Is the Glenmore Reservoir Calgary’s Best Neighbourhood?

It doesn’t have any houses, apartments, shops or schools, but the Glenmore Reservoir is a hive of activity and a tight-knit community. A sailing instructor shows us around and makes the case for why it belongs on a Best Neighbourhoods list.

Photo by Jared Sych.

The Glenmore Boat Patrol arrives just before dawn on a quiet Sunday. The three-person crew shuffles up the dock to the big blue boathouse that houses the Calgary Rowing and Canoe Clubs on the west side of the Glenmore Reservoir. They pass rowers preparing for the first training session of the day, carrying their delicate rowing shells to the water in the pre-dawn light.

As the city around them sleeps, the patrollers test the boathouse’s emergency radio. Next, they hoist a green flag to the top of a nearby mast to tell the public they’re on watch. The rowers leave the dock when the sun breaks over the eastern horizon, and the patrol heads out onto the water in their rescue boat to start their rounds.

A couple of hours later, the pathways, parks and parking lots around the Reservoir start to fill up. On weekends, the Glenmore Reservoir attracts pedestrians in the same way neighbourhoods like Inglewood and Kensington attract shoppers and diners. By midday, families fill the splash park at South Glenmore, picnickers haul coolers to firepit-equipped sites in North Glenmore and couples pose on the docks near Heritage Park, snapping selfies with the water and the boats in the background.

Meanwhile, the Reservoir’s habitués are out on the water. In the north arm, kayakers prowl the shore while a dragon boat practices in the racing lanes. At the sailing school on the south side, an instructor shouts encouragement to kids in tiny dinghies. Further out, the Heritage Park tour boat, the S.S. Moyie, placidly paddles past a fleet of sailboats.

Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

When I moved from Yellowknife to Calgary 20 years ago, I put my passion for sailing on a shelf. The little I knew about the Glenmore Reservoir was gleaned from occasional drives over the causeway, and I didn’t consider it as much more than an oversize pond. But a pandemic and four months of lockdown forced me to reconsider the Reservoir’s possibilities. Desperate for time outdoors and more social contact, I took a learn-to-row class.

Three summers later, I now teach sailing in the adult keelboat program at the Glenmore Sailing Club and row enthusiastically (but not skillfully) at the Calgary Rowing Club. Like other denizens of the Reservoir, I spend more summer days on the water than not. It sounds like a privileged lifestyle, but a whole raft of community-oriented clubs offer accessible ways for Calgarians to get on the water. The Calgary Canoe Club is home to canoers and kayakers, and the Disabled Sailing Association of Alberta offers sailing programs for children and adults. The Calgary Dragon Boat Society supports local teams and organizes an annual festival. On top of it all, the City of Calgary provides affordable sailing lessons and boat rentals to the public.

A youth sailing group at the reservoir’s “dinghy dock.” Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

This body of water is a unique public asset, explains Doug Bruneau, the former supervisor of Glenmore Reservoir Services. “The Glenmore Reservoir is one of the very few raw water sources that permit recreational use on it in North America,” he says.

This wasn’t always the case. When the sod was turned on the Glenmore Dam in July of 1930, the reservoir was to be a new source of safe drinking water for the growing city. When it opened in January, 1933, the reservoir was deemed out-of-bounds to the public, and authorities erected a 10-foot barbed wire fence to protect it. Fencing off reservoirs wasn’t, and still isn’t, an unusual practice.

But in the summer of 1946, The Calgary Herald started running articles urging the City of Calgary to open the Glenmore Reservoir so that citzens could enjoy the recreational possibilities. The writers had big ambitions for their vision for a new public park, advocating for picnic areas onshore and docks for boating, swimming and fishing. They proposed “a regular patrol, maintained by guards on horseback and afoot,” to protect the “pristine environment.”

Discussions about public access continued for almost 10 years. Finally, on July 19, 1955, the Herald reported that after considerable debate, City Council voted to set aside space for future park development. Permission for boating on the Reservoir would take two more years and approval by public health authorities. There was still concern about water quality, so the City established a simple, strict rule: Calgarians could play on the Glenmore Reservoir, but not in it.

Rowing, sailing and paddling enthusiasts responded quickly by founding new clubs. The Calgary Canoe Club and the Glenmore Yacht Club (now the Glenmore Sailing Club) were founded in 1959, and the Calgary Rowing Club followed in 1966. The first order of business was finding members, and in a prairie city like Calgary, that meant teaching people to sail, row and paddle.

