The moment she saw Winter, Kim Cardinal knew she had to help him. The cream-colored quarter horse with bright blue eyes was emaciated, covered in anger, pink wounds and maggots. His previous owner had hit hard times.
“People kept telling me not to buy him because he was in such bad shape,” says Mrs. Cardinal, 59. “I did it anyway. I could not just leave him there.”
It was two years ago that Mrs. Cardinal saved Winter. Two weeks ago, Winter rescued Mrs. Cardinal.
It all began on the night of November 15, when the raging Nicola River rose rapidly on the property Mrs. Cardinal shares with her partner, Lorn Thibodeau, on Highway 8, near the small Spences Bridge, BC, a town of 150.
The couple who arrived in the Nicola Valley two years ago are what are known here as the “604s”: migrants from the lower mainland. They raised two children in Chilliwack, where Mr Thibodeau, 55, worked as a sign maker. The hobby farm at Nicola was a retirement dream. They turned the dilapidated property into a tidy family complex where their children came to relax.
Because their power, telephone, and Internet were completely out, Mrs. Cardinal did not realize the extent of the danger until a Surrey RCMP officer on duty walked into the property after dark.
Art. Brett Schmidt was on his way home from Kamloops on the highway that ran parallel to Nicola when he felt the ground give way under his tires. Just in time, he left his vehicle: “I was probably a few seconds away from the back of my truck going downhill. I would definitely have been in the river,” Mr Schmidt said.
He set off on foot while trees and power lines crashed to the ground around him. Properties here are identified by their distance – in miles – from Spences Bridge. At 5 Mile he found Ms. Cardinal’s yard. Sir. Schmidt, who had fallen into the river, was soaked and muddy. Mrs. Cardinal heralded him.
Shortly after, she ventured out into the eerie night with a barely functioning flashlight to check on Winter and a miniature horse and mule that were in an enclosure running parallel to the highway. She found Winter in a terrified state. “He had his back up against the fence and pushed as hard as he could.” When he saw Mrs. Cardinal, the two-year-old gelding began to trample all four feet as if he were dancing. “He was trying to tell me something.” But what?
“Are you okay, buddy?” Ms. Cardinal called softly as she approached. She shone with the faint ray behind him and saw that half of their property was gone. Their chicken coop, 10 peacocks, a hut – all had disappeared, and in their place was a gaping, 20-foot-deep hole.
Mrs. Cardinal turned and ran and screamed for Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Thibodeau. The trio high-tailed it to a trailer on the road with the couple’s five dogs, five cats and a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies – four stumbling, yawning, white fluffy balls.
Less than five minutes later, the rest of the property disappeared at once. The trio was left stunned, stranded on the small stretch of road with their animals.
“If Winter had not warned me,” says Mrs. Cardinal, “I would have gone back to warm up. And we would all be gone.”
Perhaps because of its enormous scale, the floods in the lower mainland have dominated headlines and government attention for the past two weeks. Because the devastation in the Nicola Valley is still almost impossible to access – all but one of the incoming highways remain closed and no politicians have visited the region – it is still a kind of reflection.
But many of the ranchers and people living along Highway 8, a scenic, secondary road that connects Merritt with Spences Bridge, have not just lost their homes. This summer saw the forest fires destroy the surrounding land; a few months later, they saw the land swallow their properties whole.
They can not rebuild. There is nothing left for them. Only the river is left.
Even after Winter’s warning, Mrs. Cardinal was not sure. She could barely hear the others over the angry roar of the river. The horses remained strapped to the trailer while boulders – some as large as tractors – crashed all night down the steep hill towards them, splashing down into the raging river.
Nicola was tearing large chunks off Highway 8. Three bridges along a six-mile-long span were destroyed. The road was left so rammed that it can take a year before the repairs are completed. The rescue, when it arrived, was done by helicopter.
This was “our beloved river, our swimming hole, our farm’s lifeblood,” says Brandie MacArthur, Ms. Cardinal’s neighbor at 5.5 Mile. But that night “turned it into the demon river from hell.” The home Mrs. MacArthur shares with her husband, Michael Couts, and their 10-year-old daughter, Luna, still stands, uncertainly on the banks of the river. The family, homeowners who have not been inside a grocery store for four years, lost barns, chicken farms, a greenhouse, a shop and about 300 fruit trees. As much as four acres of farmland were devoured by Nicola.
The family fled to high ground as the river rose to their ankles in their kitchen. They spent a sleepless night in their truck while the ground shook beneath them. “I’m so scared,” Luna said. “You are so brave,” her mother reminded her.
