Guide to Waterways In and Around Wood Buffalo National Park

Athabasca River

Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan

Duration of Tour: 6-10 days
Total Distance: 298 km
Average Gradient: 0.2 m per km
Classification: 1. Overall River - Grade I
2. Rapids - none according to navigational charts
3. Skill of Paddler - Intermediate Open Canadian
Note : The paddler must be expert in wilderness camping skills and in navigational expertise.
Start: Fort McMurray at the Snye, a calm backwater between the town and the island at the confluence of the Clearwater River.
Finish: Fort Chipewyan, (only means of returning from here is by air). Alternate finish at the end of Highway #63 at Fort MacKay at Kilometre 40 . For an extended trip see the Rivière Des Rochers and Slave River Guide (Fort Chipewyan to Fort Fitzgerald).
Access Points:
  1. Kilometre 31 Tar Island, end of pavement on Highway #63.
  2. Kilometre 40 Fort MacKay, end of Highway #63.
Maps Required: N.T.S. 1:250,000 scale 74 D Waterways
84 J Vermilion Chutes
74 L Fort Chipewyan

Canadian Hydrographic Chart

  • Chart 6301 Fort McMurray to Fort Smith (scale 1:131,680)

This section of the Athabasca is classified on the basis of data contained in the Hydrographic Chart 6301. Navigational problems may occur in the 50 km of the Athabasca delta, where the channel divides into several branches and new channels are constantly being opened and old ones closed by the spring floods. Under NO circumstances should paddlers attempt to reach Fort Chipewyan directly across the lake. It is exceedingly treacherous in high winds and the paddler should hug the shoreline and start at first light as Lake Athabasca usually gets choppy by early afternoon.

The most accessible section of this reach is the reach extending to Fort MacKay, which could be considered a long day or a weekend tour. This section of the Athabasca River is wide and flows smoothly and steadily with frequent islands. The river valley gradually widens and the surrounding hills become lower until they disappear at the Embarras River at the start of the delta.

The interesting aspect of this lower accessible section is that it is flowing through the Athabasca tar sands deposits. Nearly horizontal exposures of limestone, 6-9 m high are found for a long distance on the right bank downstream of Fort McMurray. Some kilometres below Fort McMurray they become overlain with thick layers of the tar sands — looking like tar macadam being laid on a concrete road was one observer's comment, who got the impression of the city encroaching incongruously in the northern wilderness. In the heat of summer, streams of tar issue from these exposures and form pools at the base of the escarpments. Such places occur 3 km below the confluence of the Red River and on the right bank opposite Tar Island. The tar sands exposures disappear about 104 km from Fort McMurray below the Calumet River.

At La Saline, 45 km below Fort McMurray, mineral springs can be found 1 km east of the river at the edge of the valley. Deposits from the springs cover the face of the escarpment and have built up a cone 3-5m high on the top of the bank. Strong-smelling hydrogen-sulfide gas taints the air.

Below the Calumet River, the Athabasca River flows through thick glacial deposits which give the terrain an irregular undulating appearance with small lakes and ponds, many filled with sphagnum, or degenerating into muskegs and marshes. Sands and gravels are also evident in a few places around the Firebag River.

The delta starts at the Embarras River, a distributary of the Athabasca (that is a channel flowing out of the river, rather than into it). The voyageurs often used this channel to Fort Chipewyan, which avoided a long lake paddle. However, the entrance was often blocked by debris ( embarras is French for obstacle) over which they had to portage their boats. From the N.T.S. map, however, this channel seems to become less obvious towards the lake but it is possible to connect with the Fletcher Channel by way of a small side channel. The Fletcher channel is the more common channel to take from the Athabasca River to Lake Athabasca.

The finish of the tour is at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, the terminus of one of the great fur-trade routes, and the oldest settlement in Alberta.

Source : Canoe Alberta, A Guide to Alberta's Rivers 1978 , which is no longer in print.

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