Paddling the Athabasca River/Introduction

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Introduction to this Guide

Stemming from the melt water of the Athabasca Glacier and other outlets of the Columbia Icefields, the Athabasca River flows 1300 kilometres across Alberta to its mouth at the Peace-Athabasca Delta. These waters fill Athabasca Lake and eventually drain north to the Arctic Ocean by way of the Slave River, Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River Delta. The Athabasca traverses three major physiographic regions, carving through the geological landforms of the Cordilleran, the Interior Plains and the Canadian Shield. It is the longest undammed river in the province and the longest river that flows entirely within the borders of Alberta. The waters of the Athabasca connect the natural history and the human heritage of our province and the river is an important economic and recreational resource. This guide describes a canoe trip from Whitecourt to Athabasca, travelling almost 350 km through the boreal forests of northern Alberta. Paddlers may choose to do a portion of the trip described in this guide, complete it in full, or paddle this section as part of an even longer adventure down the Athabasca.

Human history

For generations, the Athabasca River Basin was home to several Aboriginal groups including the Sekani, Shuswap, Kootenay, Salish, Stoney and Cree tribes. In 1811, David Thompson was famously the first European to cross the Athabasca Pass and connect an overland route across the continent. As the fur trade developed and transportation routes were established, the Athabasca River played a crucial role in providing access for people and products. The York Factory Express, an important transportation and communication route used during the fur trade, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson’s Bay, followed the Athabasca River from Jasper House to Fort Assiniboine before traversing overland to Fort Edmonton. As the Fur Trade diminished, the importance of these overland routes was re-established with the discovery of gold in British Columbia. The migration of the Overlanders in 1862, a group from Upper Canada who travelled up the Athabasca River as part of the Caribou Gold Rush, helped to solidify these transportation corridors. Likewise, the Klondike Trail crossed the Athabasca River as pioneers journeyed north in search of gold. The Athabasca region was also an important component in the construction of railways and highways which opened access to the West and bridged the vast distances of Canada.

Geology and Natural Resources

Following the last glacial maximum, enormous ice sheets began retreating, leaving in their wake the thick deposits of glacial till and outwash which can still be seen today. The surficial geology of the foothills is dominated by glacially derived material, and the banks of the Athabasca often showcase glaciofluvial and glaciolacustrine deposits which have been exposed by the eroding forces of the river. Long before the cyclical glaciations of the Quaternary Period (approximately the last two million years), the area that is now Alberta was episodically submerged beneath a shallow sea. What is now cool Boreal Forest was once a tropical swamp inhabited by dinosaurs. Carbon deposited under these early warm, wet conditions was converted over tens to hundreds of millions of years to the important fossil fuel resources used today. Coal, oil and natural gas reserves are a key component of Alberta’s economy, including the Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray.

Aside from fossil fuels, the Athabasca River and surrounding area has been providing valuable resources to the region’s inhabitants since the earliest human settlement, including fish, fur, game, forestry products, and mineral resources. Today, the Athabasca River Basin is a key provider of wood products, feeding five pulp and lumber mills along the river. Sand, gravel, limestone, vanadium and peat are also quarried or mined within the basin and the water is used for drinking as well as agricultural and industrial purposes. Many aboriginal communities rely on the river for fishing, hunting, transportation and recreation.

While the industries associated with the Athabasca are a major economic asset, concerns have been raised regarding the environmental stresses that these industries put on the river. Water contamination, eutrophication and decreased dissolved oxygen levels, changes in water flow volume and winter ice patterns, loss of habitat, and impacts on the traditional cultural practices of local residents are just some of the difficulties being tackled. Balancing the economic, environmental and social issues of a large-scale river basin is complex and requires extensive research and planning. If you are interested in knowing more about the economic, environmental and social interactions in the Athabasca River Basin, see the Northern River Basins Study of 1996. This report can be viewed online at

Flora and Fauna

Encompassing extensive boreal forests, sand dune complexes and important wetland ecosystems, the Athabasca River Basin provides crucial habitat for numerous species. Between Whitecourt and Athabasca, the boreal forest comprises primarily black and white spruce, lodgepole pine, balsam poplar, trembling aspen, and white birch. Numerous bogs, fens, and marshes, as well as a variety of grasslands, are found interspersed within these forested areas.

