Quicksand, Crawdads and Gangsters
What it was like for a kid moving from a small village outside of Toronto to the bustling and burgeoning western city of Calgary.
It’s starting to feel like Spring (again) in Calgary, with temperatures in the double-digits on the plus side beginning this weekend. Will it snow again? Probably. Are we in actual Spring? No. Will I enjoy it while it lasts? Yes.
We moved to Calgary from a small village just outside of Toronto when I was ten. In Ontario, winters are proper winters, and you got all four seasons in equal measure. The snow stays for the entire winter, and you can make snow forts that last for months. This is not the way of Calgary. Seasons in Calgary are put together in a Vitamix.
Behind our house in Ontario was ‘Duffin’s Creek,’ famous for snapping turtles, crawdads, and a swimming hole for mobsters wearing concrete shoes. We were a stone’s throw away from Lake Ontario, which (in my ten-year-old memory) is famous for quicksand, three-eyed fish, Sand Pipers, and two-headed turtles. Quicksand wasn’t just in faraway jungles laying in wait to trap Tarzan and Jane; no, I grew up literally surrounded by quicksand. Now, I also watched Tarzan on Saturday afternoons, so I knew that if I was ever trapped in quicksand I just need a vine to pull myself to safety. Easy. Being ten was awesome.
Moving to Calgary was exciting.
We moved into a beautiful house in the northwest community of Silver Springs, right beside the bike path and the Bow River. The ever-present Rocky Mountains to the west, Canada Olympic Park / Winsport (then known as Paskapoo) to the south, and running right through the middle of it all was the Bow River. The Bow River isn’t massive in the grand scheme of things, but it has all the things a good river should have like train bridges, undertows, strainers, sieves, foot entrapments, back eddies, standing waves, ball-shrivelling cold water, and of course, beavers.
My mom and dad grew up on the west coast and are action-packed, adventure-types; they were used to the hazards large bodies of moving water presented. My sister and I grew up surrounded by quicksand, crawdads and gangsters, so my parents decided we’d better learn how to swim in a proper river.
“Barrie, now that we live so close to the river, we should really teach the kids ‘River Safety.’” my mom suggested strongly.
“Great idea Betty,” my dad replied, a bounce in his step. “Kids, come with me.”
15 minutes later, we’re on the bank of the river, and my dad says, “Never try to fight or swim against the river; you will lose.” My sister and I nodded along. “Instead, you can just let the river carry you and use it to get you to shore.” More nodding. “Don’t try to get to a specific part of the shore to get out, just a general idea of where to get out. This is the way.” This was a very Taoist approach to rivers and life; a philosophy that would shape much of my understanding of how to function in the world later on. My dad is Yoda. “Keep your feet pointed down river and relax. Come on!” And with a splash, he jumped into the river, floated a little way down, side-stroked his way back to shore and came jogging back up to us.
He took the time to show us various parts of the river and how the water’s currents and flow (and even the direction) changed depending on the shore features and what was below the surface. Before you can say, “Hey, look out! Beaver!” we were all floating down the river, feet first, gently bobbing along with not a care in the world. The mysteries and dangers of the river were understood and respected. We would often float from our house down to Shouldice Park or Edworthy Park and run back home; on more than one occasion, my friends and I would swim all the way downtown — taking breaks along the way to explore islands and suntan on the rocky shores.
I’m not sure if that is what my mom had in mind when she suggested teaching us ‘River Safety,’ and it may have been the cause of more than one of her gray hairs, but it was the perfect way to keep us safe. So over the next several years, my friends and I would crawl all over the banks of the river and swim and make forts and Tarzan rope swings and epic dams and always make it back in time for dinner — wet, mucky, and happy.
In recent years a couple of rafting companies have popped up along the shores of the Bow River; the one we’ve used several times is The Paddle Station. I’m not really into swimming the river for hours at a time anymore (ah youth), but I love getting out for a float. What prevented me from floating more in the past was that my main transportation is a motorcycle — it’s hard to carry a raft on a motorcycle.
Enter The Paddle Station.
All you need to do is make a booking, show up at your allotted time, and they give you a quick river safety course, some lifejackets, some paddles (hence the name), and a raft of your choice. Then, all you need to do is float down the river for a couple of hours, maybe have a picnic, and eventually, you will reach the Calgary Zoo. Drift on into the lagoon on the north side of the river, drag your raft ashore, tip your cap to the Paddle Station Crew and then just walk away. It’s glorious.
‘Third Spring’ in Calgary is upon us, and as I’m watching the ice break up on the Bow River I can’t stop thinking about going for a float.