Many of us see the North Saskatchewan River on a daily basis — but how much do we really know about this waterway?
By Steven Sandor | July 28, 2022
OK, show of hands, How many of you know that a species of bird that is nationally designated as “threatened” has a colony in our river valley?
The Bank Swallow is considered a species at risk. They collect in colonies, as the birds drill holes in the cliff face for nests. They can transform a cliff into a natural apartment building. From one large group of nests on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, they emerge and dive-bomb the water, searching for insects.
From our raft, we are treated to an air show. Birds fly around us, and there are splashes around our water craft. And, we are just a stone’s throw from downtown Edmonton.
According to Birds Canada, the population of the Bank Swallow has declined by 98 per cent over the last 40 years. So, seeing a colony in action is something we shouldn’t take for granted. We should be celebrating the fact that these remarkable creatures have found sanctuary in our river valley.
The Bank Swallow colony is a prime example of Edmonton’s relationship with the river valley. We hike and bike next to it. We celebrate the parks that border it. We enjoy the views from the lookouts above. Yet, so very few of us actually get onto the river. We don’t hear the thrumming of traffic as we float underneath a bridge. We don’t think about the animals that make their homes in the river. We take the drinking water provided by the river for granted.
But the RiverWatch Institute of Alberta, the organization that promotes conservation and understanding of our river (and other rivers in the province, too) is working to promote the idea that Edmontonians should spend time on the river, rather than by the river. RiverWatch is expanding its river float program to include packages that include a stop for yoga, an evening float to watch the sunset and a program that would include regular stops at stations manned by some chefs from Edmonton’s top restaurants.
So, media were invited to a preview float a couple of weeks ago. (This is the part where I need to tell you that EPCOR is a sponsor for the floats.)
Each blue raft can hold about 10 people. I rode in a group with our guide, River Hoffos, and RiverWatch executive director Jay Ball. If you’re a regular reader of the magazine or the website, you may remember Jay from his semi-regular appearances as “dining partner” in some of my restaurant reviews.
Don’t think for a second that the float is something only for experienced boaters. It’s a leisurely ride with occasional paddling. My paddling experience was minimal at best, and the hardest part of the day was putting a rubber boot (provided by RiverWatch) on my chronically swollen left leg. So, if stubborn footwear was the worst part of my day, then you know that it was actually a pretty good day.
The float was leisurely, about two and a half hours to go from Laurier Park (near the zoo) to Dawson Park. We drove to Dawson, and from there a shuttle bus took us west to Laurier Park, so we could get to our vehicles after the float came to an end.
During the trip, Hoffos acted as the rudder man and our guide, entertaining us with bits of trivia about the river. Here’s one: We were asked to note the types of trees that grew on either bank. On the north, there were deciduous trees, while the south had coniferous varieties. If it seems backward, it is — pine and spruce are indicative of northern forest, while the trees that shed their leaves are what dominate the southern forest.
But, because the north bank gets more sun, we get southern forest on the north bank and northern forest on the south bank.
Use this factoid the next time you’re at the pub with friends. We won’t tell.
We also stopped to do some simple science tests from the shores of the river, testing for phosphates, temperature and oxygen levels. And what we learned is that the river is pretty darn clean, despite the silt that turns it brown from time to time. Jay and I paired up to test for phosphates, and found our water to be clear. Jay accused me of doing the test incorrectly. Several times. He said I didn’t sprinkle enough of the chemical into the test bottle. Or that I didn’t stir it correctly. At this point, I imagined what it would be like if Jay and I were contestants on The Amazing Race. We’d be awful; we’d be eliminated right after getting off the plane.
But the science is important. EPCOR uses the river water, and filters it. It’s what comes out of our taps and showerheads. It takes 12 hours for the filtration plant to transform what it takes from the river into drinking water.
But, how to keep it clean? There are 306 outfalls into the river. That means rainwater rushes back into the river at many points. And with it comes the stuff we leave on the streets.
Steph Neufeld, the watershed manager at EPCOR, runs a department that “predicts water flow and the human impact on it.” She works to understand how the watershed works — and how it will work in the future. And she says the best way to keep the river as healthy as possible is by looking at your yard, driveways, local streets and parks.
“I think we do a really good job and we should be proud as Edmontonians for supporting programs that monitor the river, supporting pick up after your pets programs,” she says. “I think the river is something Edmontonians value and cherish. Individually, there are small little things you can do on your lot. Whenever it rains, that water will eventually end up in the river. So, wash your car at a car wash, you can pick up after your pet, make sure you have a rain barrel to collect water and slowly restore hydrology to our urban ecosystems.
“What we do on the landscape does trickle down to the river.”