The Athabasca River rises in the glaciers of Alberta’s Jasper National Park, one of the most beautiful areas of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. For 168 kilometres the river passes below spectacular snow-covered peaks, many rising more than 2,500 metres above the valley floor. Not seen by white men until the early 19th century, the river’s upper valley played a significant role in the development of the Canadian west for more than 100 years. A major fur trade route, the valley also has close connections with the surveying and mapping of western Canada, and with the building of railways and roads which have linked this country from east to west. The Athabasca is accessible by both road and rail from all major centres in Alberta and British Columbia and offers excellent canoeing, kayaking, hiking and rafting with all of the attendant services and facilities usually found in Canada’s national parks.
Because of this outstanding natural beauty, historical significance and importance for river recreation, the section of the Athabasca River within Jasper National Park has been nominated as a Canadian Heritage River.
The Athabasca River as a whole is the longest river in Alberta, winding 1,538 km through mountains, prairies, forests and muskeg to Lake Athabasca in Wood Buffalo National Park. One of the major drainage conduits for western Canada, the Athabasca originates in the Columbia Icefield, a 325 square kilometre area along the Continental Divide, and flows across three of the major physiographic regions of Canada, namely the Rocky Mountains, the Interior Plains and the Canadian Shield.
The section of the Athabasca River nominated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System is 168 km long and lies entirely within Jasper National Park. Here, the river flows swiftly through the mountains, sometimes through narrow, confined channels, with gorges, rapids and waterfalls; other times, in wide, open, braided river channels with alluvial flats more than a kilometre wide.
Near and within the Athabasca River corridor, several outstanding and unique natural features provide evidence of the earth’s developmental history, and of the action of water, wind and glaciers in re-shaping the surrounding landscape. Notable among these are:
Prior to the arrival of the white man, Sekani, Shuswap, Kootenay, Salish, Stoney and Cree tribes hunted and fished along the Athabasca River. With the advent of the fur trade, Iroquois also came into the area. Expansion of the fur trade westward is associated with at least two well-known Canadian explorers. Working for the Northwest Company, David Thompson, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, travelled through the Athabasca Pass in 1811, establishing Canada’s first transcontinental route. William Henry, who travelled with Thompson on his expeditions, stayed behind in the Athabasca valley over the winter, building Henry House and establishing the first base camp in the area near present-day Jasper.
The development of land transportation systems in western Canada can be traced back to the Overlanders of 1862, a group of 250 people from Upper Canada who crossed the Yellowhead Pass, ascended the Athabasca during what was called the Cariboo Goldrush, and settled in British Columbia. Two transcontinental railways, the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern, later to be combined as the Canadian National Railways, were constructed in the Athabasca valley.
At the turn of the century, the railroads in the valley became the focus of attention for the creation of a national park and , in 1907, ‘Jasper Forest Park’ was established. Road building along the Athabasca River culminated in the construction of the Yellowhead Highway connecting Jasper to Edmonton and later the Banff-Jasper Highway. Officially opened in 1940, this later highway has become known to millions of tourists as the Icefields Parkway, one of the most beautiful scenic highways in the world.
Within Jasper National Park, five National Historic Site plaques commemorate various aspects of the fascinating history of the Athabasca River. The fur-trade is commemorated by Jasper House. David Thompson, Discoverer of the Athabasca Pass and Henry House plaques commemorate surveying and mapping; and land transportation is recognized by the Athabasca Pass and The Overlanders of 1862 plaques.
River Touring: The Athabasca offers a challenging array of river recreation experiences for advanced to experienced canoeists. The river can be described as having three reaches. A 51 km stretch just upstream of Jasper townsite is suitable for advanced to expert white-water paddlers in kayaks, rafts and covered canoes. Accessing the river from the River Bend picnic site, paddlers must be aware of the portage required at Athabasca Falls. A 58 km section downstream of Jasper townsite, accessible from several locations, contains stretches suitable for rafts, canoes and kayaks although some sections here should be attempted only by canoeists and kayakers; with advanced skills. An upper 59 km reach is difficult to reach but may be rafted.
