The North Saskatchewan River begins at the Saskatchewan Glacier in Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains, and flows southeast through the northern tip of Banff National Park and into the foothills where it opens up into Abraham Lake, created by the Bighorn Dam. The river continues east to Rocky Mountain House and is joined by the Clearwater River before shifting north and being joined by the Brazeau River. It turns northeast, flowing through Drayton Valley, Edmonton (the largest city in the river basin), and Fort Saskatchewan. The North Saskatchewan River continues east, then turns southeast just before crossing the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and flows through the towns of North Battleford and Battleford. Here, it’s joined by its largest tributary, Battle River. The river soon shifts northeast and just east of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, it joins the South Saskatchewan River to create the Saskatchewan River.
Flora and Fauna
The North Saskatchewan River flows from Rocky Mountains headwaters, dominated by alpine fir, Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine, through the foothills, traversing aspen forests and parklands, home to balsam poplar and mixed herbs and shrubs. A large portion of the river’s basin is used for agriculture, primarily cereal crops. River environments are home to sedges, grasses, rushes and shrubs, including alder, Saskatoon berry, chokecherry and prickly rose.
The upper North Saskatchewan is home to cold-water fish species, including cutthroat, rainbow, bull, brook and brown trout, mountain whitefish, longnose sucker and longnose dace. Downstream prairie reaches are home to warm-water species such as northern pike, walleye, sauger, goldeye, yellow perch, quillback, shorthead redhorse and lake sturgeon. Moose, elk, woodland caribou, white-tailed deer, coyote, hare, fox, jackrabbit and beaver inhabit the basin, while birds in the region include western meadowlark, house wren, western kingbird, and endangered piping plover and burrowing owl.
The water quality of the North Saskatchewan is best in the headwater regions and decreases downstream due to the cumulative effects of human activity in the basin, particularly agriculture and urbanization. Agricultural runoff transports pesticides and fertilizers to the river while municipalities, such as Edmonton, discharge treated wastewater that may contain low concentrations of minerals, fecal coliform bacteria, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and endocrine-disrupting compounds. Additionally, stormwater may pick up contaminants as it flows over urban surfaces.
On 21 July 2016, about 225,000 litres of oil and other contaminants spilled from a broken Husky Energy pipeline, with about 90,000 litres reaching the North Saskatchewan River near Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. The municipal drinking water supply to North Battleford as well as Melfort and Prince Albert was closed until September 2016 and North Battleford continued to obtain drinking water from the nearby community of Battleford through spring 2017.
Climate change has impacted the North Saskatchewan River through decreased winter snowpack and earlier spring snowmelt, leading to reduced water flowing through the river, particularly during the summer. Additionally, the retreat of the Saskatchewan glacier, as well as the glaciers that feed the river’s tributaries, has reduced and is expected to continue reducing summer streamflow. Climate change has also shifted vegetation zones and decreased habitat for migratory waterfowl.
The North Saskatchewan River was a vital transportation route and the basin provided an essential supply of food resources for First Nations inhabitants for more than 10,000 years. It was the primary route between eastern Canada and the Rocky Mountains and played a major role in the fur trade and early European settlement from the 17th through 20th centuries. By the late 18th century, nearly half of the canoe travellers arriving at York Factory, on Hudson Bay, came from the North Saskatchewan River basin.
The upper North Saskatchewan is the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Ktunaxa, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina. The lower North Saskatchewan, south of the river, is the traditional territory of the Assiniboine people while the region north of the river is the traditional territory of the Cree. Métis lived throughout the region. Indigenous people fished from the North Saskatchewan and hunted bison, woodland caribou, moose and other smaller mammals, and gathered roots and berries in the river basin.
In 1754, Hudson’s Bay Company employee Anthony Henday, along with Cree guides, travelled extensively overland in the North Saskatchewan River basin, crossing numerous tributaries along the journey. He travelled as far west as the Rocky Mountains foothills before paddling downstream toFort Paskoyac on the Saskatchewan River, following the spring river ice break-up. David Thompson travelled extensively in the North Saskatchewan basin beginning in 1798, and in 1810, he traversed the upper North Saskatchewan basin in search of a route over the Rocky Mountains. Other notable European explorers on the North Saskatchewan include Peter Fidler (1792) and Peter Pond (1776–78).
The fur trade had a significant impact on the traditional lifestyles of First Nations, including seasonal migrations and economic activities, particularly as First Nations shifted from subsistence hunting to hunting furs for European trade. Cree and Assiniboine in the lower basin acted as intermediaries between Europeans and Blackfoot in the upper North Saskatchewan. Diseases brought by European explorers and settlers were devastating to First Nations communities, including outbreaks of smallpox in 1780, 1838, 1856 and 1869 that killed a large percentage of First Nations people and had lasting impacts on their social structure and economic well-being.