Great Canadian RIVERS 


A History Tour of the North Saskatchewan

Dividing the parklands and the plains, providing a navigable corridor for most of its 1,300 kilometre route, and flowing all the way from the Rocky Mountains across Alberta and Saskatchewan, the North Saskatchewan River is one of Canada's most historic waterways. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Saskatchewan River Route was one of the country's most important fur trading arteries, and in the 20th century, it anchored the urban and economic development of much of Canada's western prairies.

Today, the rich heritage of the North Saskatchewan is marked by a string of interpretive centres, national and provincial historic sites, living history museums and historical re-creations. From west to east, from the foothills of the Rockies to the Forks of the Saskatchewan, your North Saskatchewan History Tour will take you to the following sites:

Columbia Icefields Interpretive Centre, Banff/Jasper National Parks, Alberta - Start your North Saskatchewan History Tour with the river's ancient beginnings, in the Saskatchewan Glacier of the Columbia Icefields. The Icefields are the remnants of a massive ice sheet that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast 15,000 years ago. To learn more about the history of the Columbia Icefields, visit the Columbia Icefields Interpretive Centre, on the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff, Alberta.

Bighorn Dam Interpretive Centre, Abraham Lake, Alberta - Behind the 91-metre-high hydroelectric Bighorn Dam, downstream of Saskatchewan River Crossing in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the North Saskatchewan bulges into Abraham Lake, Alberta's largest man-made reservoir. Electricity generated by the massive, earth-filled Bighorn Dam is used all the way to Edmonton. Find out more about the history of the Bighorn Project, and Abraham Lake, named for a member of the local Stoney Nation, at the Bighorn Dam Interpretive Centre. (Centre is located at the base of the dam, and is open during summer hours.)

Nordegg Coal Mine National Historic Site, Nordegg, Alberta - Ghost town enthusiasts, take note: on the David Thompson Highway between Abraham Lake and Rocky Mountain House, visitors can take a guided tour (summer months only) of the historic Nordegg coal mine. The mine, founded on the Brazeau Coal Fields by German entrepreneur Martin Nordegg in 1907, once employed 900 workers and supported a company town of 3,000 people. The mine closed in 1955 when railroads switched from coal to diesel; many of its buildings and facilities are being restored. The site was designated as a Provincial Historic Site of Alberta in 1993 and a National Historic Site of Canada in 2002.

Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site, Rocky Mountain House - As one of the fur trade's westernmost North Saskatchewan trading and provisioning posts, Rocky Mountain House wasn't always a resounding success; it moved locations several times, and was occasionally closed due to lack of supplies. But as a major historical destination attraction, it is a definite winner, combining several exhibits, interpretive trails, a playfort for children and a buffalo paddock housing a herd of plains bison. The site is located 7 kilometres south of the town of Rocky Mountain House, on Alberta Highway 11A. Open late May - late September.

Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton - Witness the evolution of the city of Edmonton at one of the North Saskatchewan's foremost living history sites. Fort Edmonton Park portrays 4 distinct time periods, including "The Fort" fur trading era of 1795 -1870, the "1885 Street" settlement era of 1871 - 1891, the "1905 Street" municipal era of 1892 - 1914, and the "1920 Street" metropolitan era of 1914 - 1929. Find out how York boats were built, take a stagecoach or streetcar ride, and visit the streetscapes and businesses of both a frontier town and an expanding post-war community. Try your hand at pioneer children's games and 1920's miniature golf. Open May - September.

Fort George and Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site - This interpretive centre and archaeological site, located on the North Saskatchewan River, 13 kilometres south of the town of Elk Point, Alberta, portrays the famous fur trading rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The site's innovative audio-visual format allows visitors to hear the voices of post administrators, voyageurs and "country wives," and see the items that were traded at the fort between 1792 and 1800. A trail leads along an interpretive path from the exhibit gallery to the archaeological site of the 2 forts. Open mid-May to early September.

Heinsburg Ghost Town, Heinsburg, Alberta - Just past Elk Point, stop off at this abandoned former Canadian National Railway stop for a walk through the "wild west" streets of Heinsburg, known as "The Liveliest Little Ghost Town in Alberta."

