This article was originally published in the Revelstoke TIMES Magazine, available now at your local coffee shop, book store, or any other business in downtown Revelstoke.
Walking down the steep embankment away from the railway tracks, the rush of water from the mighty Illecillewaet River consumes the senses like a perpetual exhale of breath, but the river isn’t breathing right. Something is inhibiting her flow like a blocked windpipe –and has been for nearly 10 years – forcing the waterway to wheeze. Like a person with a tickle in the back of their throat, it’s just a matter of time until the Illecillewaet River coughs, and the results could be severe.
It’s tough to visualize the scale of the Box Canyon log jam until you’re upon it – standing on the jagged cliffs looking over, the logs jut out in all directions like a King Kong-sized porcupine wedged in the narrow sliver of rock. The image is naturally unnatural to witness. Log jams aren’t uncommon, but the size of the Box Canyon befits the nature of it: a threat.
Box Canyon is a narrow section on the Illecillewaet River. In 2014, a landslide brought trees down the Illecillewaet until they reached Box Canyon, where the logs rammed against the cliff walls, forming a large log jam. The big jam was expected to clear itself out over time, but in the more than nine years since, the jam has only grown. The jam remains an issue because the municipality and the province continue to dispute who is responsible for cleaning up the mess.
Since the jam formed, it has loomed over the town and its infrastructure. Some of the first people to be impacted by the log jam were the people who used the river regularly—whitewater kayakers. Michael Schadinger is a local kayaker. Schadinger spoke about what the river used to look like, and what it was like to paddle it.
“We took that for granted and looking back. I probably should have run it more in those days,” said Schadinger.
The Illecillewaet is well-known for its whitewater kayaking and rafting. Local operator, Apex Rafting, still offers whitewater kayaking on the Illecillewaet above the jam. However, without the Box Canyon clear, an important section of the river is missing. Schadinger recalled what was so appealing about the Box Canyon run on the Illecillewaet.
“The thing for that particular section…was just the ease of use. So, you could get off work and take care of the whole trip in about an hour,” said Schadinger.
The run was quick and challenging – only suited to kayakers who had at least three summers of paddling experience, according to Schadinger’s estimation. For the ones who could do it, it was the perfect post-work paddle.
The run takes an hour to complete, and the river would take paddlers all the way into town.
The box canyon section of the Illecillewaet whitewater rapids is classified as a hard class four or low class five rapid. Rapids are categorized, based on their difficulty level on a six-category classification system.
“That’s the hardest rapid on the river. And so, there’s always some nerves going into it,” said Schadinger.
He explained that there were several features that made Box Canyon tricky to paddle.
A recirculating feature that could snag your boat and pin you down until it spits you out, that Schadinger described as “like being in a washing machine,” was one such feature. Another was a horizon line, meaning the paddle to the Illecillewaet below was a blind drop. Completing the run gave paddlers a sense of relief and accomplishment.
Now, when Schadinger approaches the canyon, he’s not concerned about the drop or the recirculating feature, he’s concerned about the wood in the river around him and avoiding running into it. Still, the change in paddling wasn’t Schadinger’s concern.
“I think there probably is – and I’m no geologist – but that to me seems like there’s a hazard there that’s developing,” said Schadinger.
How it started
The jam can be traced back to one event almost 10 years ago.
“The river surged late on Tuesday, Oct. 14, when a landslide crashed into Woolsey Creek,” said Revelstoke Review reporter Alex Cooper on Oct. 18, 2014.
Woolsey Creek is one of the many streams that act as arterial veins feeding the Illecillewaet River, and Revelstoke by extension. The skinny waterway begins up on Mt. Revelstoke in the National Park, roughly a kilometre above sea level in elevation. Snaking along a skinny valley floor, Woolsey Creek travels south and then southeast briefly until it connects with the Illecillewaet near the Trans-Canada Highway 1, which runs alongside the Illecillewaet.
When the landslide occurred, it led to a surge in the Illecillewaet.
The Illecillewaet’s average rate of flow is approximately 53 m3/s. In the event that led to the log jam, river’s speed surged to an incredible 185 m3/s, according to a Revelstoke Review article from the time.
Following the landslide, the logs would have continued along the snaking path of the creek until its confluence with the Illecillewaet, and then travelled southwest towards Revelstoke. Many logs made it through Box Canyon and could be spotted along the banks of the Illecillewaet where the Greenbelt path is. Before long, a few logs would have caught, causing even more to catch.
Although the landslide brought a significant number of logs down onto the Illecillewaet, it’s not uncommon to have a few occasional logs float down the river. Generally, over time, they filter out through the river system into a larger body of water where they are either scooped up or washed ashore.
