With my right hand on the grip and left on the shaft, I dip a wooden canoe paddle into the North Saskatchewan River and pull against the water. The effort leaves a miniature whirlpool in my wake, spiralling against the canoe as it is propelled eastward. With each stroke, the splash and drips of water from the paddle break the silence of my surroundings. Thick tree lines run along the river’s edges. The only souls in sight are those of the occasional eagle or osprey in the sky or coyote striding along the bank, keeping a careful eye on the banana-yellow canoe and its two passengers. My companion for the day, Conor Kerr, is a canoeing enthusiast who makes this same two- to four-hour trek down the North Saskatchewan River, sometimes four times a week from May to October.
Today, Kerr is dressed only in a black T-shirt and corduroys. It’s not that strenuous a trip, he tells me, so wearing “workout clothes” is not necessary. He has been gracious enough to share with me his favourite pastime. On the water, it’s secluded, it’s peaceful and, at times, filled with only the sights and sounds of nature – which is remarkable given that we are nearly smack-dab in the centre of Edmonton, cutting through the waters of the North Saskatchewan River from Whitemud Park to Rafters Landing, the home of the Edmonton Queen riverboat.
This is part of what makes the trip so appealing to Kerr, who took his first river ride while still in the womb of his canoe-loving mother, and has spent much of his childhood paddling with his family in the Churchill River systems of northern Saskatchewan. Since moving to Edmonton, working as an aboriginal liaison between the Alberta government and the Paul, Enoch and Alexander First Nations, the river valley system has become his reminder of home, with some parts just as isolated and wild as any river he has ever paddled. “It’s just beautiful to be out in nature. It’s really cool,” he says. “And you get into certain spots and think, ‘Wow, I’m in the middle of a city of a million people — right in the centre of it — and it feels like I’m in the wilderness.’ That’s the cool thing about Edmonton’s river valley.”
On any other day, my eyes might have rolled into the back of my head at that statement. I’ve heard many times before how amazing Edmonton’s river valley is. Edmontonians love to cite its greenery, walking paths, bike trails and relative isolation from the bustling activity of the city as a “must-see” in town but, as we round the river bend near the Royal Mayfair Golf Club and the skyline shifts to reveal the city’s towers peeking over the swaths of forest, I can’t help but be in awe of a view I’m not sure a majority of Edmontonians have experienced.
That’s not to say that the river is empty of activity. In our journey, Kerr waves to a few fellow canoeists as they pass by. He’s greeted with waves and smiles and a few remarks on the weather. But that interaction is “few and far between,” he says. “This river is really under-utilized, especially given how beautiful it is.”
There are some in town, however, who have made an effort to get people on the water. Canoe rental services and tour businesses, such as Edmonton Canoe and CanoeHeads, regularly operate inside and outside of town, with trips starting in Devon and ending within city limits. According to Jason Hayes, owner and operator of CanoeHeads, he sees around 500 trips taken on his canoes each year. Of those, he says nearly 400 of the trips are return customers. “Once people discover what is out there on the river, they keep coming back,” says Hayes. “I think once people do it, they get that it’s just them and nature, and it’s so quiet and peaceful. They keep coming back. And there’s something about being so close to home that is very cool about it. I mean, the whole trip is about going home — you’re literally floating home — and I think that’s comforting to people.”
But it’s fighting through the misconceptions of the river that is often the first obstacle, says Hayes.
Admittedly, my view of the North Saskatchewan River has always been a murky one, but on my trip with Kerr, the water is so clear that I can see the bottom. Throughout the cool September trip trip, I often glance over the side, catching small glimpses of the rocky bottom and, occasionally, a fish or two. As far as sightseeing goes, I have plenty of time to look around. The current of the river is strong enough to keep our momentum at a relatively quick pace. Recent warm weather has melted the snowy glaciers of the Rocky Mountains and, combined with rainfall, has supplied the river with plenty of water to speed our journey. Less effort required to paddle means more attention can be paid to the view. Aside from the abundance of wildlife — such as the beavers or deer that wander through the city unnoticed by those at shore — the flow of the river takes us in and out of park systems and alongside bike paths. As we reach the city centre, the view changes to an urban landscape that would compel any Instagrammer to immediately reach for the phone.
We pass under the High Level, Low Level and Walterdale bridges, catching views of pedestrians and the LRT crossing the river. We see, as well, a strange trend of abandoned lawn chairs along the banks. Kerr quickly assures me that they are not always empty. Gold panners and fishermen often leave them there and return the following day.
As we pass under the old Walterdale Bridge and the accompanying construction of the new Walterdale Bridge, we get probably the clearest view of the city from the water of the entire trip. From the water, Edmonton looks somehow even grander. I suppose it’s because we are looking up at it from the city’s lowest point, but it’s definitely the “hero shot” viewpoint for Edmonton. And even though I haven’t left the city’s boundaries, it’s at that point, shortly before docking near the Edmonton Queen, that, without ever having left, I feel I’ve emerged from the wilderness and returned home.