Pirates of the North Saskatchewan River

***Sorry for the silence, folks. I somehow (despite using it all the time) misplaced my DSLR camera battery. This forced me to change plans, but I’m back with this tale of a recent river float. Unfortunately, I had to take the photos on my phone.***

Greetings, earthlings. This weekend, I floated down a river.

In classic Edmonton style, spring has flown by, and suddenly it’s hot outside. This meant it was time for the ritual tradition of floating the North Saskatchewan River.

Many Edmontonians assume that they cannot use the river for some reason or another. Often it’s because they believe the river is “dirty”. I remember growing up, hearing stories about how you had to get a tetanus shot if you so much as touched the water. Well, here’s the real deal: it does get a bit grimy as you approach downtown. If you float as far as Goldbar, the smell of the waste treatment centre is pretty gnarly. Overall, though, it’s a beauty of a river.

The origin myth of our group of floaters is simple: one day, our friend Tyson (who attended this weekend’s float) was sitting beside the North Saskatchewan River. He wanted to get to a spot down-river, and realized the easiest way to get there would be to launch a boat and float to it. The next time he came back, he brought a boat and – ta da! – the dream was born. It grew from there, and as a group, we have gone many times together. Over the years, more and more people have been on the river on any given day, which is exciting.

A warning for anyone who reads this and is compelled to float the North Saskatchewan: go for it! Have fun!! However, keep in mind that the North Saskatchewan River is a beast and she must be respected. A couple of days before this float, a 33-year-old strong swimmer died when he dove into the river and never came up. To be clear, I am not responsible for anyone who hurts themselves or drowns because of this post. Be careful out there!

Things To Remember When Floating the North Saskatchewan

  • While it is possible to float calmer rivers, such as Pembina, on an inner tube or cheap inflatable, I do not recommend this on the North Saskatchewan. Our gang has invested in higher-quality inflatable fishing dinghies, mostly Sevylor Fish Hunters (4- or 6-person). These can be found at outdoor stores or Army & Navy (and such).
  • Don’t forget paddles and life jackets. Carry a pump and something for emergency patches. (We have learned from experience that a maxi pad makes an excellent emergency patch. Sometimes it works so well that you’ll keep it on your boat for a whole year!)
  • Bring water, snacks, a hat, and sunscreen. The breeze on the river is deceiving and the sun will sap your life juices, so hydrate-hydrate-hydrate! Bring a bag for garbage and zip-locks or dry bags for anything you don’t want to get wet (don’t forget that includes lighters).
  • On process: you typically leave a vehicle at the docking point that, when you get off the river, can transport the drivers back to the launch point. They then drive back together, reminiscing about the excellent day, and return with their cars. While on the river, use carabiners to hook the boats together and create a floatilla.
  • If you have any questions about floating, the Floaters Club group on Facebook is an excellent resource.

The weather cooperated as we made our way down to the Whitemud to inflate and launch. We would be floating to Dawson Bridge, with some of the buccaneers getting off the river at Emily Murphy Park.

Now please sit back and enjoy these photos c/o glorious phone camera technology (apologies for the image quality).

We set off from the Whitemud, and were immediately greeted with the beautiful North Saskatchewan. Hello river!

We set off from the Whitemud, and were immediately greeted with the beautiful North Saskatchewan. Hello river!

We passed the “End of the World”, aka. what is left of Keillor Road. It was a hot media topic in the 1990s; I remember it being all over the news. Now, it’s a controversial hangout spot (the locals are not a fan of it, but people keep going back because it’s truly spectacular). The remains of the road jut out into the river valley, and from above, it looks as if a giant has chopped into the river valley with an axe. There are always people hanging out there when we float past, and today was no exception. We waved, they waved back, and everything was beautiful.

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It was a gorgeous day.

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We floated past the footbridge that joins Hawrelak and Buena Vista Parks:

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As we rounded the wide loop surrounding the Mayfair Golf Course, we could see the finished Pearl high rise. In construction last season, we watched it grow and alter the Edmonton skyline.

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We passed under Groat Road and got a clearer view of the Pearl.

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There were swallow nests in the cliffs:

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And, sometimes, layers of yellow sulphur:

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Then, in the distance stood the iconic High Level Bridge. The streetcar was hanging out in the middle of the bridge as we approached. I wonder if the passengers commented on the barge of inflatable boats, slowly making its way toward them.

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Next came the Walterdale Bridge. Like so many things in this city, it will not be around for much longer. The finish date was pushed back to next year, so the incessant, rhythmic “clang-clang-clang” noise of the construction has stopped for now. Because it’s such an important artery for traffic, they are building around the old bridge, which will be demolished once the new one is complete. That will be a sad, sad day, as I have a soft spot for bridges, and especially the Walterdale. They call it the “singing bridge”, referring the tones you hear driving across the bridge.

You can watch a simulation of the new Walterdale Bridge here.

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Then, of course, another gorgeous piece of Edmonton architecture that is (probably) also doomed: the Rossdale Power Plant. I love the building and wish it could be repurposed into something. Anything. Just don’t take this away too…

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We wound around Rossdale, aware that the city was right behind the trees. We passed the so-called (by us) “Falls of Despair”, otherwise known as the remains of Mill Creek. At one point, the creek flowed into the North Saskatchewan, but after Mill Creek was developed, it was diverted underground and has never been the same.

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Eventually, downtown Edmonton came into view.

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We passed under the James MacDonald Bridge.

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We then passed under the Low Level Bridge, and through the heart of downtown Edmonton.

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We snuck up to our gigantic cousin, the Edmonton Queen Riverboat. We passed Louise McKinney Park, and as usual, people gawked as we drifted by. Some probably-homeless guys were having a time down by the river and may have asked to join us. We may have politely declined. I’m not sure; it was late in the day.

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Then came the majestic Cloverdale (Downtown) Footbridge, the subject of one of my previous posts. As I mentioned, you should check out the Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge website.

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The day drew to a close as we passed Riverdale and approached Dawson Bridge. We were exhausted from the heat and hours of snacks, but so happy.

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For more where this came from, you can see my river-floating photo set on Flickr. You can also read the piece that I wrote for the Edmonton City As Museum Project (ECAMP) website, about my complex relationship with the North Saskatchewan River.

Until next time.

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