Creating a row in Calgary

Dangerous stretch of water replaced with whitewater playground

Months before the Harvie Passage opened to the public earlier this year conversation was already buzzing over what to call the whitewater course’s various holes foam piles and waves. Consensus developed early on in favour of calling one hole “Fight Club.” Local kayaker Simon Coward who’s run the passage around six times says it earned the name because “it’s a bit angry.”

A smooth downstream “V” at the head of some rapids also known as a tongue has been christened “Gene Simmons” Coward says due to its length. There’s been a little chatter online about naming one of the waves “Balltripper” (it’s not what you’re thinking) but this moniker hasn’t really caught on yet.

Even if there’s no consensus about all the features’ names however there’s widespread support for the passage itself particularly in comparison to its predecessor the Bow River weir. Originally established in 1904 the weir was replaced in 1975 by a new version which created a powerful recirculating hydraulic wave from which escape was virtually impossible. The most popular nickname for this feature accordingly was “the drowning machine” one it earned by contributing to at least 10 deaths over the years.

Given its deadly potential and obstructive nature the weir caused concern from the beginning. In 2000 the Bow Waters Canoe Club (BWCC) met with Alberta Environment to request modifications to eliminate the drowning hazard and enable passage by both boats and fish. Twelve years later the result is Harvie Passage.

The weir is still part of the new design but by reconstructing the area around it the passage has replaced one big drop with a series of smaller ones slowing the water’s flow and eliminating the deadly recirculation. Nonetheless officials stress there’s less danger than before but danger remains.

“That’s really the big message is making sure you understand what’s here” says Derek Lovlin Bow operations and infrastructure manager for Alberta Environment. “’Cause it is safer but there’s still risk. These are rapids that are a challenge to anybody who knows what they’re doing and a risk to those who don’t.”

Fortunately the passage has strived to accommodate people in both those categories. There’s a gentle Class II-rated channel on the river’s right-hand side and a more turbulent Class III-rated one on its left. The ratings are based on the somewhat arbitrary International Scale of River Difficulty in which Class I is mild and Class VI the maximum is wild. Anyone who’s done a little recreational paddling should be comfortable on “river right” Coward says but he advises a couple of years of whitewater experience before braving “river left.”

“Experienced kayakers have a pretty good idea of how to read the water and what these features are going to do” he says. “But your average Joe floating down the river in a ducky or in a raft or something they could definitely find themselves in some pretty significant bother if they go down the left-hand channel ’cause the features are quite powerful and will definitely flip rafts.”

Provided they bear right the passage will be a relatively brief interlude for weekend rafters — Coward estimates this course can be completed in just a few minutes. But experienced paddlers he says will find plenty to keep them occupied on the left.

“The course itself is quite short but it’s filled with eddies and waves and stuff so people who are familiar with how to kayak or canoe can actually paddle short sections and pull into an eddie and stop and then surf a little wave and then carry on. So you can actually spend quite a lot of time on the features.”

Indeed the course was designed and built with the support of the BWCC the Alberta Whitewater Association and the Calgary Kayak Club. The end result has its critics. Fight Club in particular has frustrated paddlers says Coward since they’ve often had to drag their boats out by hand when stuck. But for him at least this is a minor complaint.

“There’s been a lot of time and money and energy and stuff put into it” he says of the course “so you can always make changes but I think overall it’s pretty good for sure.”

That’s certainly the opinion of Rapid magazine which hailed the passage as a top Class III park in its spring 2012 issue and there’s talk it could eventually host whitewater competitions. Whatever the passage’s flaws moreover no one — except maybe the pelicans who feasted on trapped fish — is likely to regret the loss of the drowning machine.

“I think overall it’s an amazing resource for the city to have” says Coward “and safety-wise it’s a huge huge improvement.”