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Water Upon the Earth Photograph by Will Keats-Osborn.

Water Upon the Earth

Hunting covenants and dinosaurs through the Alberta floods.

AT THE TOP OF A GRADED SLOPE near a small subdivision of prefab houses in Drumheller, Alberta, a thirty-foot-tall statue of Jesus surveys the badlands hills. At his feet, pointing north, a flattened rectangle of cracked clay churns up two-litre plastic bottles, bike reflectors and chip bags—an empty stage of ghosts, waiting for oratory. To the east, more ghosts: a junkyard of cars from Valley Auto Recyclers. Shattered windshields, stolen doors, smashed-in hoods bearing grills like post-fight bloody mouths. In a few weeks, this hill would be home to the annual Badlands Passion Play; for now, it was wholly deserted.

In June 2013, flooding swept through much of southern Alberta. If my partner Will and I had been able to climb to the top of Jesus’ mesa and see things from his eyeline, we would have witnessed the Red Deer River engulfing low-lying neighbourhoods, campgrounds and trailer parks.

We’d been planning a trip from British Columbia to visit the Big Valley Creation Science Museum in our neighbouring province for well over a year. We took the Trans-Canada Highway through Kamloops, Salmon Arm and Revelstoke, stopping briefly just before Banff so that I could witness, for the first time, the impossible blue of Lake Louise. Ten hours into the drive, as the Rockies turned into the foothills, a large storm caught up with us, rain playing the roof of the rental car like a timpani drum. When we reached Calgary, we stayed overnight with Will’s dad, Dr. Jerry Osborn, a geoscience professor at the University of Calgary with an interest in surface geology and river behaviour. A graduate student had warned him that the storm was probably going to cause a flood crest.

Even as we slept, the rivers were rising. The infrastructure built to prevent or divert flooding—dams, dykes, reinforced embankments—was beginning to buckle under pressure. The storm system settled in the mountains, pelting southwest Alberta with rain for almost three days; it melted snowpack and fell on frozen ground, compounding the volumes of precipitation, which averaged between 75–150 millimetres and peaked around 350 millimetres. Some communities received up to half of their average annual rain fall in less than forty-eight hours.

In Genesis 6:13–14, God tells Noah to make himself an ark of cypress wood. “I am going to put an end to all people,” God says, “for the earth is filled with violence because of them.” After Noah has filled the boat with pairs of all the world’s animals, the floodgates of heaven open for forty nights and forty days. All of the creatures and humans who don’t find shelter with Noah suffer death by sudden water burial.

For some, while Genesis affirms that God created the world, its stories are meant to be understood as myth or metaphor; for others, Genesis is literal truth, a historical document and a step-by-step instruction booklet. These people are Young Earth Creationists. They believe that God created the world, as outlined in the Bible, between six thousand and twelve thousand years ago; that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of humankind; that Adam came from clay, and Eve from his rib.

In Genesis, God speaks directly to men and women—he upbraids Adam and Eve, rebukes Cain, assures Abraham and Sarah. After Noah has finished building and populating the ark, God closes its door, shutting them all in from the storm like he’s tucking children into bed. At the end of it all, He makes a covenant with Noah, saying that He’ll never again wipe the slate of the earth clean by flood. These days, God is not so much in the habit of addressing humans individually. We’ve been left, instead, to interpret the world how we like, and faith is one of the many things up for grabs. With the exception of far-right pastors like Pat Robertson, most Christians no longer attribute natural disasters to human sin.

That’s not to say, however, that we couldn’t use a secular Noah or two. Not for the divination of signs from God, which were ubiquitous in Alberta (everything from omniscient tip cups and a giant Jesus to the unsettling nature of roadside carrion), but rather for ready preparation. 