Since the jam formed on Oct. 14, 2014, logs floating on the Illecillewaet above Box Canyon have contributed to the ever-growing jam. The jam is now roughly the length of a football field, and over 10 metres thick.
Like a malignant tumour, the jam is out of control and constantly growing.
The Illecillewaet water ran black after the incident, according to a blog post from Michael Thomas, director of engineering for the City of Revelstoke at the time. Thomas also questioned possible actions that the city would have to take.
“This will need to be investigated and possibly removed prior to winter,” wrote Thomas in his blog Oct. 29, 2014.
The risk of the log jam
Apart from a kayaker who might be concerned about paddling into a log jam, the threat of one has more to do with what’s below it than just its mere existence, though this jam does impact the spawning ground for kokanee and bull river trout. Given that the Box Canyon jam sits just three kilometres upstream from the city, the risk of the jam lies in the potential damage that a break in it could incur.
Last summer, the City of Revelstoke did a flood inundation study, conducted by WSP Canada. The study included various modelling for the Illecillewaet and testing the flood prevention measures. WSP analyzed the river and were able to come up with a hydraulic model for predicting the resilience of Revelstoke’s flood prevention along the Illecillewaet.
The model demonstrated how Revelstoke would fare against a 2, 10, 50, 100, and 200-year flood event.
Revelstoke’s dykes wouldn’t be overtopped by a 200-year flood event, and the Fourth Street bridge has enough clearance for the water to flow. So, for flood standards, the municipality is insulated from the damages of flooding.
Still, WSP singled out the log jam as a cause for concern if it ever released.
“The Illecillewaet River is prone to log-jam formations at Box Canyon and a sudden release of a significant log jam could reduce the available freeboard at the Illecillewaet dykes. A breach of the Illecillewaet Dyke has been modelled downstream of the 4th Street E Bridge to determine the area protected by dykes from the 200-year flood levels. As a result, some residential and industrial areas located on the north side of the dyke would be flooded in the event of a dyke failure,” said WSP in its report.
A sudden release was also Revelstoke Fire Services chief Steve DeRousie’s concern.
“It will let go at some point, whether it’s going to let go a little bit at a time or all at once. And what is the impact downstream to the infrastructure of the city,” questioned DeRousie.
If the jam were to let go, piece by piece or all in one go, the logs could damage the integrity of the dykes that are set up to prevent Revelstoke from flooding. Therefore, an uncontrolled release of the log jam during a flood event could put people and properties at risk.
Worth noting is the fact that if an emergency occurred, and the water took out the jam and the dykes causing flooding, the province would be responsible for the reparations.
So, what is the city doing about it?
What’s being done
Since his arrival in Revelstoke a few years ago, City of Revelstoke’s current director of engineering, Steve Black, has worked hard to make the case that the log jam needs to be dealt with now, and that the provincial government should pay to make it happen. Black explained that so far, his advocacy has fallen on deaf ears.
He talked about how receptive the province was to helping the City of Revelstoke with the issue.
“It’s pulling teeth. And that’s probably the nice way to say it,” said Black as he gazed out at the mass of logs in the canyon.
Black was responsible for organizing the river analysis conducted by WSP. Using a provincial grant to study the river, the result –as aforementioned – reenforced Black’s own concerns about the potential impacts of the log jam letting go.
Black also explained why the City of Revelstoke was refusing to shoulder the responsibility of cleaning up the jam, despite the land around it being part of Revelstoke’s municipal boundary. He said that the wood came from a mixture of crown and National Park land, and the river falls under provincial government control. Pointing to the narrowest section of the canyon, Black continued.
“You can see annually, there’s a constraint. It’s always going to be here. And so that is a real concern. How do we take care of this when it’s not our problem? And should the city taxpayers be on the hook to mitigate that? And in my opinion, the answer is no, the city should not be on the hook for that. And we need to have partners to solve this problem.”
Part of Black’s argument for making the province pay for the removal of the jam was the finances of the tourism industry, and how it benefits the province. The province, he explained, makes more than $1 billion off tourism every year and gives roughly $150 million back to resort municipality communities.
“The province makes that money back in two weeks in the year,” said Black.
He argued that in the event of a 200-year flood, coupled with the rush of water and debris from the log jam, that the community’s infrastructure would be at risk. It could cut the city off from the resort where the municipality and province collect taxes, but more importantly to the hospital and surrounding community.
200-year floods are often just a mathematical extrapolation to predict what a worst-case scenario would look like. 200 years is the provincial standard for flood prevention, but Black was quick to remind that just because it says 200 years, doesn’t mean it will only happen every 200 years.
