Claudia Culley, Western North American heat wave, 2021

Young adult, sitting in a library.

Claudia was quite the rambunctious child. Her parents put her in a bunch of sports but she was never able to hang onto them. Her mom often reminds her of the trouble she would get into. One memory, in particular, is when she was dangling from the railing above her staircase, screaming that she was going to fall. Claudia’s energy might have been the reason her mom waited five years before having her brother. 

As Claudia has gotten older it's clear she has channelled that energy into being a productive student. At nineteen years old she was working at H&M and going to school to study journalism with a minor in public relations.  In addition to that, she also had an Etsy shop where she would sell the pottery that she made.  These activities are time-consuming, but when she had free time she would make the best of it. Often hiking, baking and hanging out with friends whenever possible. 

When the 2021 heat wave occurred, Claudia was enjoying a well-deserved summer break from classes. In fact, she had just started to head to Clearwater, British Columbia for a family vacation. With her mom, brother and dog by her side and her stepdad at the wheel, the family drove on an increasingly warm journey to their camping trip. 

Clearwater, Canada - It's a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Surrey. We would decide to go camping because we knew the weather was going to be super nice. Driving there it was forty-three degrees, it was so hot inside my stepdad’s truck driving to the campsite. I remember starting to feel so nauseated in the car because the AC wasn't working and it was just blowing hot air.

We don't have AC in my house, it would have been so much more miserable for us to be at home than it was camping. Even though it was kind of freaky and we were in an area that could have very likely had a forest fire—and we would have had to be evacuated—and things could have been a lot worse for us. We were able to sleep comfortably at night because our trailer had AC. It was comfortable as it could be. 

There was no rain whatsoever. We could see forest fires starting in the distance. I think we could see four or five little specks of red starting to burn in the forest. I remember standing outside the trailer looking at the lightning in the sky and it was coming so close. And I think that's what was starting all those fires around us— The lightning striking the trees because they're so dry. 

My mom and my brother were super paranoid that it was going to hit near our campsite and we'd have to evacuate because that was actually happening to campsites around us. Not in Clearwater, but in surrounding cities, they were being evacuated because lightning had hit trees near the campsite.  I did not have a good sleep at all because the whole time I was just so anxious that I was going to be waking up in three hours to evacuate the campsite. So yes, it was freaky.

I know my stepdad was getting so frustrated with the heat because it was too hot during the day to do anything. Most of the activities my mom planned for the whole trip usually would be out of the trailer, going to do a hike. We would just sit there.  It was so hot out that the glaciers from the mountains were melting way faster than it was supposed to, which meant the river was higher than it was supposed to be at this time of year. My mom had whitewater rafting booked and we still went. 

My mom was kind of freaking out a little bit. She's like, “I just have a really bad feeling about this.”  And I'm like, “Don't worry, mom,” because we had been whitewater rafting multiple times before, and nothing had ever gone wrong. Usually, the guys that are with us know what they're doing, everything's going to be fine.  So we go on the raft, everything's okay. The rapids are quite big, but they're manageable, we got through them. It was fun. 

And then we get to this one bend. And our guide is like, “Okay, we have a class four rapid ahead of us. We might flip. I'm telling you guys now we might flip. I've never flipped before on this river, but we might. If you guys want to get off now you are totally welcome to do so.” We all decided that we would stay on and my gosh, I wish I had gotten off.

When you're on the raft you have to duck when you go over rapids so it helps with the balancing of the raft. I can't just press pause, step out of the raft and be safe.  I have to go through this. I have to go through this rapid.  Anyways, as we ducked our whole raft flipped over upside down, and all of us flew out of the raft, and we were in massive rapids. We were all disoriented. 

We couldn't see anyone when we fell out of the water. We were in full-fledged rapids. And I was being sucked down into the rapids, into little whirlpools that were being created. I think it was probably only a couple of minutes, but it felt like I was in there for at least ten.  I genuinely thought I was going to drown.

I got a nosebleed because the water was being shoved up into my nose. I was just bleeding. All of us had scratches all over us from the rocks and stuff scratching us. I lost my earring. 

 I was rescued by the safety raft, we were then brought to the side of the river because we were still waiting on my stepdad, the other dad who was on our tour and our actual guide to meet us because the safety raft dude did not see them at all. He was like, “I don't know where they are.” And so sitting through that was super freaky because I was thinking, “Oh my God, where are they? Are they okay? Did they go all the way down the river?” 

The three of them made it to one side of the river where the rapids were, and they managed to collect the raft and flip it back up. And then they had to take the raft, just the three of them, and go over the rest of the rapids themselves and meet us there because there was no way they could get across the other side of the river, where the road is, to be picked up.

I remember the evening it happened when we were back at the campsite, [my mom] was just crying and I felt so bad. I was like, “Mom, it's not your fault, how would you have known this was going to happen?” And she was just like, “Claudia, we could have died. It would have been my fault too. Any of us could have died.” I wish I could have helped her a bit better. It wasn't her fault. I think in my case, we were just lucky that the safety raft came with us and that he made it through those rapids, and was able to collect us off the side of the river. And that we were all safe. Because if that didn't happen, what would have happened?

The river levels are completely different than normal. People need to maybe be more considerate about how climate change is affecting these outdoor activities, how they might be different and to take the proper precautions. And maybe there needs to be some research on what can be done to make it safer, or shouldn't be done that year, or closed off for the season.

by Claudia Culley as told to Jasna Rowse (edited by Sean Holman and Tracy Sherlock)