Reconstruction of ‘drowning machine’ complete



The so-called “drowning machine” has seen its last summer season in Calgary’s Bow River, and water riders are eagerly anticipating the official opening of the new  $17.5-miilion weir reconstruction that began in 2008. 

Mike Boddy, a veteran kayaker, has ridden the Harvie Passage several times this summer despite being urged to stay away. He says the site is an ideal place for whitewater enthusiasts and that it should be open to ride.
Photo: Nicholas Wright/Calgary Journal

Despite the in-river construction of Harvie Passage being complete, the public is still being urged to stay out of the passage until all of the safety testing is complete and the proper signage is up at the site, said Myrna Dubé, CEO of Parks Foundation Calgary.

“Our plan has always been to have the area ready for 2012,” she said. “There was some talk about how things had gone so well with construction that maybe we could get the testing done faster. It’s just not going to happen.”

However, Mike Boddy, a veteran kayaker with more than 20 years of paddling under his belt, said that he thinks the passage should be open for business now.

Boddy has actually ridden the Harvie Passage a number of times already this year despite the warnings to stay away.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “Some of the waves might need some minor tweaking, but I think it’s ready to go now.”

“We went down and scouted it. It looked safe to us and we have quite a bit of experience.

“As kayakers, we aren’t used to being told what you can and cannot do out on a body of water. We usually assess the risk ourselves,” he said.

Boddy explained that the new passage, with its smaller drop-offs, creates “holes” and standing waves that kayakers can use to “do all sorts of tricks.” He said that the area is now an ideal place for whitewater enthusiasts to ride.

Ernie Molineaux, battalion chief with the Calgary Fire Department (CFD), has been tasked with co-ordinating the training program for the Aquatic Rescue Team at the new passage.

He explained that since the federal government declined to close the river during construction of the passage, the area is “technically open.” He said that there is normally a boom that restricts public access to the area, but it was dislodged due to high water flow and water conditions have not been safe enough to put it back in place.

Molineaux describes the situation as a “grey area,” as the public is able to access the passage but they also may be subject to public nuisance charges if they are found to be putting themselves or others at risk.

Dubé said that she hears from water-riders all of the time asking for the weir to be officially opened, and she understands their frustrations, but asks for them to be patient while the province ensures the area is safe.

Out With The Old

Basically, the previous weir was a concrete structure with a one-and-a-metre drop in the water that created a powerful re-circulating hydraulic wave. Although it served a functional purpose for the province, providing flowing water to the Western Irrigation District Canal, it had one clear drawback.

The old weir structure was extremely dangerous to those on the river, claiming at least 14 lives since it was re-built in 1975, according to Dubé.

“The weir structure itself was deadly back in the day. You could never go through that — you would die for sure,” Boddy said.

Dubé explained that the new passage has now been split into two channels which house a number of small drop-offs rather than the one steep drop in the old design — making that section of the river passable.

The channel to the south (river right) is gentle and the channel to the north (river left) is quicker and more challenging.

Molineaux pointed out that proper signage at the site — telling boaters, kayakers and canoers which side is slow-moving and which side has the rapids — is still not in place, and is vital to safety in the area.

“If you’re in your $11 Walmart raft without a paddle and you hit the wrong side of the passage, you’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

Molineaux did say that the on-going testing and safety precautions that are currently keeping the passage closed for public use are mainly for the general public and not for experienced kayakers.

“These guys know what they are doing. They are probably relatively safe,” he said.

Not Your Average Water Park

Although Molineaux said he thought the safety improvements at the passage were great, he did express some concern over public opinion of the new park.

He said that a public misconception of the passage being a water park — something that normally consists of water slides and wading pools — might actually lead to more work for the CFD in the short-term as riders of the river learn the risks involved with using the new passage.

“It narrows and it speeds and there is a rapid portion, so the unprepared and the poorly equipped can certainly get into problems,” Molineaux said.

Boddy said that he thinks Harvie Passage will actually increase the public’s abilities out on the water, as well as attract newcomers to whitewater sport.

“I think you’ll see the whitewater skills of people in southern Alberta escalate as a result (of the new passage),” he said.