like so many others in the Nicola Valley, Steve wasn’t overly concerned. “Once the river broke the record, your mindset is, ‘It’s not going to get any higher,’” he said. “No one was really panicking. There was no urgency, no one was packing bags. The whole family—we call it the Highway 8 family—was just been-here-done-that.”

Forty-five minutes had passed by the time Schmidt concluded that Steve would not make it to Nine Mile Gardens. The short November day was beginning to fade. Schmidt fixed a new goal in his mind: he would leave his truck at the Wyatt-Purdens’ farm and walk to Spences Bridge.

From there, he could tell the outside world that a flood was rising. He could find Steve Rice. A friend could pick him up and he could begin to put this bad day behind him.

Doug Wyatt-Purden offered to drive Schmidt back down Highway 8 until they reached the first washout. That turned out to be only a couple hundred metres away, just over a gentle hill. Schmidt got out of Doug’s pickup, put on his backpack, strapped his duffel bag across his chest, and started hiking.

He didn’t know if there’d be much highway left for him to walk on, but at least he knew the distance to Spences Bridge: nine miles. With the low November sun setting at 4:18 p.m., he had less than two hours of daylight to go.

More flood for less rain

The Wyatt-Purdens had a rain gauge: on the day of the flood, 20 millimetres of precipitation fell in fits and starts. 

That’s the depth of a finger of whisky, or what Doug calls “a pretty good rainfall for our area.” 

Clearly, the water that was swelling the Nicola River came from somewhere else.

Two of the Nicola’s biggest tributaries, the Coldwater River and Spius Creek, run down from the dry side of Coquihalla Pass, about 100 kilometres away from Nine Mile Gardens as the water flows.

The Coldwater is the larger of the two streamways. Halfway between its headwaters and the town of Merritt, where the Coldwater flows into the Nicola, a corrugated metal shack housed a gauge that was tracking the Coldwater’s flow, as it had done continuously since 1965. At 4 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14, that sensor began to report a river that was steadily rising.

Even in summer, Coquihalla Pass, 1,200 metres above sea level, is nearly empty of anyone but drivers humming along the Coquihalla Highway between B.C.’s Interior and its coast. By noon on Nov. 14, even the traffic was gone, because flooding and debris flows had slammed the highway shut.

The atmospheric river hadn’t just breached the pass. It was holding its position there, drenching the area hour after hour. 

The rain was falling on a landscape primed to make matters worse. Autumn snowfalls, including a fresh layer laid down by a cold front just ahead of the storm, had turned the mountains white. When snow is deep, it can act as a sponge and absorb a rainstorm. But it wasn’t that deep. When the atmospheric river arrived, its warm air and rain turned the snow into liquid.

Among the summits that feed the Coldwater River and Spius Creek, the rain and snowmelt together, if spread evenly, could have covered the landscape with 12 centimetres of water. Some areas recorded twice as much—nearly enough to submerge a grade-school ruler stood on end.

Under normal circumstances, the forests and soil would drink up a lot of that water. That didn’t happen either, because an unusually wet fall season had saturated the land. The unusually hot summer, meanwhile, had left a large area around the Coldwater River incinerated by the July Mountain wildfire. 

In an intense fire, the ground litter of leaves and twigs can vaporize into a gas that penetrates the soil, then cools to form a waxy film. An early study explaining this chemical reaction described this waxy layer as “extremely non-wettable”—water runs right off it.

The land’s saturation, combined with water-repellent soil in the burn zone, sent the atmospheric river downpour swiftly into the Coldwater River and Spius Creek, creating what John McPhee once called “more flood for less rain.” 

Except that there wasn’t less rain. Scientists would later conclude that the greatest factor by far in the flooding was the godawful sheer volume of water that fell from the sky.

To understand how surprising this outcome was, consider the fact that the provincial River Forecast Centre, which predicts streamflows across British Columbia, had only two of its five hydrologists—as people who study Earth’s water systems are known—working that weekend.

“Forecasts were looking not so bad,” said David Campbell, head of the centre and one of the people on the job as events unfolded. Since weather models did not predict serious rainfall on the dry side of the mountains, computer models of river flows didn’t predict serious flooding.

As the day wore on, the Coldwater River gauge, nearby weather stations, and even social media posts were clearly indicating that the storm was dropping a whole lot of water on Coquihalla Pass. “We ran the model and sort of just forced rain into the model,” Campbell said. It showed that the Coldwater River was likely to flood. “That was pretty much the time where we pushed the button on the flood warnings for the Coldwater.”

