A River Runs Through It

Kalyna Country’s Majestic “Kisiskatchewan Sipi”

The North Saskatchewan River runs like a thread through the heart of Kalyna Country, spanning its length from west to east while at the same time knitting together the 20,000 sq. km territory of the world’s largest ecomuseum with the numerous small tributaries that feed it. Its waters and shores have always nurtured a wide variety of wildlife—feathered, furred and finned—and its fertile valley and adjacent lands have provided generations of farmers with crops that have helped to feed the nation.

Originating with the Saskatchewan glacier, an outlet of the famed Columbia Icefield, the North Saskatchewan River flows 1287 kilometres (800 miles) from its source in the Rocky Mountains to its mouth at Lake Winnipeg. The latter in turn is drained by the Nelson River, which empties into Hudson Bay, thereby providing an unbroken waterway linking Canada’s far western plains with trade routes to Europe and beyond. Thanks to its extended course, the North Saskatchewan played a critical role in opening up the Canadian West, at the same time facilitating the transformation of the continent’s rich interior from a remote hinterland to an agricultural powerhouse.

The watershed of the North Saskatchewan encompasses an area of 122,800 sq. kilometres, embracing a mixture of parkland and prairie terrain. A roughly 250 kilometre stretch of the North Saskatchewan flows through Kalyna Country, as the river makes its way from the Capital City region to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The Battle River flows into the North Saskatchewan at the appropriately named Battlefords northwest of Saskatoon, while the South Saskatchewan joins its northern namesake 30 kilometres east of Prince Alberta, having earlier been fed by the Oldman, Bow, and Red Deer rivers. Thus the lands drained by the entire Saskatchewan River system comprise nearly all of territory of central and southern Alberta, which explains the importance of the two branches of the Saskatchewan not only to the province’s history but to Alberta’s continued prosperity.

The North Saskatchewan derives its name from the Cree word “kis-is-ka-tche-wan,” meaning “fast flowing” or “swift current.” Kisiskatchewani Sipi, which translates as “swift-flowing river,” was the descriptive name that the Cree First Nations gave to one of Western Canada’s most celebrated waterways—“Saskatchewan” being the Anglicized variant that was eventually appropriated as the official Canadian designation.

The first Europeans to see the lower reaches of the Saskatchewan were the famed explorers and fur traders Henry Kelsey (1690) and Pierre La Vérendrye (1739). The latter’s older brother, Louis-Joseph, referred to the river as La Blanche, while on early French maps it was identified as the Poskaio, also spelled Poskoiac and Poskoyac. When Alexander Henry (1739-1824) travelled in the region in the mid-1870s he used three different names for the same watercourse, River de Bourbon, Pasquayah, and Sascatchiwane—the first after Forts Bourbon (1741) and Paskoyac (1751), built  a short distance upriver from Lake Winnipeg by Pierre and Francois La Vérendrye, and “Sacatchiwawane”, as it was called by Henry’s Cree associates.

The first European to travel the North Saskatchewan was Anthony Henday, who made it as far as present-day Rocky Mountain House in 1754-1755, after which he was followed by a veritable who’s who of Western Canadian trailblazers, including Peter Fidler, David Thompson and Alexander Henry the Younger (a nephew of the first Alexander Henry).  The modern rendering of the name was officially adopted for the river in 1882, when part of the future province of Saskatchewan was made a district of the North-West Territories—Alberta’s neighbour to the east subsequently taking the name Saskatchewan when both became sister provinces to Manitoba in 1905.

Much of the early history of Alberta unfolded along the banks of the North Saskatchewan because it served as the major transportation corridor of the fur trade, being used to convey supplies and trade goods to outposts deep in the interior, and to carry pelts downstream to overseas transfer points in central and eastern Canada. Not surprisingly in 1984 the North Saskatchewan was designated a Canadian Heritage River by the federal government, in recognition of its national significance and the many towns and cities that depend upon it for their existence.

For many years the river acted as a natural boundary between the Cree and Blackfoot First Nations, the name “Battle River” being a testament to the sometimes fractious relations between the two aboriginal peoples. Thanks to both groups, however, a flourishing trade was established in furs, fuelled in no small part by bison meat, which preserved as pemmican provided the protein for the hardworking men of the Hudson’s Bay, North West and X.Y. Companies. Over the span of a hundred years beginning in 1792 the North Saskatchewan River gave rise to a half-dozen trading posts extending from the vicinity of Elk Point and Lea Park in the east to the first Edmonton House-Fort Augustus in the west, near the mouth of the Sturgeon River. The last fur-trading post, at Victoria, eventually closed its doors in 1897, and today (along with Fort George-Buckingham House) is a provincial historic site.

Besides canoes and York boats, the river east of Edmonton was also plied by paddle-wheelers from 1874 to the early 1890s—an irregular service made particularly challenging by the relative shallowness of the Saskatchewan and the unpredictable fluctuations of its water levels due to periodic droughts and flooding. Of course, with the arrival of agricultural colonists, starting with the founding of the Victoria and Lobstick settlements in today’s Smoky Lake County, the river was rafted by some settlers making their way from Edmonton to new homesteads downriver in the wilderness. The establishment of railways and a growing network of roads around the turn of the nineteenth century then spelled the end of the North Saskatchewan’s use for seasonal transportation, while the river at the same time became something of an obstacle dividing the farming communities that developed on its opposite sides. This problem was initially solved by the creation of ferry crossings at intervals across the breadth of Kalyna Country, a total of 19 ferries operating a different times and locations between Fort Saskatchewan and Lea Park. Eventually, these were replaced by the series of bridges that now whisk traffic along rural east central Alberta’s extensive network of highways, each crossing providing scenic views of the deep valley of the majestic “Kisiskatchewani Sipi.”

Within the Kalyna Country ecomuseum, the North Saskatchewan’s major tributaries are the Sturgeon, Redwater and Vermilion Rivers, while some of most notable creeks that feed it are the colourfully-named Namepi, Weasel, Waskatenau, White Earth, Cucumber, Saddlelake, Slawa, Atimose, Telegraph, Mooswa, and Frog. Today, the river is especially popular as a recreational resource that is enjoyed by the residents of East Central Alberta and visitors alike, attracting fishers, canoers, kayakers, jet boaters, as well as hikers and nature lovers who are drawn to its banks. Of course, the river valley and its waters also provide a haven for rich array of wildlife, including moose, bear, and deer that come to drink and to graze on the lush plants and berries that thrive along both shores. Other mammals to look for are fox, lynx, coyote, mink, porcupine, badger and beaver, while occasional cougars have also been spotted prowling in search of prey. Among the many different birds that frequent the environs of the North Saskatchewan are the Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Cliff Swallow, Grey Owl, American White Pelican, Yellow Warbler and Pileated Woodpecker. And the river itself provides a home to a variety of fish ranging from Sturgeon, Northern Pike, Walleye, and Goldeye, to Burbot, Quillback and Sauger. Last but certainly not least, the verdant edges of the North Saskatchewan are an especially good place to pick Saskatoons and Chokecherries, as well as buckets of bright red Kalyna—the fruit of the Highbush Cranberry having long been harvested by the Native, Métis, and East European inhabitants of the region, besides being a food source and treat for many animals.

So what are you waiting for? You can plan your expedition with the help of the annual Kalyna Country Visitor’s and Events Guide, though canoeists will also want to pick up a copy of the North Saskatchewan River Guide, published in 2002 by the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance. Another book you might find handy is Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River, written by Myrna Kostash with Duane Burton and issued by Coteau Books in 2005.

Jars Balan