About the Bow River
The Bow River begins as a mountain stream in Banff National Park. The river winds through the Canadian Rockies, out onto Alberta's foothills, through Calgary, and onto the vast prairie. 657 kilometres downstream from its headwaters, the Bow River joins with the Oldman River to form the main stem of the South Sasatchewan River — and ultimately, these waters make their way to Hudson's Bay.
The Bow River watershed is vast: At 25,000 square kilometers, it is slightly larger than the state of New Hampshire. Its watershed is fed by numerous tributary rivers including the Pipestone, Cascade, Spray, Kananaskis, Ghost, Elbow, Sheep and Highwood.
From its glacial origins on the continental divide, the Bow River drops over 2600 metres - an elevation change more than four times the height of Toronto's CN Tower.
Where does the Bow River get its water?
Contrary to popular myth, the majority of the Bow's waters does NOT come from glacial melt. In fact, less than one percent of annual flows can be attributed to glaciers. But this does not mean that glacial contribution to the river's flows are insignificant. For thousands of years, glaciers have been an important source of water in the Bow River. This is a particularly true during the summer and early fall months when glacial melt makes up a greater portion of the flows of the river.
A People's History of the Bow River
The first people that came to live in the Bow Valley came here 11,000 years ago to set up summer hunting camps. They hunted the wooly mammoth, giant bison, moose, and caribou.
In the early 1800's, European explorers - including Canada's most famous cartographer, David Thompson — came to the Bow River region to explore the Rocky Mountains and learned how to cross its high peaks and icefields to the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) selected the forks of the Bow and Elbow rivers to establish Fort Calgary — a historic site you can visit to this day. In September of 1875 the NWMP erected a stockade log fort at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. By 1884 the population of Calgary had risen to 500 and the town of Calgary was incorporated. Today, Calgary is Alberta's largest city with a population of over one million.
A World Famous River
Sir John A. MacDonald, our country's first prime minister, acquired Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870. Anxious to expand Canadian settlements, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was to be the link that joined Canada from coast to coast. The CPR had several possible routes, but ultimately decided to build its railway along the Bow River, and through the Kicking Horse pass into British Columbia.
The construction of the railway drew worldwide attention and opened the area for mining, logging, and tourism. By the 1920s and 30s the road from Calgary had improved and newly-developed campsites made Banff a playground for Calgarians, while wildlife viewing and the spectacular mountain scenery drew visitors from around the globe.
The History of Use of the Bow River
Coal: Canmore's burgeoning coal industry relied heavily on the Bow River's fresh water supply for prospecting and processing. The coal industry survived a challenging economic climate through the two world wars and the Great Depression but finally succumbed to unviable operating costs and closed permanently in 1979. Between 1886 and 1979 Canmore Mines produced 16 million tons of coal.
Hydropower: The Bow River descends rapidly from mountains and foothills, making it a powerful and valuable source of hydroelectric power. The right to control and develop the river waters was often a contentious issue as provincial, federal and private interests competed for control. In 1911 Calgary Power began installing plants and dams at Minnewanka, Horseshoe Falls, Kananaskis River and Ghost River to name a few - today there are eleven hydroelectric projects in the watershed. Historically the Bow River was important for providing electricity to the national park and Calgary, but today these power plants provide only a small fraction of southern Alberta's electricity.
Fishing: The fish of the Bow River have been a source of food and recreation for tens of thousands people. Historically, it was a significant source of food for First Nations. Today, the Bow River is visited by thousands of anglers every year for enjoyment. More than half of the length of the Bow River is home to fish species such as rainbow and bull trout. Other species of fish on the Bow River include sturgeon, pike and walleye. While the most common species is the mountain whitefish, populations of native cutthroat and bull trout have been reduced significantly.
Hunting: Various First Nations moved through and lived in the Rocky Mountain foothills to trade and hunt. The Piikani, Tsuu T'ina and Nakoda relied on the bison that wintered there. A vital source of water in a dry landscape, the Bow River and its tributaries also supported deer, elk, moose and beaver populations.
Ranching: Cattle ranching began in southwestern Alberta soon after the Northwest Mounted Police arrived in 1874. From the start, large ranchers conflicted with smaller ranchers and homesteaders over the right of access to water. Unlike wild bison that roamed the plains and foothills for thousands of years, fence-enclosed cattle caused intense erosion to streambeds and grazing on pastures. Today, successful cattle ranchers must be environmental stewards and protect the watershed's ecology.
Lumber: Between 1883 and 1943 the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company cut and floated harvested lumber down the Bow River to Calgary. The annual log drive, involving 16 kilometer-long log booms, took months to complete and at times proved deadly: In 1887 six men were killed when their raft went over Kananaskis Falls!
Agriculture: In the prairies, the Bow's waters are used for irrigation agriculture. The Northwest Irrigation Act of 1894 and CPR took strict control over the river in an attempt to make best use of the Bow River's meager water supply in order to ensure reliable crop irrigation. Today, the livelihood of rural Albertans continues to depend upon the southern prairies' extensive system of canals, dams and reservoirs.
A Vital Resource
Today, over one million people live within the Bow River basin. Most of these people live in Calgary but there are more than 40 communities throughout the watershed.
Every year, thousands of people use the Bow River for recreation, making it an important economic resource. Thousands of people use the Kananaskis River, a major tributary river, for white-water rafting. And over 40 Bow River guiding and outfitting companies rely on the Bow River to serve at least 3,000 fly fishers every year, bringing $30 million into the local economy.