Northern Alberta county angling for North Saskatchewan to become a heritage river

Before roads and railways, the main highways in Alberta were rivers. One of the most significant was the North Saskatchewan, which Smoky Lake County, Alta. wants designated as a heritage waterway. 

There are 40 heritage rivers across Canada

The North Saskatchewan River is the southern boundary of Smoky Lake County. (Supplied by Kyle Schole )

Before roads and railways, the main highways in Alberta were rivers. One of the most significant was the North Saskatchewan, which Smoky Lake County wants designated as a heritage waterway. 

"It's an opportunity to share stories," said Kyle Schole, a land use planner with the county 140 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. The hope is the designation would bring tourism and recreation to the area. 

While the first 48.5 km of the North Saskatchewan River is already designated within Banff National Park, the county wants the recognition extended for the entire Alberta section of the waterway — roughly 818 km. 

The Canadian Heritage Rivers System is a national program for recognizing the cultural and recreational values of waterways. It was established in 1984 and there are 40 heritage rivers recognized across the county. 

The Clearwater River is the only waterway in Alberta that is designated for its entirety.

The Saskatchewan Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefields in Banff National Park, is the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. More than 1,200 km later the river, after joining with the South Saskatchewan River, ends in the arctic waters of Hudson Bay, Man. (Submitted by Kyle Schole)

"I think it's an incredible opportunity for everybody to revisit some of the misunderstandings of history and the myths," river historian Billie Milholland said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active

If not for the North Saskatchewan, she said, Western Canada would not have seen settlement as early as it did. 

History of the river

When the Calgary and Edmonton Railway railway reached Strathcona (which later became part of Edmonton) in the early 1890s, there were few roads.

New settlers would arrive, build a boat and paddle the river to find a homestead, according to Milholland.

"There's bigger rivers than this one, but I don't think there's another that is so well connected."

Indigenous people and settlers used the river to access areas from Rocky Mountain House to Hudson Bay, approximately 1,000 km downstream.

Before the Second World War, the North Saskatchewan had an armada of steamboats for shipping passengers and freight. The river was used to float thousands of logs to sawmills yearly and was a source for commercial ice. 

"And that's not even touching on the period before glaciation. Saber-toothed tigers and mastodons and giant beavers are also found in the riverbanks," said Milholland.

The Cree referred to the river as the Kisiskatchewani Sipi, which meant "swift current river." By 1793, explorer Alexander Mackenzie called it on maps the Saskatchiwine. Its modern name was adopted in 1882, when the  provisional districts of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created. 

A pleasure ferry going down the North Saskatchewan River while onlookers watch. (Provincial Archives of Alberta, photo A2971)

The waterway flows through 16 municipalities in the province, including Smoky Lake County. 

"We're just a two-day canoe ride from Edmonton," said Schole. 

The county plans to finalize the nomination of the river this fall. The aim has garnered more than 47 letters of support, including from Edmonton city council and Sen. Paula Simons. 

"The river has helped to define my life," writes Simons. 

Now Smoky Lake County wants the Alberta section designated as a heritage river. We speak to Kyle Schole a planner with the county and Billie Milholland a river historian. 10:20

The County of Barrhead council voted against supporting the project last spring. 

"I'm always scared the more control you give the federal government because they don't seem to handle things well," said Coun. Darrell Troock in a local newspaper.  

Schole said the designation does not carry any legislation to stop future development along the river, but is meant to encourage tourism and help educate the public on its importance. 

"If folks are seeking to get industry out of the river, this isn't the program that's going to do it." 

However, the county's website notes the designation can encourage protection of water resources for future generations. 

If approved, annual reports will be compiled to describe changes, improvements and threats to the river.

Kyle Schole is spearheading the initiative at Smoky Lake County to get the heritage designation. He is also an avid kayaker on the river. (Suppled by Kyle Schole )


Liam Harrap

Digital Associate Producer

Liam Harrap is a journalist at CBC Edmonton. He is also a big fan of fruit and meat pies. Send story tips (and recipes) to him at liam.harrap@cbc.ca.