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Remembering the flood
Fiftieth anniversary of 1963 flood in Fort Simpson this week

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, May 2, 2013

A major flooding event in Fort Simpson has reached a milestone anniversary.

NNSL photo/graphic

During the flood of 1963, houses located on the flats in Fort Simpson were completely flooded. - photo courtesy of the Water Survey of Canada

Fifty years have passed since the flood of 1963. The flood inundated most of the island and led to the evacuation of the majority of the village's residents.

Bob Norwegian was 13 years old when the flooding began. It was the first day of May and the ice on the Liard and Mackenzie rivers broke at almost the same time, said Norwegian.

The resulting ice jammed around Martin River and the water immediately began to rise in front of the village, he said. Norwegian remembers people gathering near McPherson House, the highest point on the island, to watch the flood water come over the banks into the flats. Within 15 to 20 minutes, the lower flats were flooded, he said.

In 1963, a number of people had houses on the flats. Many of them were trappers and had their sled dogs tied up in the area. The flood caught people by surprise and the dogs were left behind as the people headed for higher ground, said Norwegian.

Rita Cli also remembers the sled dogs.

An RCMP officer first alerted Cli to the flooding. Cli and a friend were running home during a lunch break from school along a sidewalk on Mackenzie Drive that was already under water. An RCMP officer saw them and said they couldn't go any further because the flooding had started.

"We didn't realize how dangerous it was," said Cli.

Cli went to the McPherson House hill that evening to watch the water come over the flats.

"I can't get over how fast that was coming up. It was rising like a kitchen sink," she said.

People weren't able to get to the dogs that were trapped on the flat.

"You couldn't do anything, they were just howling," she said.

"There were lots of dogs that were lost that time."

Substantial amounts of ice accompanied the flooding. Norwegian remembers there was so much ice, people could only see the tips of the trees on the opposite bank of the Mackenzie River.

"The ice was moving so fast that anything in its path didn't stand a chance," said Cli.

Cli remembers climbing on ice that was piled up like a mountain along the riverbank near the former site of the Anglican church.

In 1963, the causeway that today links the island of Fort Simpson to the mainland hadn't been built yet. The flood covered the temporary causeway so no one could drive out of the community, said Norwegian. When the evacuation started, people were taken by large military helicopters to the Fort Simpson Airport and evacuated from there by airplane to centres including Yellowknife.

"It was really chaotic for two or three days," said Norwegian.

Norwegian remembers being more excited than scared during the flood. There was no television in Fort Simpson at the time so breakup was like a big show for everyone, he said.

The helicopter ride that evacuated Norwegian and his grandmother to Yellowknife was his first.

"That was really fun," he said.

Cli was also sent to Yellowknife where she stayed at Akaitcho Hall with some of her sisters.

During the flood, most of the village was flooded. Cli was staying with an aunt and uncle at the time of the flood in their house located near where South Nahanni Airways now has their floatplane dock.

The water rose past the level of the first-floor windows on the house, said Cli.

Tents were set up in the area behind McPherson House for people to stay in when they returned if they couldn't go back to their homes yet, said Cli.

Cli remembers being more surprised about the flood than scared.

"It was something that you wouldn't want to experience again," she said.

The Water Survey of Canada doesn't have any official data from the 1963 flood. Using photographs

taken during the flood, however, Water Survey of Canada staff estimate the river level reached at least 15.5 metres total.

In 1989, Fort Simpson experienced another flood where water levels reached 14.95 metres.

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