Wildlife in this zone includes beaver, deer, moose, snowshoe hare, river otter and black bear. Bird life is also abundant, and bald eagles, owls, and woodpeckers abound. Bird watchers will delight in spotting a variety of warblers, siskins, thrushes, flycatchers, kinglets, vireos and others. The Athabasca is also home to a wide assortment of fish, including walleye, northern pike, arctic grayling, goldeye, burbot, bull trout and rainbow trout. For those wanting to angle, an Alberta Fishing Permit is required. Likewise hunting is only permitted with a licence. See for information about Alberta regulations on hunting, fishing and trapping.

Seeing wildlife is definitely one of the highlights of any canoe trip and this section of river is great for sightings. It is important to respect the wildlife and natural areas that you will encounter on this trip. Never approach or feed wildlife and always practice no-trace camping. Be particularly aware of bears, which do inhabit the stretch of river described in this guide. We spotted bear tracks along the riverbanks in more than one location. Being cognizant of bear safety and proper wilderness camping procedures is crucial.

Recreation on the Athabasca River

Along with being a great canoe destination, the Athabasca River Basin is a popular location for hunting, fishing, trapping, boating, snowmobiling, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, horseback riding, hiking and camping. Make yourself aware of the regulations in place for any of these activities in the specific areas that you are using. In August, Whitecourt Riverboat Park is home to the Annual Jet Boat Races, so you will want to check that your canoe trip does not line up directly with this event (call Paddy at 780-778-0388 for information). Be mindful of water navigation rules which are described in detail on the website Canadian Safe Boating Course Always practice cautious fire use, particularly during the dry summer months when forest fires can be easily ignited and incredibly devastating. Strictly observe any fire bans that are in place at the time of your trip. You can check the fire hazard level at

River Characteristics

It is important to recognize that rivers are not static entities, and that the characteristics of any river will change over the course of years, months, days, and even hours. The level of flow varies dramatically over each paddling season and in response to weather events. As flow volume changes, so do the current velocity and how the river appears and behaves. The level of difficulty and danger is affected by these changes and it is important to check the current flow level before setting out on your trip. For a trip between Whitecourt and Athabasca, you can check the current water level on the Government of Alberta website at It is a good idea to check the flows of both the Athabasca River and the McLeod River (there are stations on both of these rivers just upstream of Whitecourt) to ensure that you will not be setting off during a flood or high flow. The Windfall station (just upstream of Whitecourt on the Athabasca branch) should be reporting 125-500 cms of water for good paddling. Most of the time the river will be within these bounds, but be aware of what hazards and difficulties arise at high or low water levels. At low water, shallow sections will require some manoeuvring around rocks and gravel bars, but rapids will generally be less of an issue and logjams/sweepers are more likely to be stranded on banks and therefore not a problem. At high water the speed of the current will be greater and therefore the time available for decision-making is decreased. Rapids, logjams, sweepers are of greater concern. Take note that because rivers change over time, the information in this guide may differ from your experience on the river.

Using this Guide:

We paddled the Athabasca River from Whitecourt to Athabasca in October 2010. During this trip we gathered as much information as we could about the character of the river, potential campsites along the route, and interesting highlights we encountered. Our guide is not comprehensive, errors may exist and the changing nature of the river may result in our paddling experience being significantly different than your own. GPS coordinates were taken while we were paddling and were validated and edited with Google Earth. The accuracy of points may vary.

We have divided the route between Whitecourt and Athabasca into 12 days of paddling with an average day length of about 30 km. We have set out recommended campgrounds for the end of each day, trying to find spots which have some established amenities, but please take note that these are backcountry wilderness campsites, not maintained by anyone other than river users. While we tried to include any other suitable camping spots that we saw along the way, there are undoubtedly many other potential sites that we missed. Our day divisions are recommendations but you will most likely find yourself plotting your own course which may differ from ours. Strong paddlers will be able to cover this distance in significantly less time than the 12 days we have allotted. Along with the 12 river days described in this guide, we have also compiled information about some of the towns and attractions that paddlers will pass. Some of these are directly accessible from the river, such as the museum in Fort Assiniboine or the Hamlet of Smith. Others are not accessible from the canoe, but are a recommended side trip for the beginning or end of your journey.

To determine the daily paddling distance, we measured the most likely or most recommended path in Google Earth. Paddling Time is given as a range with the shorter time based on a 10km/hr travel rate and the longer time based on a 5 km/hr rate, with some adjustment based on our own experience. Please note that the speed of the river varies greatly with flow rate and may change dramatically over the course of the season or with particular weather events. For instance, at the Windfall Station, the river velocity varies from 2 km/hr to 10 km/hr with increasing flow volume.

