The Double Life of Alberta's Bow River

By Teresa Earle with photography by Fritz Mueller

Southern Alberta's Bow River desperately needs a break, but it doesn’t seem to be getting one.

Not only is the Bow River in crisis, it has a multiple personality disorder. This idyllic Rocky Mountain stream drains a national park, and its teal waters and scenic backdrops lure flyfishermen, canoeists and tourists by the busload. But as the Bow River enters the foothills the scene turns to dams, cut lines and subdivisions, and beyond Calgary this beat-up river diminishes as it winds through Feedlot Alley and the farm belt towards its union with the South Saskatchewan.

The dichotomy of the Bow – an idealized a-river-runs-through-it stream with abused, congested lower reaches – makes it a poster child for so many ailing developed watersheds. A river under threat is a familiar story but somehow it’s all hitting the Bow harder: Alberta’s most densely populated watershed, rapacious sprawl, a concentration of factory-style cattle farms, and now even Parks Canada is piling on the pressure. Shelving its ecological integrity-driven mission in favour of increased visitation, the agency recently directed Banff National Park to grow visitation beyond the 3.4 million people who already visit the valley each year.

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