The Saskatchewan River (1,939 km long) begins where the North Saskatchewan (1,287 km) and South Saskatchewan (1,392 km) rivers meet, about 50 km east of Prince Albert. Combined, these rivers are longer than the St Lawrence River and drain much of the western prairie.

Course

North Saskatchewan River

The North Saskatchewan River rises in the Columbia Icefield at the foot of Mount Columbia and flows east to Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, where it takes in the Clearwater River, on through Edmonton, Alberta, where much of its valley has been preserved as parkland, and then into Saskatchewan past North Battleford and Prince Albert. The river cuts a deep, wide valley in the prairie and like all prairie streams carries a heavy load of silt.

South Saskatchewan River

The South Saskatchewan River is formed in southern Alberta by the junction of the Bow and Oldman rivers. It flows east past Medicine Hat, Alberta, then northeast into Saskatchewan, past Saskatoon, and continues a course roughly parallel to the North Saskatchewan River to the confluence some 130 km downstream. The South Saskatchewan River has been dammed about 100 km south of Saskatoon, creating a long, broad reservoir, called Lake Diefenbaker, which provides hydroelectric power and irrigation for southwestern Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan River

When the North and South Saskatchewan rivers meet, the Saskatchewan River continues nearly 600 km eastward through Tobin Lake and Cumberland Lake, Saskatchewan, into Manitoba, where it trends southeast past The Pas and into Cedar Lake. The waters of the Saskatchewan enter Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids and are carried to Hudson Bay by the Nelson River.

Ecology

Flora and Fauna

The Saskatchewan River basin is home to more than 50 plant species, such as black spruce, paper birch, cattail, bulrush, and grasses and sedges. Mammals include black bear, white-tailed deer, coyote, wolves, lynx and snowshoe hare, while aquatic mammals include beaver, muskrat and mink. Parts of the area are deemed critical habitat for certain migratory birds; and waterfowl in the region include gulls, ducks, swans, geese, shorebirds, grebes and terns. Fish in the river include sturgeon, northern pike and walleye.

Environmental Concerns

Agriculture, industrial development, oil and gas exploration and production, forestry and mining all impact the Saskatchewan River basin ecosystem. For example, much of the wetlands have been drained in order to facilitate agricultural production; and the boreal forest surrounding parts of the river has been cut back for the purposes of the forestry, oil and gas industries. All of these activities reduce habitat for resident species. In addition, in 2006 a moratorium on new water licenses (e.g., water drawn for municipal purposes) was issued in the South Saskatchewan River basin due to a discrepancy between water demand and supply.

History

This system of rivers played an important role in the lives of Plains Aboriginal peoples , including the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine. In fact, the name Saskatchewan is derived from the Cree word kisiskâciwanisîpiy, or “swift-flowing river.” The ecosystem provided medicinal plants, such as yarrow, horsetail and fireweed, as well as the Saskatoon berry — used in pemmican — and fresh water.

Henry Kelsey and the La Vérendrye family (ca. 1739) were the first Europeans to see the Saskatchewan River. The modern rendering of the name was adopted in 1882 when part of the present-day province was made a district of the Northwest Territories.

The section between Grand Rapids and Cumberland House (built in 1774 by Samuel Hearne) was fought over by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and North West Company (NWC). The portion of the river from Cumberland House to Edmonton was a much-travelled route for HBC traders and made Edmonton an early focal point of trade. The southern branch carried traders southwest to Wyoming and into the Rocky Mountains by Bow Pass.

In years when the sovereignty of the North-West was in question, the Saskatchewan River made possible an east–west highway tying the area to English commercial enterprise on Hudson Bay and, via the Great Lakes, to Canadian interests centered in Montréal.