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Going with the Flow

As our water taxi pulled up to the dock in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, a young boy was hauling a channel catfish the size of my arm out of the murky shallows of the Red River. The muscular fish slid from the water as though half asleep, its whiskers twitching as though it had just woken up from a nap in the sun. Although the pastoral scene would have made a perfect summer postcard, the Red River isn’t a place for Huck Finn types who dream of lazy days floating on a wooden raft. The Red is a waterway of epic proportions – its primordial power first acknowledged by the Cree who called it Miscousipi, “The Red Water River.”  The only major river on the Canadian prairies that flows north, its quiet surface often explodes in a torrent of floodwaters that wreak havoc on the people and landscape around it. 
Much as it carved its way across the prairie landscape, the Red River also shaped Western Canada’s history. From its headwaters in South Dakota, the river’s 877-kilometre route was a vital link in a transportation network that connected first with east-west waterways, then north to Lake Winnipeg and finally Hudson Bay. It was a vital fur trade route for the Hudson’s Bay Company and Northwest Company including Upper Fort Garry, Lower Fort Garry and Fort Gibraltar during the 1700s and 1800s. Despite its pivotal role in Canada’s history, the Red spent much of last century being overlooked. Hidden behind railway and industrial yards, it was an invisible slice of murky water that meandered quietly behind the cottonwood trees lining its banks – ignored unless it raised its watery head to overflow its banks.

Now, its importance is being recognized. It is currently being considered for official designation as a Canadian Heritage River by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS) our nation’s river conservation program. If successful, it will join other distinguished waterways such as The Fraser, the Rideau and the Athabaska. 

To be granted Heritage River status, a river must meet a rigorous set of federal, provincial and territorial criteria that considers its natural, cultural and/or recreational values. The Red boasts an illustrious record on all counts. In addition to 6,000 years of Aboriginal settlement along its banks, the Red River Valley’s rich soil was an agricultural hub for European settlers. The river was even the focus of a transboundary dispute at the International Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Today, 750,000 people inhabit the lands adjacent to its banks.

“Most of the time the Red is a pretty good-natured river,” says Jeff Palmer of Rivers West, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing the Red River Corridor as a destination. “Even when it floods, it gives plenty of notice.”   

Of all of the rivers in Canada’s capital cities, the Red River has overflowed its banks more times than any other. Almost every resident has tales of sandbagging, evacuation or rescue in their family history. And those floods are dramatic in their power. In 1997’s devastating “Flood of the Century”, the Red grew from its normal width of 180 metres to 30 kilometres wide, forcing more than 28,000 people from their homes.  

Despite the spectre of annual flooding, the establishment of The Forks National Historic Site at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in 1989 transformed the river’s image. Today, its banks in downtown Winnipeg are the site of the one of the most successful urban renewals in Canada.  The revitalization of the area’s railways yards created an urban oasis offering a mix of food, eclectic shopping and recreation. A fleet of comfortable water taxis ferries visitors to drop-off points along the waterfront and new outdoor opportunities such as boating, fishing and ice skating abound.

“The Riverwalk and Port finally allowed people to reconnect with the river at the water's edge,” explains Palmer. “Today The Forks is Manitoba's most popular tourist attraction.”

The metamorphosis of the Red River is not over. Routes on the Red, a series of over 20 themed cycling, walking, paddling or driving itineraries showcase the river’s history and culture. Highlights include St. John’s Cathedral, where Lord Selkirk first met his settlers in 1817, the Winnipeg Floodway, one of Canada’s engineering marvels and St. Andrews Church, oldest church in Western Canada.  Signature architecture, such as the Esplanade Riel Bridge, a soaring footbridge that links Winnipeg’s downtown to the French quarter, has reshaped the city skyline.

Even old classics like the Paddlewheel River Boats, the atmospheric sightseeing cruise ships that have been hosting high school graduation parties and family reunions for decades are enjoying new attention.
Although the spotlight might be shining more brightly on the Red River with its new heritage nomination, for those living nearby the appeal is more immediate. Warm weather means it’s time to head to the riverbank and check the water level.
“Often the water seems to retreat before your very eyes,” says Palmer “It’s a sure sign summer is on its way.”  

Pack Your Bags:  

Where to Stay: Munch on BBQ bison ribs as you count how many river features – like oxbow bends - you can spot from the Gold Floor on the 19th floor of the Fairmont at the historic corner of Portage and Main. www.fairmont.com/winnipeg

Best View: Enjoy a panoramic view from the 30th and 31st floors at The Royal Crown, Winnipeg’s only revolving restaurant and lounge. www.rcrown.mb.ca

On the Water: Hop on the River Spirit Waterbus, a fleet of water taxis that operates May to October from 12 – 6 pm.  

Best Scenic Tour:  Mingle with graduates, newlyweds and other celebratory folks aboard the M. S. Paddlewheel Princess. www.paddlewheelcruises.com

Best Shopping: Sample pierogies, rye bread or Steinbach sausage at the Forks market.  www.theforks.com

Best Deal: Bite into a Mr. Big Nip at the Salisbury House perched on the Esplanade Riel Bridge. You’ll never have a better view for your buck.    

More information: Explore the Red River at www.riverswest.ca or www.routesonthered.ca or www.destinationwinnipeg.ca

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Michele Peterson Freelance Travel Writer
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