It’s a beloved summer pastime of Calgarians like me: floating leisurely down the Bow River in a raft amongst friends. While most of us locals generally captain our own ships, today I’ll be joining a guided float tour called The Calgary River Experience led by Ryan Thompson, owner of Mukwah Rafting Tours. It’s an ideal day for it even though we’re pushing the season with an October river run. The skies are clear and although the air is crisp, the sun’s rays keep us warm.
We start our trip just west of the downtown core beside the Pumphouse Theatre, a historic 1913 water pumping station-turned community performing arts space. Ryan and his guides outfit me and 12 fellow passengers in lifejackets and help us down the banks of the Bow River aboard his raft. It’s comfortable and more than spacious enough for all of us. Since this section of the river is so gentle, we can just sit back and relax while Ryan sets our course.
While I’ve have paddled the Bow several times, a guided float takes the adventure to a new level. Ryan’s running commentary provides fascinating information about the river and points of interest along the way. For example, we learn the river we’re currently floating on is on a journey of its own. It begins in Banff National Park at Bow Lake, where the Bow River is formed and fed by Bow Glacier and snowmelt from the surrounding Canadian Rocky Mountains. From here, it travels east through the foothills and prairies, feeding into other rivers and water bodies that eventually flow into Hudson Bay.
Different points of view
Travelling by water offers a unique perspective of my city. We spot fly fishermen enjoying one of the best destinations in the world to catch brown, bull and cutthroat trout. Along the river pathways, cyclists, runners, and families walking their dogs spot us and wave. We approach Kensington, one of Calgary’s oldest and most vibrant inner city neighbourhoods. Ryan tells us about Poppy Plaza, a public space on the river’s edge built to commemorate our veterans. At the same time, we pass under the Louise Bridge as a river surfer catches a popular standing wave. Straight ahead, the iconic Peace Bridge carries pedestrians and cyclists between downtown and communities to the north. Ryan explains the lagoon at Prince’s Island Park, home to many a summer festival, was originally dug in the 1800s as a channel to get logs from Kananaskis to the Calgary sawmill. It’s nuggets of information like these that make this tour so engaging.
I notice a man quietly reading a book and a painter at work underneath the Centre Street Bridge. We wind onward through the revitalized East Village and newly finished St. Patrick’s Island Park. To the west, Ryan points out the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers as we approach Fort Calgary.
Coming to the end of our journey, we float past the backyards of prestigious and historic Inglewood estates, the Calgary Zoo and Pearce Estate Park, an interpretive wetland, complete with a fish hatchery, Bow Valley Habitat Station. We concluded our tour just upstream of Harvie Passage, a whitewater park currently being reconstructed. Smiles all around are a good indication this has been a relaxing and educational way to spend the better part of two hours. Rumour has it they’ll be offering night tours next summer. Sign me up!