A shocking torrent of water crossed the property line of Gem’s Haven Stables, located along the South Klondike Highway, on May 13. It washed out a riding arena and swiftly began flooding toward the owner’s home.
Cindy Smith watched as a foot of water filled the meadow and began to rapidly blaze a trail toward the horse pens, the hay shed and the home she shares with her husband Ross.
The rush of water came as shock; because it was pouring with force from a disused section of the White Pass railway tracks, and also because the nearest body of water was McConnell Lake, almost three kilometres uphill.
Ross tried to dig a dam to halt the water but said he quickly realized he couldn’t stop it. The Smiths put a call in to the Yukon Government’s Emergency Measures Organization (EMO). One worker came to investigate the scene and before long a helicopter with a hydrological engineer aboard was surveying the flood.
Ross said he watched the water drown a metre stick planted in the ground in less than three hours and Cindy was told it was pouring in at a rate of 500 litres per minute. At its peak, the flood covered 10 of the Smiths’ 20 acres.
Cindy said the night of May 13 was sleepless for her as the water continued to rise.
The water was still coming the day after the flow began, and so a quick decision was made to evacuate the seven horses on the property. Cindy said her neighbours Howard and Angelique Bjork arrived within half an hour with their horse trailer in tow.
Just as the horses were leaving by trailer, truckloads of sandbags and a wildland fire crew arrived. The young firefighters secured the Smiths house with sandbags and also brought two high-volume water pumps with them to slow the rise of the water.
According to a Yukon government representative, the hydrological engineer was able to come up with a plan to drain some of the water and a small excavator was used to open up a spillway to a low-lying area west of the Smiths’ property.
Neighbours with tractors and front-end loaders also helped evacuate the hay from Cindy’s hay barn before the water could reach it.
Jeff Boyd, the Smiths friend and neighbour, recalled the floodwater swamping over the floorboards of his skid steer loader as he crossed a deep section of the floodwater near their house.
The Smiths expressed their gratitude for the help of the firefighters and the efforts of their neighbours, which included setting up a GoFundMe page to help them repair flood damage to the property.
A neighbouring property closer to the lake also flooded but the Smiths say things could have been worse if the flood waters had found their way toward the nearby golf course and Mount Lorne community centre where there are more houses on low ground.
The Smiths have lived there for 30 years and have never had issues with flooding in the past. Ross said in hindsight, some stands of dead trees they had noticed in the woods behind their house may have been caused by water draining down from the lake in past springs.
The precise damage from the flooding won’t be known until the water is gone completely, but Cindy expects her riding arena will need some work. The Smiths’ well was also contaminated by the flooding and until it can be sanitized or replaced, Cindy is not able to bring the horses back to the property, losing the income she was receiving from boarding them.
Almost a month after the flooding began, the Smiths are sleeping more soundly and finding more reason to smile as the warm weather is causing water to retreat from their driveway and the meadow next to their home.
Ducks float on the back pasture where horses once ran and the standing water has drawn clouds of mosquitoes, but Ross had an even more striking wildlife encounter to recount. When they were still relying on a boat to make it from the end of their driveway to their front door, the Smiths had a close encounter with a grizzly bear. Ross suggested that with many of the usual game trails through the property underwater, the bear strolled within a few yards of Smiths’ house.
Cindy said after the close, but otherwise uneventful bear encounter, they were glad to be able to drive up to the house again as EMO’s efforts to drain the floodwater and the warm June sun led to falling water levels.
The water will have to recede further before a plan to prevent future flooding can be hatched.
According to the government representative, water level monitoring is ongoing at the Smiths’ property and at the breach in the railway line. A duty officer was on scene as recently as June 9.
They said studies and planning aimed at mitigating the risk of future flooding is already underway, but snow is still melting at higher elevations.
“Once this spring melt is complete and the area around the property has fully dried, we can further our investigations and mitigation plans. While it’s too early to determine what strategies will best alleviate flood risk, all options will be considered,” they said.
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