“In the early ’60s, the Sailing Club started the Glenmore Junior Sailing School, and that became wildly successful between the school’s start in 1964 and 1972,” says Nollind van Bryce, one of the Sailing Club’s board of directors. “In that decade, it grew to almost a thousand students a year.”

Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

The Reservoir’s youth and adult education programs are just as popular 60 years later. Summer camps, athlete development programs and adult introductory courses are all priced to promote accessibility, and it’s a strategy that has proven remarkably successful. Our landlocked city has produced more than its fair share of prize-winning sailors, rowers and paddlers.

Calgary rower Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski helped the Canadian women’s eight rowing crew take home gold in 2021 at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. A team of rowers from the Calgary Rowing Club came eighth out of more than 700 clubs in the 2022 World Rowing Masters Regatta. In 2017, Calgary sailor Christopher Lemke won his division in the Transpac Yacht Race from Long Beach, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. Lemke continues to race at the Glenmore Sailing Club and remains a perennial favourite. Local endurance kayaker Wayne Anderson won first in the solo category of the 2018 Yukon River Quest, completing the 715-kilometre course in just under 50 hours. Anderson is a fixture on the Reservoir in his sleek Epic race kayak, often logging up to 40 kms in a single training session.

Among the most remarkable Glenmore Reservoir athletes are paddlers Jon Amundson, John Roberts and Otto Erdelsky. At 75, 79 and 82 years old, respectively, these members of the Calgary Canoe Club all hold world records in outrigger canoe racing. Last year, Erdelsky won two gold medals for his age group at the 2022 Va’a World Sprint Championships.

Calgary hardly seems like a hotbed for outrigger canoeing, but after Roberts helped start the Canoe Club’s outrigger program in 1995, the sport soon found a dedicated following. “I have to say that the community in the Calgary Canoe Club outrigger program is the best over the 65 years I’ve been in this paddling business,” says Erdelsky.

(Left to right) Elite outrigger canoe racers Otto Erdelsky, John Roberts and Jon Amundson. Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

During COVID-19, the Calgary Rowing Club went to extraordinary lengths to maintain its close-knit community. Amelie Schumacher, club manager during the pandemic, worked with the Rowing Club’s safety committee and coaches to redesign programs as public health rules changed. They tried to be nimble and to think outside the box, but it wasn’t easy. Schumacher recalls continually asking: “What were the regulations that came out yesterday? What do we need to change? What do we need to implement?”

During a particularly severe wave, the club used a Google Sheet to choreograph solo rowing sessions (it later implemented an online booking system). Following public health rules, two masked rowers were allowed in the boathouse every 15 minutes to obtain and launch their shells. A safety boat monitored the rowers on the water from an appropriate distance. No coaching was allowed, but at least the rowers were on the water.

Schumacher says the extra effort kept members physically healthy and bolstered their mental health. “If you see somebody on the water, even though they’re 10 feet away, you can still communicate with each other,” she says. “Even though it’s a distant sense of community, it’s still a sense of community.”

Health and safety are also top of mind for those who run the Glenmore Boat Patrol. This 12-person unit is staffed by City of Calgary lifeguards trained to operate the Reservoir’s rescue boats. On a typical day, they might round up dangerous pieces of driftwood, rescue a capsized boater or monitor hazardous weather. Shift supervisor Darren Tosche oversees the operation and says one of the main priorities is protecting our water supply. “A lot of people don’t know the Glenmore is our drinking water, so we educate people,” Tosche says. Their job includes explaining rules prohibiting Calgarians (and their pets) from dumping or swimming in its waters. “We’re the stewards of the Reservoir.”

Like any great neighbourhood, the Glenmore Reservoir’s biggest challenge may be its popularity. Club memberships jumped during COVID, and Tosche has noticed a marked increase in usage by the public. Yet, the people he encounters on the Reservoir are positive and respectful: “It’s really easy to love your job when everyone is friendly. It’s just a great place to be,” he says.

Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

The end of the day is my favourite time. I’m usually among the stragglers in the Heritage Park boatyard, chatting about boats and sailing while we finish packing up. If it’s a teaching day, I’m likely debriefing my sailing students at a picnic table while they practice their knots.

Just before sunset, the boat patrol comes by for its final sweep. The patrollers stop to gossip about the Reservoir’s ducks (who are spoiled and rude) or the weather. But soon, they return to their duties, pulling down the green flag and turning off the emergency radio. As the sun hits the horizon, they turn their rescue boat for home in preparation for another day.

This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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