The Athabasca has become popular for river trips in recent years with nearly 1,300 visitor-use days recorded annually. It. is best travelled from mid-June to the end of August. Mid-channel obstructions and channel bars may present a hazard during early June and in September. Cold water temperatures, due to the river’s glacial source, require special precautions for canoeists and kayakers such as wearing wet gear and helmets year-round due to the very real and potentially fatal danger of hypothermia. Half-day and full-day guided group raft excursions on the river are available daily from early June through late September.
Fishing: The silty, swift headwaters of Rocky Mountain rivers are not ideal habitat for fish and the Athabasca is no exception. Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, pike, and Rocky Mountain white-fish are native game fish found in small numbers along the river. Fishing is permitted year-round on the Athabasca, although a national park fishing permit is required. Permits may be obtained from the park information centres and local sporting goods stores.
Camping: Camping near the river is provided at two large serviced campgrounds, Wabasso and Wapiti, and at Mount Kerkeslin and smaller unserviced campgrounds. Several other campgrounds are located within a short drive. Along the river, two primitive campsites have been established for river users, one on a large island just upstream of Jasper Lake and the other on the Fiddle River fan. All overnight campers in Jasper’s backcountry must obtain park-use permits from a park information centre prior to their departure.
Accommodation and Services: The towns of Hinton, Alberta and Valemount, B.C. provide accommodation and other services for park visitors, but the town of Jasper, situated within the park, is the main starting point and supply depot for most trips. Located on the shore of the Athabasca at the intersection of Highways 16 and 93, 287 km north of Banff, Jasper is administered and operated year-round by Parks Canada and provides a full range of visitor services and facilities. Information on accommodation, campgrounds, river access points, local boat rentals, rafting outfitters, fishing and trail guides, and interpretive services and brochures is available at the two gateways to Jasper, and from the Park Information Centre at 500 Connaught Drive in Jasper. The reception centre is open year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. from mid-June to Labour Day.
Access: The Athabasca is accessible by car with a 370 km drive from Edmonton along Highway 16 (the Yellowhead Highway), and from Calgary, 415 km along the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway). Rail access from most points in Canada is also possible with scheduled stops at the Jasper station. Views of the river are frequent along the highways and rail-line. More leisurely sightseeing is provided at numerous highway pull offs, campgrounds, and bridge crossings, many of which are good locations for starting or completing river trips.
Topographic maps: Maps of the river at 1:50,000 scale are: #83C/3,4,5,12,13, 83D/16, 83E/l, and 83F/4,5 in the National Topographic Series. They are available from: The Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, Ontario, KIA OE9, Tel: (613) 952–7000 (http://maps.NRCan.gc.ca) and the Visitor Information Centres – the Jasper Townsite Centre open year-round and the Icefields Centre open during the summer months.
“Ten Year Report for the Athabasca as a Canadian Heritage River”, available from Parks Canada Board member (see “Contact Us”)
Athabasca River and Jasper National Park Services, Permits and Regulations: Before finalizing plans to canoe or kayak on the Athabasca River, visitors are strongly advised to write to the Superintendent, Jasper National Park, P.O. Box 10, Jasper, Alberta, TOE 1E0 or visit http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/index_e.asp.
Tourist Information: Travel Alberta, Box 2500, Edmonton, Alberta, T5J 2Z4 or at www.travelalberta.com/
Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994–2913, Fax (819) 997–0835. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gadd, Ben.“Handbook of the Canadian Rockies”. Corax Press. Jasper. Box 1557. 1986.
MacGregor, J.G. “Paddle Wheels to Bucket-Wheels on the Athabasca”. McClelland and Stewart & Ltd. Toronto. 1974.
Thomson, Dave. “A Parting of Ways - Across the Divide By Canoe” Explore. April/May, 1986
Nisbet, Jack, “Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America”, Sasquatch Books, 1994