Bow River, AB - John Ambury
My Watermark is Bow River, Alberta.
Living on the prairie (even in the foothills) with no seashore and few lakes, you learned to appreciate whatever natural water you had. In Calgary, that meant the Bow River and its tributaries.
Sprawling St. George’s Island was the most popular place for family outings. It boasted a few food concessions and children’s rides, and life-sized concrete models of dinosaurs whose bones had been discovered at the nearby Badlands. But at the age of twelve, I preferred the smaller-scale Bowness Park. Farther west on the Bow, it featured a slow-moving lagoon with wild ducks and other birds, and minnows and water striders in the calm eddies. The park had shaded streams, wooded slopes, and rock outcroppings to explore. Also — that’s where the annual Sunday School Picnic was held.
We four kids were awakened early on the Saturday of the picnic, and had the treat of cornflakes and Rice Krispies for breakfast with our toast and milk, instead of porridge. That was easier for Mum, who still had to prepare the picnic lunch and arrange everything else for the big excursion.
That particular year, we were joined by Mum’s sister (our Aunt Doris) and our two cousins. (The fathers seldom went to church, concerts, or picnics; they preferred to use those peaceful times to do their woodworking projects or play chess.) The eight of us filed onto the South Calgary streetcar, then transferred to the Bowness car at the city limits loop. Those cars ran on a single track, so sometimes we had to wait in a lay-by while a returning streetcar passed with its bell clanging. Bowness Park was at the very the end of the line.
A highlight of any picnic was the casual food that was eaten off paper plates without the need for ‘table manners.’ Boiled eggs were a staple; but when Aunt Doris was involved these blossomed into the otherwise-unknown delight of devilled eggs. We also shared bologna and ham salad sandwiches, potato and vegetable salads, fruit, and Kool-Aid to drink, followed by cookies and spice cake. The mothers also had a big Thermos of tea.
At Bowness we always enjoyed skipping stones, racing sticks, and chasing ducks. But the Sunday School Picnic also included compulsory merriment, in the form of organized sports. Horseshoes, croquet, and serious games of catch were laid on for the adults and older kids. For the younger ones, simple foot races were augmented by age-grouped piggy-backs, hop-and skips, sack races, backwards races, and three-legged races.
Which was where she came into my life.
Three-legged race contestants were paired up by the enthusiastic leaders (Sunday School teachers and parent volunteers). Most pairs consisted of a boy and a girl of different sizes; family members weren’t supposed to run together; and other efforts were made to even out the competition as much as possible. I found myself paired up with a very pretty dark-haired girl I’d never met before, who was taller than I and no doubt a few years older.
We were lined up in our heat with our adjacent ankles tied together, my right arm around her waist and her left arm around my shoulders. I felt awkward holding on to her like that, but didn’t really know why. At “Ready, set, go!” we took off. Or tried to; instead, we floundered and stumbled. “Middle leg first!” she called as we got up. That did seem to work — we took a big step with our mutual leg, then planted it and swung our outside legs ahead, before advancing the middle one again. We didn’t win our heat, so didn’t advance to the final round; but we were way ahead of those who hadn’t used any strategy at all.
We untied our ankles and moved out of the way of the finalists. “We should have won,” she complained. “Wanna go for a swim?”
“Sure. Oh no, I guess not — I just ate.” You couldn’t go in the water within an hour of eating, because you’d get cramps and drown.
“Okay,” she shrugged. “Guess I’ll go with my brother then.”
“Okay. Umm … what’s your name?”
“Sylvia. What’s yours?”
I had outgrown ‘Johnny,’ at least in my own mind. “John.”
“That’s a hard one to remember.”
I frowned. “Yeah? I didn’t think it was.”
She giggled. “You’re silly.” Her hand skimmed my forearm, obviously by mistake. “Wanna go look at the river?”
We walked along the sparsely-treed bank that skirted the picnic area. The Bow was wide and calm there, reflecting blue sky and wispy white clouds on its barely-rippled surface. The river had a calming effect; but Sylvia’s presence so close to my side made me uneasy. “Look at the big houses,” she remarked.
I’d just noticed them on the far bank. They seemed completely out of place: wealthy interlopers imposing their artificial grandeur into the natural beauty of the river that was supposed to belong to everybody. I didn’t know how to put it.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
I didn’t like the spotlight on me. “Guess not.”
Where the grassy bank ended we came upon what looked like near-darkness. Tall oaks and maples spread deep shade over the dense undergrowth of sumac, spindly cedars, ferns, and wildflowers. I heard a stream burbling eagerly somewhere ahead. “This way,” she said, “there’s a secret bridge.”
I’d never seen this part of the park before. I followed her blindly. She kicked her way through the overgrown vegetation until the remains of a small footbridge appeared: a crumbling concrete arch with weathered railings of broken maple boughs and willow wands. She led me to the middle of it.
I took in the whole idyllic scene. Apart from the abandoned bridge, the stream looked natural and inviting as the Garden of Eden, as far up and down as I could see. It belonged in a fantasy, not anywhere in the vicinity of a bustling city. The untamed but muted flow of the stream showed no evidence of human interference. “Yes, I like it. I love it.”
“Me too.” She took my hand on the railing, not by mistake. She glanced at me and quickly back to the dappled shadows upstream. She said quietly, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
With a wry smile, she shook her head and extracted her hand from mine. In the very next second I realized what she’d meant; but it was too late. “Nothing. Let’s go back to the picnic.”
I never saw her after that day.
The mystery would be revealed to me only several years later. When it was, it was not within the sight or sound of flowing water; a fact that — not at the time, but when I realized it afterwards — gave me a deep pang of regret.