From glaciers to grasslands
Cree name: Kisiskatchewan, meaning 'swift current'
Current official name: Saskatchewan, from the Cree original
Source: Rocky Mountains, east of the Continental Divide
Mouth: Hudson Bay, via Lake Winnipeg and Nelson River
Direction of flow: east
Length : 4618 kilometres, including main north and south branches to Lake
Main Characteristic: Drains the vast Canadian Prairie
The Saskatchewan River system has been the vital, life-giving
force of the Canadian Prairies. In little more than a century,
the basin has seen the destruction of the bison herds, the
dispossession of Native food sources and land, and the conversion
of great, natural grasslands to agriculture. More recently,
the people of the Saskatchewan River basin have been the source
of many of Canada's political freedoms, innovations in health
care, and co-operative enterprise.
The Saskatchewan River system forks across the vast Canadian
Prairies like a flash of lightning. Its branches and tributaries
collect meltwater from Rocky Mountain glaciers and rain runoff
from the broad prairie grasslands and grain fields. The collected
waters flow eastward from the Continental Divide to Lake Winnipeg
and then, down the Nelson River, and into Hudson Bay.
The Saskatchewan and its tributaries drain one of the largest
and most diverse river basins in North America. The basin includes
much of Alberta and Saskatchewan, parts of Manitoba and the
state of Montana in the United States. Three million people
live in the system's basin.
The main stem of the Saskatchewan River starts only in mid-Prairie,
east of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The two main branches
feeding the main stem are the North Saskatchewan and the South
Starting life as a frigid waterfall at the foot of a glacier
in Banff National Park, the North Saskatchewan drains the milky
meltwater from the glaciers eastward to Rocky Mountain House,
Alberta. There, it absorbs the tributary Clearwater River,
and continues onto Edmonton, Alberta. As it rolls past the
Saskatchewan cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert,
the river accumulates a heavy load of fine silt flushed from
farm fields by runoff from rainstorms and spring snowmelt.
The South Saskatchewan begins in southern Alberta at the junction
of the Oldman and Bow Rivers. Flowing eastward past Medicine
Hat, it heads northeast into Saskatchewan, past Saskatoon and
on to meet the North Saskatchewan.
The North and South Saskatchewan include several major tributaries
in their system: the Clearwater, the Brazeau, the Vermillion,
the Bow, the Oldman, and the Red Deer Rivers. The immense herds
of bison that once dominated the Prairies waded in these rivers
to drink and seek relief from the hot summers on the treeless
grasslands. For aboriginals, these waterways were vital routes
for hunting and trading, as well as important sites for their
Fur traders navigated the rivers in canoes and heavy wooden
York boats to exchange European consumer goods for the pelts
of animals trapped by aboriginal hunters. Then, once the dominion
of the bison and the aboriginals had been surrendered to European
government and business powers, the rivers became routes for
European farm settlers who ploughed under the natural grasslands
to plant crops.
Finally, the railways were driven westward across the Prairies,
following branches and tributaries of the great river system.
The railways needed the rivers' water to make the steam that
powered their locomotives. The railways spread their branch
lines across the Prairies, rapidly filling them with settlers
from all over Europe.
It was only in 1870 that the new government of Canada purchased
the huge expanse of Prairie then known as Rupert's Land. Until
then it had been the property of the Hudson's Bay Company.
The purchase did not effectively establish Canadian control
over the West, and the government rushed to occupy it with
a railway, a police force and, above all, immigrant farmers
In 1881, settlers could buy huge, fertile homesteads from
the Canadian government - for $1 per acre (0.4 ha). Many of
the descendants of those homesteaders are millionaire farmers
today. They use computers and the Internet to manage their
businesses. Some even rely on global satellite positioning
systems to map crop yields and apply fertilizer locally, in
just the right amounts and locations.
Prairie prosperity was hard won. Even in the best years, weather
shifts rapidly between extremes. Hot summers are punctuated
by violent thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes. Blizzards of
deep winter can give way in hours to above-freezing chinook
winds blowing down from the mountains.
In the 1930s, the families of the homesteaders suffered a
devastating drought. The Canadian government's response was
to draw once again on the river system to create an irrigation
system to water the prairie farms.
As the people of the Prairies recovered from the drought and
the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, they created
courageous new ways of organizing society. Farmers created
co-operative, non-profit businesses to buy their supplies and
sell their products. Saskatchewan was the first place in North
America to make health care the right of every citizen.
The land, water, and people of the Saskatchewan River basin
have defined a great deal of what Canada is today.
Saskatchewan River (Adobe PDF document)
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