After 5 long years, Calgary's 'cursed' Harvie Passage set to reopen
$8 million spent to rebuild world-class white water passage on Bow River following 2013 flood
UPDATE as of July 12, 2018: This story was originally published on June 23. The passage reopened on June 28. The province officially celebrated its reopening on July 12, with Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips there to canoe down the reconstructed passage with local whitewater paddlers.
Five years after it was ripped apart by the 2013 flood, the Harvie Passage is set to reopen to rafters, canoeists, paddlers and kayakers next week.
It's been a long, bumpy and expensive journey to get to this point.
You can't help but wonder whether that section of the Bow River is under some kind of a spell — perhaps from the ghosts of the dozen or so people who died in the powerful undertow of the old man-made weir, which was once called the "drowning machine."
"It is a little bit cursed," said Mike Holroyd, who spends a lot of time in the water as the director of sport development for Alberta Slalom Canoe Kayak.
The drowning machine was made safer a couple years before the 2013 flood and the area downstream remodelled as a white water wonderland for paddlers. Along with the safety improvements, the upgraded passage featured two new channels for beginners and experts alike. But most of the $16-million facility was shredded by the flood.
It's taken five years and $8 million to put it all back together.
"This version is going to be much better than the first version," said Holroyd.
There will once again be two channels for river users — a low water channel on the right side for inexperienced or novice rafters and paddlers, and a high-water channel on the left side, which is the more challenging route with several drops that pose a serious risk — even for experienced users.
The low water channel is actually new — it was carved out by the 2013 flood waters.
"It's going to be amazing to learn in, it's going to be much more varied than the first version, which was very repetitive," said Holroyd.
"It's going to be just a great place for kids to learn how to paddle, my five and seven-year-olds were asking me about it, they're super excited," he said.
CBC News has learned an official opening ceremony is planned for Wednesday morning.
One of the U.S.-based engineers who worked on both the Harvie Passage renovation and rebuild projects said it's the largest project he's ever worked on and the city is extremely lucky to have it.
"I love this project," said Gary Lacy, the president of Recreation, Engineering & Planning based in Boulder, Colo.
New, more natural channel
Lacy said the white water "park" is in a large metro area, close to downtown, accessible to a large number of people, located on a beautiful river and in a fantastic setting next to Pearce Estate Park.
The key, for Lacy, is the low water channel, which he believes will be more accessible and user-friendly.
"As you go down it's just a complete separate channel from the main Bow River, in my opinion, it works much better, much more natural-appearing, more open for more of the general public use — be it kayak, canoes, stand-up boards, inflatable crafts, more accessible to the public," said Lacy.
"That's the most dramatic improvement," he said.
He stresses safety precautions and equipment, such as life jackets and even helmets, must be considered even if users choose the right, low-water channel.
"It's really important in the Bow River because of its size, even if you're a good swimmer," he said.
"This is a big river and it's a powerful river and there's powerful hydraulics, especially in the high-water channel and it shouldn't be taken lightly."
"I would strongly encourage people to have the proper [personal flotation device] and the proper safety gear to enjoy the river correctly," he said.
While security fencing prevents access, Holroyd and others in the paddling community were allowed in to set up the new slalom gates for training and future competitions. The country's top paddlers will test the channels in August following the national championships in Kananaskis.
Holroyd said once it's officially open he'll be out on the water five days a week, sometimes twice a day, training future national and even Olympic-calibre level athletes.
"It's been a long wait," he said.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.