Fort Pitt National Historic Site, Frenchman Butte, Saskatchewan - Site of a Hudson's Bay Company provisioning post, a confrontation during the 1885 Northwest Resistance, and a North West Mounted Police station, Fort Pitt features interpretive panels tracing the post's history and the archeological remains of 2 separate structures. Canoeists take note: this historical site provides good access to the North Saskatchewan River.

Fort Battleford National Historic Park, Battleford, Saskatchewan - Political turmoil, not fur trading, is the focus of this interpretive historical re-creation in the town of Battleford, at the junction of the Battle and North Saskatchewan Rivers, about halfway between Lloydminster and Saskatoon. As North West Mounted Police Post, Fort Battleford played a key role in the 1885 Northwest Resistance led by legendary Métis leader Louis Riel. Take a guided tour through 5 original buildings surrounded by a rebuilt stockade, and view exhibits that interpret the Northwest events from the differing perspectives of settlers, Mounties, and aboriginals. Open mid-May to early September.

Heritage Farm and Village, North Battleford, Saskatchewan - The early 1900's were a boom time for Saskatchewan farming, when the number of farmsteads in the province surged from 10,000 in 1900 to 250,000 in 1914. The province's agricultural heyday is portrayed at this living history village, where barns, businesses, homes and even a Wheat Pool grain elevator from the era have been re-assembled. Experience the hustle and bustle of the farmyard, take a stroll on the village boardwalk, and or visit the local Co-op store. This highly authentic heritage site also features an extensive display of early 20th century farm equipment. Open year round.

Fort Carlton Provincial Historic Park, Duck Lake, Saskatchewan - At the eastern end of the chain of fur trading posts, forts and supply depots located along the North Saskatchewan River, visitors can see a Hudson's Bay Company post at the height of its activity. Restored to the 1860's era, Fort Carlton features a reconstructed stockade, fur and provisions store, trade store, clerk's quarters, and First Nations tipi encampment. Reach out and touch buffalo hides, beaver pelts, blankets and birch bark baskets, take a short stroll to the banks of the North Saskatchewan, and look for the ruts left by the Red River carts that followed the original Carlton Trail. Interpretive guides will explain the Fort's role in the 1885 North West Resistance and the historic 1876 signing of Treaty Six with the Woodland and Plains Cree.

Mountain to Prairie Paddling

Canoeists and kayakers who paddle the waters of the North Saskatchewan River will quickly understand why the river was such a favoured route for fur traders and explorers. Like the voyageurs of long ago, they will discover that the waterway is navigable for almost all of its 1,300 kilometre length, and that its current (except in upper mountain stretches) is steady but not fast. They will note that put-in points are frequent, camping spots are numerous, and wildlife is varied and abundant.

While an end-to-end North Saskatchewan trip could take the better part of a summer, most canoeists and kayakers tackle the North Saskatchewan in much shorter spans. They match their route and paddling skills to the river's personality, which shifts from mountains, to foothills, to prairies as it crosses the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Paddlers with some whitewater experience will want to try the North Saskatchewan's upper course, where its descent from the meltwater of the Saskatchewan glacier provides a heart-revving, eye-popping ride down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Waterfalls and wildlife - moose, elk, and mountain goats - will be the backdrop, as the river falls into the densely forested foothills. Popular paddling stretches of the river's upper end include:

Saskatchewan River Crossing to Abraham Lake - Starting about 50 kilometres from the Saskatchewan glacier, this 30 kilometre stretch passes through the front ranges of the Rockies. The current is fast, but all rapids are runnable. Count on 1-2 days to reach Alberta's largest man-made lake.

Nordegg to Rocky Mountain House - One of the most popular paddling stretches of the North Saskatchewan, this 131 kilometre route through the Rocky Mountain foothills provides almost continuous whitewater. A series of Class II - III rapids includes Devil's Elbow, close to the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. Camp on river islands or at local campgrounds and plan to spend 3 - 4 days on the river.

