North Saskatchewan River, AB - Travis Grant
My Watermark is the North Saskatchewan River, Alberta.
Growing up in Edmonton in the 80s, everyone used to say that the North Saskatchewan River was filthy and that you wouldn’t want to fall in. There might have been some truth to it in those days. Conservation wasn’t what it is now, and as efforts to protect our water sources increase, so to has the river’s fortunes.
Still, lots of people in Edmonton espouse the stereotype that the North Saskatchewan River is dirty. Maybe it’s because the spring and summer flow brought on by melting snow and glacial ice delivers heavy silt into the river from its tributaries, giving it a muddy look in the months when most people are out, enjoying the river valley.
By September, when the silt has slowed, the river clears and a faint teal colour caused by rock flour — a glacial silt that absorbs all colours of the spectrum except blues and greens — gives the water a beautiful hue as it bends and winds its way through the city.
In the early 90s, my father used to take me fishing where the Sturgeon River flows into the North Saskatchewan. In the swirling eddy where the two rivers meet, we caught walleye, sauger, goldeye, northern pike, burbot, and a few different species of sucker. The North Saskatchewan was alive, and I began to understand that there was more to the story than a dirty old river flowing through a neglectful prairie city.
In my late 20s, my fascination with the river grew. I planned multi-day paddling trips, putting in my canoe near Drayton Valley and mapping fishing holes and good camping spots along the way. My favourite evenings are like the one I had at the end of June, 2016. The muddy silt didn’t arrive until mid July, so the water was still clear, thickening to a gorgeous teal as the water deepened. After several hours on the river, we came around a lazy bend and paddled out of the main flow, into a massive eddy that stretched for about 100 yards in front of an anonymous island.
We set up camp and collected smooth logs from tangles of driftwood along the shore for the fire later that night. By early evening, we had our rods rigged with heavy gear for sturgeon. 20 lb braided line, a slip weight, a 2 ft leader, a single hook, and an enticing clew of worms, meant to wriggle in the current to attract the hungry fish.
The sun never really set that evening. As it dipped on the horizon, bands of pastel streaked the sky then faded to a persistent twilight, just dark enough for the constellations to announce themselves. A resident beaver frequently slapped its tail, disjointed by unfamiliar guests near its dam. With dusk came the plaintive whine of coyotes, as they emerged from their dens for the night. Around 11:00 pm, a rod bent under the weight of a sturgeon. My friend set the hook and hurriedly landed the fish, not wanting to exhaust it from a prolonged fight.
The fish had scoots along its lateral lines and back, which had dulled with age. But at one time they would have been razor sharp, providing protection from other fish. Its nose was pointed, with barbels hanging underneath, in front of a sucker-like mouth evolved over millions of years for feeding off the river bottom. Its shark-like tail and smooth, scaleless skin were an oddity compared to other fish in Alberta. Sturgeon are beautiful, enigmatic, survivors in a river that I hope rises up in people’s consciousness as something worth protecting and enjoying.
There are many more stories from my time on the river. It’s tough to elegantly capture the experience and what it means to me, personally. I just hope whoever reads this can feel what I mean and gain a sense of wonder and curiosity about this amazing waterway, the North Saskatchewan River.