It was 5:30 p.m., and the Coldwater was rising toward the kind of water volume only seen every half-century. In what would later prove to be a clear oversight, the River Forecast Centre did not simultaneously issue a flood warning for the Nicola River, even though the surging Coldwater flowed straight into it.

The centre was by then seeing potential flooding in streams along the entire length of the atmospheric river’s landfall, from Vancouver Island, off B.C.’s West Coast, to the Interior. They had shifted into a mode of reacting in the moment, and they weren’t picking up a problem on the Nicola—yet. 

The National Hydrological Service, the federal team responsible for the gauges that provide critical information to agencies like the River Forecast Centre, was similarly caught off-guard. When rivers flood, debris or shifts in the river channel can damage river gauges or render their data unreliable. On the morning of Nov. 14, David Hutchinson, regional chief of the hydrological service, started trying to organize two-person teams to get eyes on river stations like the one on the Coldwater. 

“I realized this is a much bigger event than was anticipated,” he said. His first task, though, was difficult in the most ordinary way: it was the weekend, and no field staff were standing by, because no weather disaster had been expected.

There was another, subtler challenge. Flood forecasting relies heavily on computer modelling, but Campbell said that human judgment is still more important: in this case, the experience, skill, and knowledge of his team. 

What happens, though, when an event is stretching beyond the experience of the team, beyond living memory, and beyond what is known from history? “As hydrologists, we recognize that those kind of events could happen,” said Campbell.  “But they’re almost a little more theoretical than something that we anticipate or expect to see.”

Along the Nicola River and its tributaries, river gauge readings go back only a century, and even across that timespan they’re spotty. Saying what a 100-year or 200-year or 500-year flood looks like on these rivers is therefore an educated guess extrapolated from the available data.

Two points, though, are clear enough. The first is that extreme floods are, by definition, rare. The second is that flooding on rivers like the Coldwater and Nicola typically happens in spring, when rising temperatures melt the snowpack.

Even hydrologists, then, may lean toward the same belief that was common among residents of the Nicola Valley—that a flood that is already bad isn’t likely to get a lot worse, especially in autumn. What makes the difference for scientists is that they are typically able to track data that might tell them otherwise.

Unfortunately, the sources of that data were in trouble.

Five river gauges were providing information about what might happen on the Nicola River: two on the Coldwater, two in Spius Creek, and one keeping tabs on the Nicola itself.

In the mid-afternoon of Nov. 14, one of the Spius Creek gauges started sending wonky signals—it was measuring atmospheric pressure rather than water pressure. Most likely the sensor had been levered above the surface by debris. A couple of hours later, after sunset, the second Spius gauge began sending signals “like a ribbon blowing in the wind,” said Hutchinson.

Then the Coldwater gauge that had been giving readings since 1965 joined them, failing completely at 7:10 p.m. The station would later be found tipped on its side, destroyed, in a jumble of logs. When the river began rising, it had been chest-deep where the sensor was reading; when the gauge failed, it was deep enough to submerge a school bus—and still going up.

After that, in dark of night, and in an expanding black hole of data, it was simply a matter of water running downhill, off the slopes and into the tributaries, and down those tributaries to the rising Nicola River.

‘I can’t turn around now’

November is not the most scenic month in the Nicola Valley. The fall leaves are mostly off the cottonwoods and Saskatoon berry bushes, leaving only the deeper greens of pine and fir. 

There’s still a fine scent of sage in the air, but the roadside quackgrass is straw-coloured, the rabbitbrush topped with desiccated flowers. 

The only notable birds at this time of year are the ones that always seem to watch over our human misadventures: crows, ravens, black-billed magpies.

Clapperton Ranch was home to another of the government’s water-level sensors, and it had been a loyal servant. Readings from this station on the Nicola River stretch back to 1911—more than a century of data.

At around 10:15 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 15, it stopped transmitting. Later, Alan Simpson would watch the river crest the roof of the gauge house, after which the whole structure was carried away.

Downstream, Const. Schmidt’s journey had begun to thread together the valley’s stories. Soon after leaving Nine Mile Gardens, he passed a 35-year-old steel bridge stretching across the river to Osprey Ranch. The ranch had been run as an orchard by Geoff Bannoff since 2005, producing what Bannoff called “probably the best apples in the world.”

Bannoff had started the day leading a meditation session in Vancouver, where he lives. Around noon, he checked the daily report from the River Forecast Centre and lost any sense of serenity. It predicted that the Nicola River could reach a flow rate—what hydrologists call a river’s “discharge”—of 850 cubic metres of water per second.

That’s not a lot compared to any number of big rivers, but for the Nicola, it was freakishly high.