THERE ARE THREE MAIN POINTS of contention that Young Earth Creationists have with the science that students learn in public school in Canada: geologic time, evolution and dinosaurs. Dinosaurs, which may or may not appear in the Bible as dragons, are a symbolic quirk. According to most of us, they lived during the Mesozoic Era, 245 to 65 million years ago, but went extinct far before humans began to walk the earth. On the Young Earth Creationist timeline, dinosaurs co-existed with humans. Most even believe that Noah welcomed dragons onto the ark. The Noahic Flood, taking place 1,500 years after Creation, provides both a potential explanation for their extinction—they died off in a flood-ravaged world—as well as an alternative history for geologic time. Rather than the millions of years of river weathering and erosion a geologist will tell you formed Earth’s canyons, a creationist will point to the intensity of the Noahic floodwaters, responsible simultaneously for depositing and compressing the canyon’s sedimentary rock, creating a layered fossil record and carving that canyon in record time.

In 2008, an Angus Reid poll found that 42 percent of Canadians believed that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Moreover, though a majority of Canadians (58 percent) agreed with the statement that human beings “evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years,” this wasn’t the case in Alberta, where only 37 percent of respondents sided with evolution, and 40 percent believed, instead, that humans were “created by God within the last 10,000 years.”

Canada’s one and only freestanding Creation Science museum is about fifteen kilometres away from the Red Deer River. The Big Valley Creation Science Museum (BVCSM) is a square, one-floor building. It was founded in 2007 by born-again Christian Harry Nibourg, who sometimes adopts the alias “Evolutionism The Lie Agreed Upon!” in internet flamewars.

The purpose of the BVCSM aligns with Nibourg’s internet handle, offering evidence for a six-thousand-year-old Earth that God created in six days and swept clean 1,500 years later in a worldwide flood. For many biblical literalists, this is the foundation upon which the “truth” of the Bible—and so the “truth” that God created the world, word for word the way it’s written in Genesis—rests. Nibourg’s convictions are so strong that he’s used much of his own money, earned in Alberta’s oilfields, to found the BVCSM. His friend and colleague, Vance Nelson, a BVCSM consultant and pastor of Creation Truth Ministries, has made this his life’s work: he travels the globe collecting evidence, and then comes back to Canada with his wife Korelei, sharing the Good News of Young Earth Creation.

THE DAY AFTER THE FLOODING BEGAN, Cougar Creek and Bow River swelled and peaked, washing out roads in Canmore and Calgary that we’d travelled just hours prior. Will and I drove through light rain towards Edmonton. When we stopped in at City Roast Coffee in Red Deer, the flood was all anyone could talk about. (By the cash register, a tin cup dotted with delicate flowers read, “God Knows When You Don’t Tip.”) Our plan was to camp, and we settled on Dry Island Buffalo Jump—in the arid badlands, but questionably close to the Red Deer River. That night, rain seeped through the floor and sidewalls of the tent. Two hundred kilometres south, the town of High River was evacuated after forty-eight hours of heavy rainfall. Water devoured sedans and SUVs, licked into basements and swallowed ground floors. Over 150 people were rescued from their rooftops, either by Canadian Forces and RCMP personnel wearing hip waders, or farmer neighbours riding giant combines through the flooded streets. We woke early, waterlogged and cold.

The roads from Dry Island Buffalo Jump to Big Valley undulate like towels being flicked to dry. Rows of small, colourful clapboard houses line narrow streets, punctuated by an Alberta Wheat Pool elevator, a tiny blue Anglican Church and a railway station. A painted wooden sign for the Oil Kings, the village hockey team, is planted in the soft grass near the baseball diamonds. As Will and I pulled around the corner from Railway Avenue onto Main Street, a tall man who looked suspiciously like the figure in Harry Nibourg’s BVCSM promotional photos legged it across the intersection and took the stairs into the bank two at a time.

In the lobby of the Big Valley Inn, a framed orange sheet listed the phone numbers of everyone in town. To the right of the lobby, men, alone at restaurant tables, ate breaded chicken cutlets, fish and chips, liver and onions. To the left, the hotel tavern offered pickled eggs for 75 cents and games of pool for a few dollars. A Canadian Oilfield Service and Supply Directory nestled alongside a Bible in the top drawer of the dresser in our hotel room. The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, located just next door, was visible from the fire escape.

