Rivers in Calgary: Explore the Flowing Gems of the City

Sarah Guide
24 Min Read
By Porbital on Unlimphotos

Calgary is a beautiful city known for its urban life and the urban amenities it provides alongside beautiful landscapes and biodiversity. The location of this vibrant city is the region of Alberta, Canada. Calgary owes much of its attractiveness to its magnificent river system.

The rivers in Calgary serve as an important part of Calgary’s geography, its history of development, and as well as part of the factors that allow the city to prosper.

In this article, we delve into detail about the rivers in Calgary. We explore how this diverse river system has enhanced the city’s allure altogether.


1. Geographical Overview of the Rivers in Calgary

When we talk about the rivers in Calgary, the most important ones are the Bow River and the Elbow River. These two rivers are important in structuring or shaping the country’s landscape and environment. This is because the meeting point of these two rivers is the location of Calgary.

The Bow River goes through the Banff National Park and flows eastward toward Calgary. It is a larger river than the Elbow River. It originates from the Canadian Rockies, which span the regions of British Columbia and Alberta.

There are many rivers within the range itself. The Canadian Rockies also prove to be a source of many river systems in Canada. The mountain range is also known for Mount Robson, the towering, jagged, iced-peak mountain. 

Calgary Skyline Night Reflection Bow River
Image by PictureGuy on Unlimphotos

The Elbow River originates from the Elbow Pass of the Rocky Mountains. It meets the Bow River at the junction in Calgary. The source water of this river is the glacier melt water that is from the retreating Rae Glacier and the Elbow Lake. 

Calgary is a city that is known for working effectively for the preservation of its natural environment. The rivers of this city are a valuable natural resource. This is because the rivers provide enrichment to the environment of the city. Numerous interconnected pathways form the river’s pathways. These networks of parks and pathways are along the riverbanks.

Therefore, the beautiful green landscape, the magnificent rivers, and the parks have become an important part of the urban experience of people living and visiting the city of Calgary. Networks of pathways and parks allow citizens to enjoy activities like hiking, biking, fishing, etc. 

2. History and Importance of Rivers in Calgary

The two main rivers of Calgary, known as the Bow River and the Elbow River, are ancient rivers that have existed since pre-glacial times. This means that these rivers have existed for more than 2.5 million years. Today’s rivers existed in the Holocene period, which occurred ten thousand years ago. 

The glaciers that survived can be found at the icy peaks of the Rocky Mountains (the Canadian Rockies). These are what make the Bow and Elbow Rivers in Calgary. 

2.1 The First Nations

The association of any human history with the rivers in Calgary started with the First Nations. The First Nations is an official term used to refer to indigenous people in Canada who are not Inuit or Métis. To date, Canada recognized 634 first nation governments across the nation. 

first nation women wooden sculpture
By AllThingsCoastal on Pixabay

These rivers served as vital sources for indigenous people. These indigenous people were the Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina Nations, and Stoney Nakoda. This was before the Europeans entered Canada and established their settlements.

These people used these rivers as a reliable source. The rivers were mostly used for transportation and as shelter. They were also used for fuel and food. Bow River had water cycles that usually resulted in flooding. Therefore, the First Nations created trails, a system that used the valleys along the Bow River to create routes for transportation. 

2.2 Permanent Settlement

Settlers arrived in the area around the late 19th Century and thus began the origin of the establishment of the city and its development and growth. 

The permanent occupation of the plains along the rivers in Calgary began with the establishment of Fort Calgary. This was also followed by the trading post of Hudson’s Company in 1875. These permanent settlers were also building it at the junction of the Bow River and the Elbow River. A Catholic mission was also built near the Elbow River. The location was further ahead, in a little more upstream location. 

Floods were frequent visitors during these times. The settlement made along the shores of these rivers would get quickly replaced. There wasn’t much use available at that time and just a single bridge for use. Irrigation and Agriculture were the main purposes of the Bow River, and the Elbow River was used for irrigation and agricultural purposes. 