“I want to see the grandchildren one last time,” Ms Cardinal recalls, telling her Thibodeau, whom she began dating as a 22-year-old. “I will not die.” Mr. Thibodeau wrapped his arms around her, “It’s okay,” he said. “If we die, we will be together.” For hours they huddled together, begging for dawn while the rain fell around them in sheets.
Two weeks later, their downstream neighbor is still missing, according to the RCMP, which has refused to name her. Her log house was wiped out. The last thing anyone in Spences Bridge heard from her was via text message: “I’m fine,” she wrote Paulet Rice, the local postmaster. “Are you still okay?”, Mrs. Rice wrote an hour later. There was no answer.
The flood on November 15 came three months to the day after a wildfire tore through the Lower Nicola Valley on August 15.
In some places you can still smell soot and creosote. The forest – or what’s left of it – looks like thousands of black pencils tucked into white snow. The combustion is so great that charred forest from a helicopter is all you can see in almost five minutes.
Some here wonder if the ponderosa pine forests will ever return. One-third of Rocky Mountain forests that have been burned in the past decade have not.
The fire also transformed the spongy root systems of the surrounding mountains into black, rock-hard soil. So the water, instead of penetrating into the ground, is now tearing down the mountain in streams – at least part of the reason why Nicola filled like a bathtub two weeks ago.
For six weeks this summer, Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald watched the Lytton Creek wildfire approach from their area at 17 Mile. It had begun on June 30, tearing through the village of Lytton and then burning northwest toward Spences Bridge. Over the course of two months, it cut down more than 80,000 acres of forest.
Residents of the lower valley really began to worry on the windy afternoon of August 9, when the BC Wildfire Service lit a back fire. Two days later, the temperature hit 39 degrees in the valley, where it remained for four days. On August 15, the two fires met. “Good,” said Mr. MacDonald to himself when he got up that day at. 04.00. “Today is the day.”
For friends, rancher Wayne MacDonald, a Shackan Indian Band member, is known as “Wayner”. He only walks as if he is busy. He is so tough that it looks like he could have been chiseled from stone. Ms. MacDonald, who also grew up on a ranch, is more smiling and soft-spoken, but neighbors still describe her as violent, Wayne’s equal in every way.
They built the Bar-FX Ranch from scratch after falling in love with a raw piece of land on the eastern edge of Shackan territory in 1995, says Ms. MacDonald: “We poured our hearts and souls into the land and the animals. We raised our sons here. We planned to die here.”
Mr. MacDonald was strangled when he described the urgency of getting their animals up on a cattle vessel that August day: “I’m pushing. Like a football player – just pushing and pushing.” There were still five calves left. His son Wyatt screamed at him to stop: the truck was full. “Well, I did not want to give up. I just kept pushing and pushing. Eventually he yells at me: Dad – stop, they are not going.”
So he moved his calves into the riding arena. As he jogged to the exit, he suddenly had trouble getting air in: “The fire sucked out all the oxygen.” The roar behind him sounded like “1,000 propane torches in my ear.”
Eventually, the calves survived. MacDonalds also managed to save their home. But they lost 32 animals in the area – 16 pairs of mothers and calves – and 70 percent of their area.
They recognized the fallen animals at the sight. “To us, they are not just cattle,” explains Mrs MacDonald. “They are part of our flock. They were our future.” They all died facing the track, their young next to them. “They ran after it,” says Mrs. MacDonald.
Last Sunday, she saw Nicola get up another three feet and immerse part of their calving barn. The floor is covered in four feet of heavy, cold, gray dung from the last flood a week ago. Their blue recliner – where Ms. MacDonald used to take a nap through the early woes of his animals – is mingled in mud. Even their turtle cat is dirty.
Mr. MacDonald’s mother, Rena Sam, a survivor of St. George’s residential school in Lytton, could be out of his beloved Shackan home for a year or more. But Wayne, her only child, is all she can think of. He has been so stressed now for so long that she is afraid they may lose him to a heart attack.
Ms. MacDonald, a breast cancer survivor for two decades, ended up with high blood pressure after the fires. A few days ago, she found a sore lump in her armpit, the same side as her previous cancer.
We were so scared of the fire, says Mrs. MacDonald. “But it was the flood that ended up taking us out.”
“We are, for all intents and purposes, out of the ranching game,” she adds. “We have no more land to endure calving our cattle in the winter. Our enclosures, our fields – it’s all gone. A quarter of our hayfield is gone. And right now we’re sitting ducks: the river is aiming straight at the house. ”
BC Floods: More from The Globe and Mail
Merritt residents come home to find destruction and grief
Have BC’s dikes ever been able to stop floods like these?
Flood cleanup in Princeton, BC, is pushing volunteers to the limit
Fire and water: How BC’s series of natural disasters are connected
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