In the yard of the BVCSM, concrete dinosaur footprints led to placards commemorating the museum’s founder, director and consultants. A simple frosted-glass front door opened onto a room of black and red displays: a scale model of Noah’s Ark, replete with animals, two by two, climbing a ramp towards the low, long, wooden vessel; examples of “fast fossils;” a model of the Grand Canyon; pictures of cave and cathedral drawings. One stone carving, done in Cambodia approximately eight hundred years ago, resembled a stegosaurus. According to the accompanying signage, this proved that dinosaurs must have lived alongside humans, maybe even as recently as eight hundred years ago.

A small personal DVD player sat near the museum’s collection of sale items, the accompanying screen circling through video clips. I stood and watched part of an interview with Jeffrey Dahmer. “I had no God to be accountable to,” he said, explaining what life as a serial killer was like before he was born again in jail. “I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime.”

It turned out the man who’d legged it across Main Street really was Harry Nibourg after all; he spotted the BC plates on our car parked in front of the hotel, and called the teenager staffing the BVCSM’s front desk to see if we’d arrived. Minutes later, Nibourg was in the museum introducing himself. He led us on a four-and-a-half hour tour that spanned many of his favourite topics: the inadequacy of Darwin, the moral solvency of humanity, Barack Obama’s inauspicious start in the Chicago mafia.

For about an hour, we all stood underneath a row of dinosaur head replicas—a dilophosaurus, an oviraptor, an albertosaurus. The BVCSM’s models are as good as any you’ll see, Nibourg told us, because they’re made by the same folks who make replicas for the Royal Tyrrell, Canada’s central paleontological museum and research centre in nearby Drumheller.

We left with an armful of gifts from Nibourg. Everything from Vance Nelson’s first slim, glossy edition of origins research to a pamphlet about Jesus to a DVD about biblical marriage created by Australian Creation Scientist John Mackay. (Nibourg was happy to hear that Will and I had good intentions for each other.) On the video screen near the front door, a CGI simulation of the Noahic flood had replaced Dahmer—an oddly soothing loop of rocks and boulders tumbling along the ocean floor.

DENIS LAMOUREUX, a professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, used to be a Young Earth Creationist. Now, his name appears above the fold on the BVCSM website next to a graphic that includes toxic waste drums and the words “DANGEROUS THEOLOGY” in all caps.

At one time, Lamoureux was an ardent creationist. Before that, he was an atheist; he grew up Roman Catholic. He has six degrees—in varying fields including dentistry and theology— and he’s been badmouthed by everyone from Richard Dawkins to Harry Nibourg. A six-inch-tall Darwin bobblehead nodded at me from a shelf in his campus office.

Lamoureux’s view of the Bible is somewhat similar to evangelist Brian D. McLaren. To the horror of American biblical literalists, McLaren suggests that Christians see the Bible as a “library of culture and community,” divinely inspired, but rooted in place and time. Lamoureux compares the Bible to an anthology—one written over 1,500 years ago, with fifty different authors and a variety of literary genres.

“Atheists and creationists,” he says, “are black and white thinkers. They’re in bed together.” What’s necessary, Lamoureux says, is to understand that humans exist in a period of post-modernity, where people have no recourse to absolute truths: “The best we can do is try to understand the assumptions we embrace.”

At Regent College, Lamoureux focused his studies on Genesis chapters 1–11—the story of the beginning of the world. He’d arrived on the Vancouver campus with a mission “to declare absolute and pure hell on the ‘theory’ of evolution.” He left believing that Genesis was compiled by a redactor who merged two separate origin accounts, morphing allegory into history.