In 2018, Bannoff had seen the river hit 350 m3/s, and there was still nearly two metres of air between the river and the bridge. From this he concluded that the bridge could survive even a once-in-a-century flood on the Nicola, estimated by hydrologists at 420 m3/s—only 20 per cent higher than he’d observed.

The Nov. 15 forecast of 850 m3/s, though, amounted to nearly 145 per cent more than he’d seen in 2018. The figure was so extreme that Bannoff thought it could be an error.

Schmidt, trekking past the steel bridge with the rushing torrent beneath it, would be the last person to see the bridge still standing. Only scattered showers fell from the sky, meagre explanation for the strangeness of a violent, swollen river amidst the dry landscape. Sometimes he walked on what was left of the road, sometimes through the sagebrush scrublands. At one sawn-off section of highway, the only way forward was to climb a high bank of hard-packed clay. 

“Perfect,” he said aloud to himself. Then over the hill he went, dodging mats of brittle prickly-pear cactus on slopes otherwise crossed only by bighorn sheep.

Schmidt passed through the small Nlaka’pamux reserve on Kloklowuck Creek, now cut off from anywhere else by road, but still high and dry. Next up on the riverfront was the sign for Mountain Shadows Ranch, decorated with upturned horseshoes. This was the home of Linda Wiebe.

Linda had retired to the Nicola Valley in 2015 with her husband, Roy, who had recently moved into a seniors’ lodge in the town of Lillooet. Linda made the hour-and-a-half-long drive to visit him several times a week.

Like many properties along the Nicola River, Mountain Shadows Ranch was located on a “point bar”—the inside of a riverbend. It’s a sensible place to be, since rivers tend to erode their banks on the outside of their bends. Linda had fallen in love with what she called “the ever-changing river.”

As that river swelled on Nov. 15, she reached out to her stepson, Steve Wiebe, who was living in Surrey, Vancouver’s largest suburb.

In their first call, she told Steve that it had rained a lot in the night and the river was high, but she wasn’t too worried about it. Not long after, she reported that mud and rocks had come down onto Highway 8 in both directions, but that wasn’t so concerning, either—the area was prone to slides. Road crews usually came soon after and plowed them away.

By noon, the main channel of the river had reached her deck, and water had begun to run between her home and the highway. “Good grief! Good grief!” she wrote to Steve in a text.

Two hours later, she was trapped. “Hope it doesn’t get worse, ’cause I can’t get out of the yard now,” she texted. “Garage is flooded, trees are down, water is up to the house. I’m still okay, though.” 

Linda was scared, but expected the river would soon crest. What she may not have realized was that the Nicola wasn’t only flooding, it was moving. The main channel was jumping its banks to pour straight across the point bar—with her home directly in its path.

At 3:09 p.m., just minutes from when cell service in the area was lost, Steve received a final text—a photograph. In it, he could see that the river had broken apart the Mountain Shadows bunkhouse and was carrying the pieces toward Linda’s home; her hot tub was floating by the side of the house. After that, Steve couldn’t contact her, and scrambled to reach other locals—unsuccessfully, as all phone connections were down—and the RCMP.

Wiebe’s cabin was nestled in pines away from the road, and Schmidt, making his way past Mountain Shadows Ranch in the fading daylight, was unaware of what was happening there. A couple of curves in the highway later, though, he saw a family in frantic activity. The property had a hand-painted sign reading “Monkey in the Garden.”

The farm was the home of Brandie MacArthur, Michael Coutts, and their 10-year-old daughter, Luna, as well as Brandie’s mother, Charleen Johnson, and Brandie’s brother, Aaron. They called themselves the Monkeys—an earthy, nearly self-sufficient household, with gardens, fruit trees, poultry, dairy goats, a dog, a cat, a bull, and a milking cow. The river gave them water for their crops, daily doses of beauty, and a swimming hole to escape the summer heat.

“That river was our good friend,” Brandie told me.

On the evening of Sunday, Nov. 14, the Monkeys had heard a sound begin to fill the valley. “We thought it was the wind,” said Brandie. “So our daughter and I went out to look and it was like, ‘Oh no, that’s the river, it’s getting pretty high.’” 

In the morning it was higher still, and rising in sudden pulses.

The first thing the river took was the chicken coops in the lower fields, which flooded as quickly as Michael could remove the birds. They didn’t imagine it could go much higher. “How could it? That was unprecedented,” said Brandie. “Well, it kept coming up.” They spent the rest of the day scrambling to save their animals and salvage what they could from the land before the river washed it away.

Charleen, who came to Canada from the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1975 (“We were not following the American way of functioning”), tried to distract herself in the kitchen, making yogurt out of milk from Tina the cow. 

“I was inside, by myself, scared shitless,” she said. She was sitting in the living room when the river came into the house. First water flowed into the crawlspace, then it spilled into the kitchen.