2.3 Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) 

It was the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) served as an important point in history that boosted the urban development of Calgary. The location of the urban community was along the junction of the rivers in Calgary through 1883.

CPR sold lands across the region, leading to the development of floodplain communities. During the period after 1900, floods became a major feature of Calgary. 

The Story Of The Canadian Pacific Railway

The rivers were the main attraction of traders. This was because the river was used for transportation, the building industry, and therefore utilization of resources. This area was where the two rivers in Calgary had great potential for setting up businesses.

Therefore, in the early years, the construction of trade posts and lumber mills surrounded the rivers in Calgary.  The transportation network in Calgary was improving by connecting its rivers with other settlements and cities in the surrounding regions, thus expanding the area’s reach.

2.4 Floods

This rapid development brought the risk of flooding. The nature of the Bow River is such that, during weather like heavy rainfall or during the season when snow melts rapidly, this river floods easily and rapidly. Therefore, there was a lot of damage subjected to the construction sites built near the banks of this river.

These natural risks led to the development of many flood reduction projects that will help the city survive the effects of floods. The aim was that the flood would have minimal effects on the workings of the city. 

How Calgary has changed since the 2013 flood

Today, the rivers in Calgary are still an important part of the identity of Calgary. Therefore, the governance of this city is still actively trying to conserve these rivers. They also maintain their rich nature as they are integral to Calgary’s ecosystem.

3. The Rivers in Calgary

3.1 The Bow River

In the previous section, we briefly touched on the Bow River’s significance. This section of the article delves into the geographical significance of this river, its history, and its impact on other rivers in Calgary. 

scenic bow river mountain landscape
By dennisflarsen on Pixabay

3.1.1 Historical Significance 

The Bow River spans across Alberta and is one of the major rivers in Calgary. This river in Calgary has its root in playing a significant role in providing sources to the indigenous people of Alberta. The important role of this river was to provide a source for irrigation and agriculture. The river also provided a means of transportation and trade. 

The origin of the name comes from the First Nations. The idea is that the First Nations used “bows” and arrows to hunt near the shore of Bow Rivers in Calgary. 

As mentioned earlier, in the 19th century, the river helped the settlement of western Canada. The river is also known for the territories of European traders (fur traders). Additionally, the settlers set up their settlements along the floodplain of the rivers. During the Western Canadian Expansion, there was a  need to establish law and order, so the Royal Canadia Mountain Police established several forts. 

3.1.2 Geographical Feature of Bow Rivers in Calgary

The Bow River has a basin size of 26,200 km². The river eventually flows into the Hudson Bay through the Nelson River. The Bow River is around 587 kilometers long and originates from the Canadian Rockies near Bow Lake. It flows through the Banff National Park and meets the Oldman River in Alberta. 

The major source of water for the Bow River is the melting glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. Therefore, the water of this river proves to be cold and clear. As it flows past the lush landscapes, the river becomes more meandering. Bow River is one of the rivers in Calgary that is significant in shaping the scenic and natural views of the city. 

The Bow River

3.1.3 Recreational Activity at Bow Rivers in Calgary

It’s no doubt that one of the main identities of Calgary is the Bow River. It flows through the city, allowing tourists and citizens to participate in many fun activities. Listed below are some of the recreational activities provided by the river. 

  • Fishing: The Bow River has abundant trout in its habitat. These rivers in Calgary provide an excellent opportunity for fishing lovers. Fishing enthusiasts can engage in fishing activities to catch fish like rainbow and brown trout. Fly fishing is a type of fishing where they use an artificial fly as bait on a rod. This is also extremely popular. 
  • Boating: Preferable timings for boating is during summer and when the warmness of the season is at full peak. This river becomes a designated spot for people to canoe, kayak, and boat along the streams of the water. 
  • Parks: Many parks in Calgary, such as the Banff National Park and the Chutes Provincial Park, are must-visit. Visitors can enjoy a hike along the trails and pathways built around this river. This is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life and a peaceful retreat. 