Along the same lines, Noah’s flood, according to Lamoureux, is not historical truth, but an amalgamation of common flood stories—an Old Testament way to appeal to wayward humans, offering them an example of Godly destruction and redemption, wrath and renewal. 

BACK AT THE HOTEL AFTER OUR TOUR of the BVCSM, Will and I watched as the CBC televised footage of submerged cars and trucks, of people wading through muddy currents, dogs and cats and toddlers in their arms. In High River, two bodies had been recovered; search and rescue was looking for one more.

Ian Hanomansing interviewed Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on a plateau of land overlooking the city centre. Behind them, the Calgary Flames’ Saddledome had flooded up to the tenth row. A mosquito landed on Hanomansing’s temple. His eyebrow twitched, but he didn’t brush the mosquito away.

While Will and I were warm and safe in Big Valley, his dad Dr. Osborn was walking the streets of Calgary, watching as the Bow River engulfed the bike paths and crept its way towards the lower arch of the Centre Street Bridge.

“There was no concept of flood hazard for most of the population,” Osborn says now, reflecting on the disaster. “The people on the Elbow had most of their furnaces and electrical systems centred in their basements, people had their really valuable stuff—family archives, old photographs of grandma—in boxes in their basements, and heard about the flood too late to rescue all the stuff they were invested in.”

Osborn, on the other hand, had been waiting for this flood for ages. “The last smallish flood was 2005. The last biggish flood was 1932. It was flukey because it’s unusual on a year-to-year basis, but we’ve certainly had similar things in the past.”

He knew his townhouse was safe, as he’d consulted the city and provincial floodplain maps before buying it. So, as 75,000 of his fellow city dwellers evacuated their homes, Jerry watched a family of geese—adults and goslings—treading water in an eddy on the Bow. “This flood was raging around them and they just sat there, swam there, for hours,” he says. “Why didn’t they come out on land? They were patiently sitting it out.”

THE RED DEER RIVER CUTS a swath through Drumheller, criss-crossing Route 573. By Saturday, as the flood crest moved east, the river had brooked its banks. The Royal Tyrrell Museum closed early in the afternoon, just as we arrived, and stayed closed through the weekend. Drumheller announced a state of emergency, evacuating homes, trailer parks and campgrounds in the floodplain.

City workers and volunteers lined streets and lanes with sandbags, traffic cones and bright orange blockades. Residents and tourists pulled on gumboots and flocked to the bridges to take pictures of the Red Deer speeding south, carrying uprooted trees. A kid asked his mom if the fish would be okay.

Will and I sought high ground in cow country, at Fish Lake Provincial Recreation Area, where there were so many mosquitos that the air was filled with a low buzz. Gnarled old apple trees dotted the long grass; the stony beach was pocked with several “no swimming” signs. We bathed in DEET and made a fire, drying out cow patties to use for fuel.

On Sunday morning, Donald Henderson met us at the shipping and receiving entrance of the Royal Tyrrell. Henderson, the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, was camping out in his office—his house, located close to the river in Drumheller, had been evacuated. We sat on couches in the staff lounge, near a soft drink machine.

“Everybody was surprised when they chose to locate the Royal Tyrrell in Drumheller,” Henderson told us. Though the town has a century-long history of dinosaurs and fossils—beginning with JB Tyrrell’s discovery of an albertosaurus dinosaur fossil in 1884, just a few kilometres away from where the museum now stands—it’s located in small-town, Bible-belt Alberta.

Henderson himself grew up in what he describes as a “rather strict” Presbyterian household—grace at every meal, church on Sunday, Bible reading in the afternoons at his grandmother’s. When he was fifteen, he began to see some contradictions between his faith and science. “Strangely,” he said, “my dad bought me this book called The Evidence for Evolution. When he gave it to me, he said, ‘Now I don’t want you to believe everything in this book.’” For Henderson, his father’s caution came too late. “What really got me,” he said, “was Jonah and the whale. There are no baleen whales in the Mediterranean.”