It’s hard to overstate how much the river had to climb to reach this point. To get to the Nicola from the Monkeys’ house on a more typical day, you’d have to pick your way down a rocky hillside. The highest high water the Monkeys had ever seen was five metres below their home.

Charleen climbed halfway up the steps to the house’s second floor, sat down, and prayed. Shortly afterward, the family retreated to the top of their driveway. From there, all they could do was watch as much of their world was swept away.

When Brandie saw a fit-looking bearded man—Schmidt—coming down the road, she thought he must be an escaping volunteer from one of her neighbours’ organic farms. They talked briefly, then carried on with the challenges in front of them. For Schmidt, that meant another scramble up a mountainside above another gap in the highway.

Around the next bend, yet another household was fighting the flood.

Darkness was gathering, but Schmidt could see a woman on an all-terrain vehicle, and a parked truck with its headlights pointed at a house. The woman was Kim Cardinal, and her husband, Lorn Thibodeau, was hurriedly carrying loads out of a house surrounded by water.

“Oh my god, are you okay?” Cardinal said as Schmidt approached. “What’s going on?”

Schmidt sketched out the story of his day. With the professional demeanor of a Mountie, he appeared calm. But, by this point, he understood that no one was coming to help him or anyone else along Highway 8. He also knew that Spences Bridge, where he would be safe and able to tell the outside world what was happening, must be only a few kilometres away. It had become his single-minded obsession.

“I’m just going to hike down to Spences Bridge,” he said.

“You’re pretty close,” replied Cardinal. “But you can’t make it out. It’s sheer cliff.” She already knew that the road beyond her property was washed out, and some of the valley’s steepest terrain stood between Schmidt and his goal.

“Well, I’m going to try,” Schmidt said.

Cardinal didn’t argue. “If you get stuck,” she said, “you come back and stay with us. You can sleep in our truck.”

At that point, she and Thibodeau thought the worst they’d be dealing with was water damage in the house come the morning.

Schmidt trudged onward into what was now the darkness of night. The scene soon turned from shocking to surreal. The roar of the river filled the valley. From under the water came the thunder of boulders rolling in the deep, and the whoomp of hillsides collapsing. The noise shook the air, and rocks, some the size of Schmidt’s backpack, began tumbling down onto the road.

He could hear power lines twang and poles thud around him as they were toppled by the flood. In the end, 87 poles came down—one of them ultimately found nearly 400 kilometres away, having floated down three different rivers to the coast.

By the light of his phone, Schmidt ducked and wove between the fallen lines, unsure whether electricity still flowed through them or not. Once, he came to a halt with his face just inches from a line. For the second time that day he felt the plain horror of nearness to death.

Then he realized that he wasn’t alone. Animals were gathering on the road: bighorn sheep and deer, as stunned by the day’s events as he was. Glancing down, he saw two creatures plodding beside him, keeping pace like a couple of dogs walking to heel. Except that they weren’t dogs. They were beavers. He wondered if the light of his phone was acting as some kind of beacon, the electronic halo of a patron saint of animals.

In front of him, the road once again petered out into the rampaging river. This time, though, the mountainside was too steep to climb.

I’m so close, he thought. I can’t turn around now. I just want to get the hell out of here. Then he saw that an asphalt ledge, all that was left of the road, still clung to the embankment. He eased his way out onto it, sometimes stepping on the ledge, sometimes the cliff itself. 

Then he was falling.

A moment later, up to his ribs in cold water, the thought flashed through his mind that this is how he would die, sucked away into the total darkness and violence of a river that was tearing down mountains. In the next second he realized that, by some perfection of chance, he had fallen into a pool of eerie calm.

Drenched, he clawed his way back onto the steep bank, then up again to the asphalt ledge. Somehow, he had hung onto his bags and even his phone.

Screw this, Schmidt thought. That could have been a lot worse.

He turned back the way he had come, again dodging powerlines as he went. When he got back onto the straight stretch leading to Cardinal and Thibodeau’s home, he saw that Cardinal had spotted the bobbing light of his phone and was coming to fetch him on her quad.

Then he noticed, in the spotlight cast by vehicle headlights, that the river was now deep around the house. And rain had begun to pour down.

 

This is an excerpt from J.B MacKinnon’s epic, 14,000-word account of last year’s flooding of the Nicola River. It is republished here with permission from the Hakai Institute. To read the full multimedia feature—which is well worth your time—https://hakai.org/the-demon-river/ 

Geoscientist Matthias Jakob gave generously of his time in the preparation of this article, and influenced it in important ways. Jakob died in a paragliding accident in October.

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