Along with our role as lead artists (in collaboration with Lane Shordee) on The Wandering Island, we designed stairs to guide visitors down onto the island. We titled the piece “Fish Ladder,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the flood mitigation and fish habitat development that brought the City – and subsequently, our team of public artists – to Elbow Island in the first place.
The only official access point to The Wandering Island that doesn’t involve swimming, wading, or walking across the ice, the stairs provide both entrance + exit, setting the tone for experiencing The Wandering Island. Fish Ladder is the first clue that Elbow Island Park holds something unexpected – an invitation to look carefully, to pay attention.
The process of conceiving, designing, fabricating, and installing the stairs elapsed over several years. Our filmmaker Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi documented the process, and you can watch the it unfold in the short film below.
Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi, shooting the above documentary. Photos by Mike Tan Photo.
The stairs are intended to reference a fish skeleton, the ribs of a canoe, and the concentric ripples of a stone thrown in a pool of still water. As you move over the treads, your eye will encounter a moiré pattern – an optical illusion created by similar patterns overlapping each other. This interference pattern is meant to create the aesthetic of flowing water. As you move down the stairs, you become a stone, skipping over water.
Designed to allow precipitation to fall through the grid underfoot, nourishing plants and reducing the necessity for snow clearing, the stairs were expertly constructed by Alberta-based metal fabricators JAG Industries.
It took several days to install Fish Ladder. The platform opening off Mission Bridge was expanded to create an overlook onto Elbow Island. A brief moment of respite from busy pedestrian traffic on the narrow sidewalk, this platform has already become particularly well-used in the era of COVID-19 social distancing.
The footings of the stairs are deeply embedded into the island, engineered to mitigate the impact of future flooding. While the City of Calgary has invested in flood mitigations all along the Elbow River, nature is powerful and unpredictable, and the project is located in a classified floodway. Foresightful design on the part of the engineers was required.
Fish Ladder extends an invitation onto Elbow Island Park. Both integrated and alien, tied to infrastructure and rebelling from it, these stairs are the transition point beckoning wanderers down from the city street into the urban wild of Elbow Island Park – the first of many artworks hidden on The Wandering Island.
Fish Ladder immediately after install. Photos by Mike Tan.
As with all the works on the island, the stairs will respond to the weather and the seasons. Over time, foliage will grow up through the flexing wooden ribs of the stairs, grounding the infrastructure within the nature of the place.
You’re invited to follow the stairs down onto Elbow Island Park. Come for a walk with us!