Harvie Passage remains dangerous and could be safer, says Alberta Whitewater Association

·5 min read
Some in the paddling community continue to have concerns about Harvie Passage. They are attempting to make further safety recommendations to the city and province but feel discussions have stalled. (Submitted by the Alberta Whitewater Association - image credit)
Some in the paddling community continue to have concerns about Harvie Passage. They are attempting to make further safety recommendations to the city and province but feel discussions have stalled. (Submitted by the Alberta Whitewater Association - image credit)

Harvie Passage on Calgary's Bow River was redesigned for safety and transformed into a white-water wonderland for paddlers when it reopened after the flood in 2018.

However, some in the canoe-kayak community continue to have concerns about the popular spot, and they are attempting to make further safety recommendations to the city and province — but feel discussions have stalled.

Michael Holroyd, the executive director of the Alberta Whitewater Association, who helped consult on the passage's remodel, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday that seeing people in distress at Harvie Passage is not uncommon.

He estimated that several times a week, the canoe-kayak community pull people from the water, and said various recreation organizations have ideas for Harvie Passage that could help keep Calgarians safer.

But various levels of government, Holroyd said, have yet to engage with them about their recommendations.

"We've had the same concerns and ideas for the last 10 years … and we keep getting the same answer," Holroyd said.

"The province says it's up to the city, the city says that it's the province."

'The drowning machine'

Harvie Passage was completed a year before the flood in 2013, and then rebuilt after the new facility was destroyed by it. When it officially reopened for good in 2018, fundamental changes had been made.

Once home to a treacherous man-made weir nicknamed "the drowning machine," about a dozen people died over the years trying to navigate its powerful undertow until Harvie Passage was created.

"Every couple of years, somebody would die on it," Holroyd said.

"Some paddlers had a really good idea of getting rid of it, and to make a recreation facility there in 2011. And that's gone a long way to making the place safer."

Submitted by the Alberta Whitewater Association
Submitted by the Alberta Whitewater Association

Meanwhile, two channels were created to accommodate beginners and experts alike — a low water channel on the right side for inexperienced paddlers, and a high-water channel on the left side, which is the more challenging route.

Even for experienced users, it contains drops that pose serious risk.

"The left is super dangerous," Holroyd said. "It's for experienced people only."

The strength and ferocity of the rapids

In spite of modifications like these, fire department spokesperson Carol Henke said in June that dozens of calls were keeping rescue crews busy on the Bow River, and that Harvie Passage remains "a real hazard" that is prone to flipping rafts.

To stay safe, she said people needed sturdier rafts, life-jackets, proper equipment like oars, and to remember that drinking dulls judgment.

Henke told CBC News on Friday that Harvie Passage is also intended for kayaking, which makes it more dangerous for those who are using it strictly for recreating — and floating down the rapids in just a life-jacket, or on a floatie, rather than a proper watercraft.

And the left side remains hazardous, she said.

"What one aquatic rescuer told me was that he estimates the vast majority of the people who take the river left — so the more challenging rapids — capsize, just due to the strength and ferocity of of the rapids," Henke said.

"So a lot of rescues happen in that location where people are under-prepared, both with the proper equipment as well as the skill to safely navigate those types of rapids."

'Just covered in blood'

According to Holroyd, people need helmets and shoes to stay safe, too — even if people are using the meandering, gentler right channel.

"We see a ton of people coming out of there just covered in blood because the concrete is super abrasive. It's sort of a 10-grit sandpaper," Holroyd said.

When the water in the Bow River is high, that presents its own risks. But when it's low, he said people are more likely to hit rocks and concrete if they capsize.

"We see a lot of people hitting their head, scratching their knees, scratching their feet," he said.

Bluebird Contracting
Bluebird Contracting

As for the area itself, adding change rooms would keep people from cluttering parking lots, and Holroyd said a boathouse could be a "big bonus."

"We have 14 organizations and businesses that are interested in putting a boathouse in at Harvie Passage, and with that, we would be able to have lifeguards or rescue people on site," Holroyd said.

"We would be able to have education people there, and we will be able to create a culture of safety around that facility."

'A bigger vision for Harvie Passage'

However, Holroyd said proposals had been submitted in 2018 and 2019 to the city and provincial government for the change rooms, the boathouse and another parking lot, but nothing came of it.

CBC News reached out to both the City of Calgary and the Alberta government about proposed changes to Harvie Passage.

"This would be better directed to the City of Calgary parks department as far as any proposed physical enhancements on the lands associated with Harvie Passage," said Paul Hamnett, press secretary to Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, via email.

Meanwhile, the City of Calgary said Harvie Passage is managed by the province, but the city has been reviewing additional amenities for the Harvie Passage area for several years now as part of a study.

"There is an active study to revisit all the options for this park, which will be done under the update of the Bend in the Bow project," the city said in a statement.

"There are, however, several challenges for the area as it is in the floodway and there other developments that need to be considered. The city will review all the development options, and adding additional amenities for the area, in the upcoming study."

As for Holroyd, he said the Alberta Whitewater Association and others are hopeful government will eventually engage with them on improvements.

"We're working toward … a bigger vision for Harvie Passage," he said.

"And we hope that, you know, [it] will result in less near-drownings, less deaths, and hopefully to be a safer and more fun place for everybody."

With files from Bryan Labby and the Calgary Eyeopener.

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