Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Reading the River

Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

"The North Saskatchewan rises at the base of Saskatchewan Glacier in the Columbia Icefield in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, 1,800 metres above sea level between Mount Columbia and Mount Athabasca. You can see all this ... simply by standing on the shoulder Highway 93."

So begins both the North Saskatchewan, and Myrna Kostash's story of it, as the river flows across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and finally, having drained 340,000 square kilometres of land, flows through Manitoba's Cedar Lake "to empty into Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids."

Well-known Canadian writer -- and one time Saskatoon Public Library writer-in residence -- Kostash, along with researcher/writer Duane Burton, traces the river's path from its icefield beginnings to its big lake destination through such places as Rocky Mountain House, Edmonton, Fort Pitt, Battleford, Prince Albert, Nipawin, Cumberland House, and The Pas. Kostash devotes a chapter to each of these places, and to smaller ones along the way, and fills in the history of aboriginal life and displacement, exploration by Europeans and the fur trade, settlement, conflict, development in all its glory and ugliness, and change and loss through the eyes of people who were there.

Although guided by Kostash's firm hand, the book often feels like an anthology as contributors such as Howard Adams, Peter Erasmus, Frank Mitchell, Elizabeth Macpherson, Jon Whyte, Lyn Harrington, and many others add their observations to what the North Saskatchewan meant to their lives and to life along the river.

The story of David Thompson, his explorations, his amazing maps, and his subsequent fading away into obscurity and destitution gives way to stories of the fur trade, ably filled out by Fred Stenson and stories from his novel The Trade. While there are stories of settlement, development, and the building of cities such as Edmonton -- the biggest chapter in the book and Kostash's hometown -- there are also many tales of loss. 

In the Edmonton chapter, Kostash notes the operation of the first cable ferry in 1882, and the beginning of the "industrial" city in the west, "begins the history of the river as an obstacle." It gets in the way of development. And even as a fellow by the name of John C. McDougall rides through the countryside selecting sites for village streets, schoolhouses, and churches, he thinks wistfully of his time as a boy and how he loved the open country.

In a later chapter on Fort George and Buckingham House, J.G. MacGregor writes of the loss of "earlier Indian names for things under the encroaching language of white people's commerce and settlement," and Alberta author Pam Chamberlain writes of the ferry being replaced by the George F. Bayton Bridge and how people now scoot over the bridge so quickly they no longer notice the formation of ice, its subsequent breakup, and the slow but constant change of the seasons.

In the chapter on Cumberland House, Kostash writes, "When the Squaw Rapids Dam (now known as the E.B. Campbell Dam) was constructed upstream in 1962, the lower water levels in the delta adversely affected plant and animal life; the marshlands became stagnant and the fur-bearing animal population was severely depleted. Traditional trapping declined precipitously, along with the community's self-sufficiency."

Even as Kostash warns of the rapid melting of the great glaciers and what that depletion holds for the future of rivers such as the North Saskatchewan, one contributor, William Francis Butler, wrote in 1871 that "(h)e who has once tasted the unworded freedom of the Western wilds must ever feel a sense of constraint within the boundaries of civilized life." This sense of enlargement is but one thing the woods and fields and rivers offer to the human spirit.

While we roar over all our bridges, getting and spending and laying waste our powers, as Wordsworth puts it, a whole other world goes on beneath us, at least for the time being, reminding us of what we once had and what we still have to lose.

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