Rocky Mountain House to Drayton Valley - Another intermediate level fast water stretch, with Class I - III rapids, heads east toward the prairie. Count on 3- 4 days to cover 133 kilometres.

Drayton Valley - Edmonton - Novice level paddlers will enjoy the 134-kilometere, 3-day trip into the riverside city of Edmonton, with no whitewater above a Class II rating.

Devon to Edmonton - The scenic 1 - 2 day paddle from the outlying town of Devon, Alberta into the urban centre, featuring an overnight stay on a river island, is a popular no-rapids outing for canoeists and kayakers of any skill level.

Edmonton and East: With its initial downhill sprint now over, the North Saskatchewan flows steadily at a rate of 3 - 4 kilometres per hour, heading east and southeast into north-central Saskatchewan before veering northeast toward its confluence with the South Saskatchewan. For canoeists east of Edmonton, tailwinds, not whitewater, will fill the need for speed. But even with the help of a strategically-erected sail, long-distance trippers should count on 2 weeks to paddle from Edmonton to the Battlefords, about halfway to Prince Albert in Saskatchewan. There are 600 kilometres of waterway to cover from the Alberta border to the Codette Lake, the man-made reservoir that marks the end of the North Saskatchewan's natural course. But the river's middle and eastern stretches will reward paddlers with sweeping vistas through boreal forests and abundant grasslands, skies filled with countless flocks of migratory birds, and an almost endless choice of sand spits, gravel bars and sheltered shores for camping. Convenient river landings at the North Saskatchewan's many historical sites - including Fort Pitt and Fort Carlton - are a delightful bonus for eastern waterway wanderers.

Edmonton's River Valley: North America's Largest Urban Park
Surprise! One of the best places to get acquainted with the North Saskatchewan River is within the heart of its largest urban centre. The city of Edmonton's 7,400 hectare River Valley is the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America, extending 25 kilometres along both banks of the North Saskatchewan River, and containing 22 major parks, 11 lakes and 14 ravines. Thanks to early efforts to preserve Edmonton's natural riverbanks, lucky Edmontonians - and their visitors - can enjoy a vast wilderness park in an urban setting, with easy access to the river. Ongoing efforts to improve and expand Edmonton's "Ribbon of Green" are underway, with new park areas, such as downtown's hallmark Louise McKinney Park, featuring a natural amphitheatre overlooking the North Saskatchewan.

In Edmonton's River Valley Park, you can:

--Walk or run - The Park features over 130 kilometres of maintained trails. Some trail sections, including a "jogging loop" that crosses the river, are cleared and sanded for winter use.
--Cycle - The city of Edmonton has over 70 kilometres of shared pedestrian-cycling pathways. Check the "Cycle Edmonton" map for routes, or the City Bike map online.
--In-line Skate - There are over 50 kilometres of paved multi-use trails in the River Valley.
--Cross-country ski - More than 50 kilometres of groomed ski trails are maintained in the park; consult the "Edmonton Cross-Country Ski Guide" for locations.
--Canoe, kayak or boat - Trailered boat launches are available at Capilano Park and Laurier Park. There are several put-in points for non-powered watercraft. Check Edmonton's "River Recreation Guide."
--Fish - Angle for walleye, northern pike, goldeye (mooneye), lake sturgeon, mountain whitefish, sauger and burbot within Edmonton's city limits. Hermitage Park, in the city's northeast end, features a stocked trout pond. For more information, consult the "River Recreation Guide."
--Cruise - Private tour operators offer riverboat cruises and jet boat tours of Edmonton's North Saskatchewan waterway.
--Picnic - Picturesque riverside picnic spots abound in Edmonton. Try Capilano Park, Emily Murphy Park on the south bank, or Gold Bar Park in the city's east -end.
--Birdwatch - Take your binoculars to the Whitemud Ravine Nature Reserve and McTaggart Sanctuary.
--Ice skate or toboggan - When the snow falls, head to Emily Murphy Park or the Whitemud Park and Ravine. Or skate on the man-made pond at William Hawrelak Park.