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Saskatchewan River

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 Winnipeg
Main Characteristic: Drains the vast Canadian Prairie

More on the Saskatchewan River:
Saskatchewan River:
From glaciers to grasslands

Early Bird:
Beaked dinosaur is missing link to birds

Dry Bones:
Dinosours abound in Alberta’s badlands

Plains Speaking:
Pioneer in the fight for women’s rights

Last Stand:
The Northwest Rebellions ends Métis autonomy

End of Steel:
Canada's northernmost metropolis

Dirty Thirties:
Prairie life in the era of the Bennett Buggy

Unwild West:
Mounties keep order on the Prairies

Dream of Wheat:
Prosperous farmers feed the world

Wonder City:
Saskatoon sprouts from the 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 Saskatchewan Rivers.

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 fisheries.

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 from Europe.

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.

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