Though the Royal Tyrrell’s mission is science, its proximity to Alberta’s Christian conservatives occasionally results in creationist interventions. A few days before my trip, I’d visited the home of the president of the Creation Science Association of BC and purchased a Creation Science-approved alternative tour guide for the Royal Tyrrell, written by Dr. Margaret J. Helder. I fished it out of my backpack, curious about whether or not Henderson had seen it.

He hadn’t. He held it briefly, shrugging as he flipped through the pages. “I think we should be glad, in our society, that people are free to print what they want,” Henderson said. “Let the masses decide who’s got the better story.” Royal Tyrrell’s docents occasionally find (and remove) similar Christian literature tucked into the nooks and crannies of the exhibits. Henderson’s reaction to the Big Valley Creation Science Museum paralleled that of the docents’ to the literature—minor nuisance, rather than big threat. “Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that the creatures of the Earth are a collection of self-replicating atoms,” Henderson said. “They would rather believe in something more profound.”

Henderson credited The Flintstones, rather than creation scientists, for the 2008 Angus Reid poll finding. While 42 percent of Canadians might believe in the co-existence of humans and dinosaurs, he said, the vast majority of them simultaneously believe the Earth is billions of years old.

After Will and I left the Royal Tyrrell, we headed across the highway and followed a paved trail that had been partially swallowed by the Red Deer. Two baby rabbits sat by the trailhead, taking advantage of water-swollen roots and yanking tufts of grass out with small jerks of their fluffy heads. An hour’s drive away on dusty backroads, the Bassano Dam reservoir reached and exceeded its maximum capacity. Will and I stood among local families and watched as the water released by the dam—all of its sluice gates fully open—churned and roiled, tearing through concrete.

WHEN ALL WAS SAID AND DONE, Alberta’s rains didn’t last forty days and forty nights; they didn’t cover the Earth with water and no doves brought olive branches to hearken Noah and his kin back to land. But they did manage to cause five deaths, displace hundreds of thousands of people, and result in up to $6 billion of damage. In High River, residents are still struggling to rebuild everything that was washed away.

Large swathes of Calgary sit in a natural flood plain, and the rivers have washed development out with some regularity—1879, 1897, 1902, 1915, 1929, 1932, 2005, and now, 2013. Rather than acknowledging this natural and reoccurring hazard, recent suburban development has inched ever closer to the rivers. Dr. Osborn says that in Sunnyside the newer houses were hit harder than the older homes: to satiate a desire for higher ceilings, their basements had been dug further underground. In this, Calgary provides an example of human nature hard at work. 2010’s selling points become 2013’s prime vulnerabilities. Attempts to add a note to the deeds of houses located in the flood plain have been met with so much pushback from homeowners worried about property values that the city and the province have abandoned their plans. Calls to relocate the aptly-named High River have gone unheeded. Just as Noah’s Flood and its rainbow covenant failed to usher in a sinless world, the imperative for Albertans has been to return to the status quo rather than heed the persistent risk, biding time until they next need their hip waders.

As the oceans and temperatures rise, as BC cities such as Delta, Richmond and New Westminster sink into the sea, and others, in California, face persistent drought, we’ll need to adjust our barometers of strength and survival—knowing when to hold on, when to batten down and when to let go. This is, perhaps, one lesson the godless can learn from the faithful: a lesson about obedience in the face of impending ecological catastrophe.

Most of them, that is. One year, Jerry Osborn taught Geology 209—“that’s rocks for jocks”—and gave his usual lecture about river behaviour and the inevitability of flood- ing in southern Alberta. A mature student in his late forties approached the lectern after class. “He asked me would I look at the flood hazard in his neighbourhood. So I charged him a couple hundred bucks and got out my APEGA [Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta] stamp and found that his home was at risk for flooding. He moved. He sold his house, took his family and moved to some other neighbourhood,” Osborn says. “I was astonished. This was after one lecture in university. That’s a Noah kind of guy, I guess.”