The Rapid Class Number is based on the American Whitewater Association’s scale of river difficulty and other publications about this section of river. The Rapid Class rating for this section of river does not reach above Class I, except perhaps at very high water levels. Please do not assume that this means this stretch of river is harmless. Significant hazards exist, and the rapids on the section between Whitecourt and Fort Assiniboine will be challenging for inexperienced river paddlers. Even on days that we have categorized as having no rapids, turbulent sections of river may be encountered which will require attention and paddling skill.

Mobile phone access is patchy along this whole section of river. Bringing along a cell phone is not a bad idea, but there are long stretches where you may not have any reception. Closer to towns you are more likely to pick up a signal. If you are concerned about emergency communication, bring along a satellite phone. These can be rented in major cities.

The NTS maps that correspond to each river day are listed as “Required Maps”. We have included the 1:250 000 sheets as well as the 1:50 000 sheets. Because the Athabasca traverses so many of the 1:50 000 maps, you probably will not want to bring all of these along. Between Whitecourt and Athabasca, the route crosses four of the 1:250 000 maps: Whitecourt 83 J, Lesser Slave Lake 83 O, Pelican River 83 P, and Tawatinaw 83 I. These are a good resource and can be supplemented by also bring a GPS with uploaded maps. An Alberta Highways map and/or the Backroad Mapbook, or the Alberta Lands and Forest map sheets are other tools you may want to consider. Be sure you are familiar with the maps and instruments you are using. Coordinates of points in this guide are given in both UTM and Latitude/Longitude (WGS 1984 Datum) and are available for download as both .kmz files (which can be imported into Google Earth) and as .gpx files which can be imported into your GPS. The .gpx files are labelled as D--P--, referring to Day##, Point##. If you are unsure of how to use NTS Maps, there are useful resources, including a great tutorial, available through the Government of Canada website at

The terms “river left” and “river right” are often used in this guide to describe which side of the river a feature is located on. These directions are relative to an observer facing downstream.

We have tried in our guide to give the locations of potential emergency access points. These may be places where there is road access directly at the river, or spots where you may be able to easily reach a residence which would most likely have phone service. These are, as the name suggests, for emergencies. If you have cell phone reception or a satellite phone, the best number to call for help is 911.

Other Reaches on the Athabasca:

Nearly the entire length of the Athabasca can be incorporated into a canoe trip, and the river can offer a challenge for canoers of any experience level. This guide describes only the middle reaches between Whitecourt and Athabasca. Above this, the river can be paddled from Jasper to Whitecourt via Hinton. This stretch passes through the exceptionally scenic vistas of Jasper National Park and through the foothills for a total distance of about 300 km. Below Athabasca, another 400 km of paddling along this historically significant stretch will take you to Fort McMurray, passing exciting and challenging rapids along the way. Day-trips, multi-day trips and multi-week expeditions are all possible along the Athabasca. Be sure to do your research before setting out on any river trip. Great information on all sections of the Athabasca can be found in Mark Lund’s Guide for Alberta Paddlers.


Image 1 Number / Identifier PA140199.JPG
Image 1 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 1 Caption Mist over the Athabasca River
Image 2 Number / Identifier PA160335.JPG
Image 2 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 2 Caption Geese flying South
Image 3 Number / Identifier PA160368.JPG
Image 3 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 3 Caption Blue Skies on the Atha-B
Image 4 Number / Identifier PA170405.JPG
Image 4 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 4 Caption The Athabasca River
Image 5 Number / Identifier PA170414e.jpg
Image 5 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 5 Caption Moon Reflection in the Athabasca River
Image 6 Number / Identifier PA210510.JPG
Image 6 Credit Selena Phillips-Boyle
Image 6 Caption Approaching Athabasca – the final stretch!

Complementary GeoTourism Canada sites:

  • Athabacsa: Select Historical Sites – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • David Thompson – by Dallas Wood
  • Fort Assiniboine Museum – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Fort Assiniboine Sandhills Wildland Park – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Hamlet of Chisholm: History – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Hamlet of Fort Assiniboine – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Hamlet of Smith – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Holmes Crossing FLUZ and Ecological Reserve – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Klondyke (Vega) Ferry – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Lesser Slave River – by Dallas Wood
  • Mirror Landing – by Dallas Wood
  • Town of Athabasca – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Town of Whitecourt – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle
  • Whitecourt Forest Interpretive Centre and Heritage Park – by Allie Strel and Selena Phillips-Boyle


  • Lund, Mark. Mark’s Guide for Alberta Paddlers. Edmonton: M. Lund, 2007. Print.
  • MacDonald, Janice E.. Canoeing Alberta. Edmonton: Lone Pine Pub., 1985. Print.