200 doesn’t equal 200
To create a 200-year flood model for Revelstoke, WSP set all its variables for model to the worst. When the log jam formed, the flow rate was 185 m3/s, but for a 200-year flood, the group accounted for a flow rate of over 600 m3/s.
When WSP delivered its findings to Revelstoke city council on June 28, 2022, councillor Rob Elliott asked what many people have probably asked themselves.
“200-year horizon for planning, is that normal,” questioned Elliott.
A 200-year flood plan seems ludicrously far off, but keeping in mind that it isn’t a plan for something that could happen in 200-years is key. In fact, Revelstoke almost saw a 200-year flood event 40 years ago.
“A blanket of ominous grey clouds socked in the city all day Monday resulting in a record rainfall that eventually blocked CP rail lines, closed Highway 23 South, the Trans-Canada Highway East and flooded the ghost town at Three Valley Gap,” wrote a reporter in the Revelstoke Review in July 1983.
The torrential rain caused flooding all over, and even caused its own log jam in Box Canyon. The Illecillewaet rate of flow went from its average of roughly 50 m3/s to a jaw-dropping 591 m3/s, which is not far from the 200-year extrapolation of 631 m3/s.
The Canadian Climate Research (CCR) are Canada’s leading policy research organization for climate change. Independently run, and a registered charity, the organization’s focus is analyzing how climate change is affecting Canadians and what changes can be made to mitigate the effects.
In 2020, CCR released a report titled Tip of the Iceberg: Navigating the Known and Unknown Costs of Climate Change for Canada, which breaks the many effects of climate change and their economic impact. The report references the growing cost that provincial governments must pay for emergency reparations.
“While there have always been weather-related damages and disasters, changing climatic conditions are shifting hazards, driving damages above what we have seen in the past,” said the report.
This means that 200-year floods no longer happen every 200-years, but the impact doesn’t stop there.
“Decades of insurance payouts and disaster spending by governments, prominent indicators of the cost of weather-related disasters, show a noteworthy rise in both the number of catastrophic events and their costs,” said the report.
The unpredictable weather events that once embedded themselves for several decades now occur more frequently, and they’re costing the country more to fix it. The report makes several recommendations, but they all suggest proactivity.
“Addressing climate-related risk and building resilience implicates many, if not most, government activities and programs. Successful implementation therefore requires not only dedicated government capacity and expertise on adaptation, but mechanisms to integrate and fund adaptation in existing government programs,” said the report.
Revelstoke’s dyke systems that are designed to withstand 200-year floods are proof of a step in the right direction to mitigating the effects of climate change-exacerbated weather events, but a failure to get rid of a threat to the dykes puts the community back into harm’s way.
What the government[s] said
Steve Black and Steve DeRousie continue to chase the provincial government for financial help in dismantling the jam.
“We’re working hard on it, and we will continue to work on it. We’ll continue to push the province as hard as we can to ensure that they’re always aware that we think they’re on the hook for this,” said Black.
Part of the work they have done is persistently sending letters to the provincial government for the past three years, petitioning for their help. In response, Black and DeRousie said they have only ever received phone calls acknowledging their letter was received.
As this is an issue predominantly between the province and the municipality, Revelstoke’s Member of Parliament, Rob Morrison, couldn’t comment on a direct solution to remove the jam.
“Given the obvious issue of safety, I wonder why the jam hasn’t been removed already. If there is Federal agency approval needed, such as approvals from DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada], my office will reach out and bring about a swift resolution. However, I don’t believe that to be the case and will follow-up with my Provincial counterpart to see how this issue can be resolved. The log jam is large, dangerous and should be addressed in the immediate,” said MP Morrison in a statement.
At the time of the release of this article, Revelstoke’s MLA Doug Clovechok hadn’t responded to request for interview or comment. However, DeRousie said Clovechok had worked with the municipality to engage the province, but still to no avail.
Also at the time of the release of this article, the Provincial Ministry of Forests said in a statement that the provincial government hadn’t received an application to remove the log jam.
“The Province has previously provided the City of Revelstoke with options regarding concerns surrounding the Box Canyon log jam, including steps to request Provincial assistance for removal,” said the ministry.
A request for information was filed with the City of Revelstoke to confirm the ministry’s statement.
Michael Schadinger offered a final comment on the log jam about where the paddlers stand on the issue.
“I guess in a way we’re kind of like the canaries in the coal mine,” said Schadinger, adding that “it’s not just about me and a few other guys getting to go paddling. We can still paddle it. But I worry about the trailers downstream.”
The province’s unwillingness to act preemptively to handle the jam could result in significant damage downstream in an emergency and force the community to endure the resulting losses.
Given the province’s obligation to pay should a catastrophe occur, the box canyon log jam boils down to a simple question: why pay more later when you can pay less now?
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