3.1.4 Conservation of Bow Rivers in Calgary

The Bow River is an important and integral part of the ecosystem of Calgary. Therefore, much effort has been devoted to its preservation and conservation. Organizations and governments are actively trying to preserve the continuity of these rivers in Calgary. 

  1. Monitoring the Quality of Water: Water Quality Monitoring is a regular check of the quality of water in the Bow River. This helps to detect any poor damage caused by pollution to the River. It will help to check for damage that might harm the marine life of these rivers in Calgary. 
  2. Invasive Species: Invasive species are plants and animals in an environment they don’t belong in. These species grow and spread at a fast pace. As a result of this, they ruin the biodiversity of the new environment they’ve taken over. The government takes care of the management of such invasive species. In this way, they ensure a healthy balance of the ecosystem in the Bow River. 
  3. Restoration: Greenlands and landscapes are usually taken up due to urban development or for agriculture. This harms the shores of the Bow River. The Restoration Program works to protect the shores and riverbanks by preventing erosion. They also help to protect the various species that have found a home along the banks of the Bow River. 

To conclude, the Bow River has deep historical roots and cultural significance in Calgary. Therefore it becomes important for humans to protect it. Preserving things for future generations to cherish in the years to come is important.

3.2. Elbow River

One of the important rivers in Calgary is the Elbow River. 

winter river scene snowy banks reflective water
By jballem on Pixabay

3.2.1 Origination of Elbow Rivers in Calgary 

As we had briefly discussed before, the Elbow Rivers in Calgary originate from the Canadian Rockies. Much of its water is from the melting glaciers. The river meets the Bow River at the center and heart of the city of Calgary.  

Traders and settlers gave the name ‘Elbow’ to the location. These traders and settlers noticed the unique U-shape of the river that looked like an elbow. Elbow River in Calgary forms a unique elbow shape at its meeting point with the Bow River. It remains one of the river’s defining features. 

3.2.2 Important Landmarks

The Elbow River flows through several amazing, must-see landmarks that catch the eye of tourists and citizens alike. 

  • Elbow Falls: If you love to sit around nature and look forward to peace from the hectic city life, then this is just perfect for you. Drive to the west of Calgary and enter Kannakais City to view the scenic and beautiful Elbow Falls. These calm cascading waterfalls are soothing and soup for your soul. 
  • Elbow River Casino: If you are looking to enjoy a river’s natural beauty. And also looking for a lively place full of life, do not wait even a moment to visit this place. A perfect spot for gaming, dining, and enjoying life performances awaits you as you enjoy the scenic beauty of this river. 
  • Stanley Park: A perfect spot for a picnic date or a family outing. This is a treasure in the middle of fast-paced city life. 

3.2.3 Elbow River and Urban Planning

The development of Calgary was built around the scenic view of the Elbow River. The scenic view of the river has led to the establishment of parks and residential areas. To cater to the city’s citizens’ demands and provide a wide range of activities. Many organizations built establishments. 

Several notable bridges in the city are built inspired by the flowing river. They are important landmarks because they do the job of functioning as structures important for tourist attractions.

3.2.4 Fun Activities at Elbow Rivers in Calgary

Like the Bow River, the Elbow River serves as a gem for providing fun activities for tourists and citizens.

  • Pathways: The construction of numerous paths and trails aligns with the course and movement of the river. They serve as an ideal spot for jogging, running, hikes, and picnics.
  • Fishing: Just like the Bow River, the Elbow River is a popular fishing spot in Calgary. Anglers can enjoy fishing for cutthroat trout in this river.
  • Canoeing: This river is a gem for fun activities like canoeing and kayaking. Bring along your friends on a warm summer day to enjoy the streams of these rivers in Calgary. 
  • Wildlife Viewing: The river is a rich and resource habitat for several small animals as well as birdlife. Birdwatching and encountering wildlife are some of the activities that you can enjoy, thanks to this river in Calgary. 

Therefore, this tells us how important a role River Elbow plays in the functioning of the city of Calgary.

3.4. The Highwood Rivers in Calgary

The Highwood River flows through the heart of the Alberta Province. It is an essential water source for Calgary. The Highwood River is one of the rivers in Calgary that also helps maintain Calgary’s natural vicinity and habitat.

The Highwood River lies to the southwest of Calgary. Therefore is important for the agricultural and urban development of the city. This river in Calgary is important not only because of the utility it provides but also because of the fun activities and aesthetics. 

3.4.1 Importance of Highwood Rivers in Calgary

The Highwood River serves two important functions in Calgary. Firstly, this river supplies water directly to the municipal water pipeline of Calgary. Therefore, the river is one of the main spices of water for the entire city.

Secondly, the river’s water serves as a source for irrigation and agriculture. Therefore, many fertile lands are found on the bank of the Highwood River. The river helps in maintaining the rich soil found at the bank of this River. Therefore, the fertile agricultural lands found at the banks of this river thrive because of this river. 

Highwood River Day Use in Kananaskis | Journey Alberta

3.4.2 Ecology and Biodiversity of Highwood Rivers in Calgary

The area surrounding the Highwood River is rich. It is a vital habit for a wide array of wildlife species and bird species. Birds like the Canadian goose, herons, and ospreys habituate the lush green landscapes at the banks of this river. The river’s fish population is the major source of attraction for these birds. 

Anglers and fishing enthusiasts are also attracted by the Highwood River. This is because the river is home to a wide variety of fish species, such as trout and whitefish. The Highwood River also contributes to several wetlands as well as marshes. Furthermore, the involvement of the river in all of these natural instances tells us about the ecological importance of this river. 

3.4.3 Challenges Faced by the Highwood Rivers in Calgary

Despite the ecological importance of the Highwood River, water pollution and habitat contamination harm the river. Human development, constant use of land for agriculture as well as the development of industries has led to a decline in the water quality index of the river. Climate change is also a significant contributor to the decreasing quality of the river.

3.5. The Sheep River: One of the Serene Rivers in Calgary

The Sheep River originates from the Canadian Rockies, just like the Bow River and Elbow River. It flows to the west of Calgary. Due to its closeness to the city of Calgary, it has become a popular visiting site for city people as well as tourists from around the world. This river is part of the watershed of Bow River and flows through the Sheep River Provincial Park. It meets the Highwood River eastward of Okotoks. 

3.5.1 Attractions at the Sheep River

One of the prime attractions built around this river is the Sheep River Provincial Park. This park allows you to hike on trails, horse riding, and even fishing. 

A lush green landscape surrounds the river and is a scenic attraction in itself. The Sheep Rivers provides a serene and jaw-dropping atmosphere to its visitors. It has a wide array of wildlife, the rolling hills, and the greenery. Beautiful meadows that span the banks of the rivers and the rocky outcrops are captivating and a beautiful sight to enjoy. 

Sheep River Falls | Kananaskis Provincial Park Alberta (4K)

Another Provincial Park that is a must-visit is Blue Rock Provincial Park. The park has clean and clear turquoise-colored water. Blue Rock Provincial Park is also popular for a picnic, birdwatching, and hiking. 

4. Conclusion

To summarise, as stated in this article, the Highwood River, the Sheep River, the Bow River, and the Elbow Rivers are some of the rivers in Calgary that serve as important natural treasures. There should be active efforts taken by people to conserve and preserve it and to let it thrive.

One can only do it by maintaining a delicate balance between human development and ecological conversation. These rivers need to thrive and prosper. Furthermore, these rivers need to thrive for future generations to see.

Last Updated on by Sanjana

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