When I moved to the Calgary area over 15 years ago, I was enchanted by the rivers of the area. Many times I took my children camping up the Sheep River west of Turner Valley to a remote area and had a wonderful time with friends and family there. We have seen Elbow Falls, Lumbrick Falls, Sheep River Falls and several other sites in pristine wilderness, as well as enjoy the local rivers here in Calgary. Calgary boasts some of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and there are some great places to go with the kids, but be aware and be careful. Calgary’s rivers are mountain rivers. The Elbow River and the Bow River are not like the rivers out east where they put nice brick walls on them and contain them in sweet little paths. These are gorgeous and fun rivers, but they can also become quickly dangerous.
Twice over the years I had a child playing in the river with other children when they were suddenly whisked downstream. The first time it was in Okotoks in the Sheep River right by the park. My little girl was playing on a boogy board and lifted her feet off the ground. Suddenly she was a quarter mile away going around the corner! The second time it was in a well known water hole. My child just got in a little too deep and the current picked her up and off she went. A fisherman plucked her out a long way down. Fortunately she was a good swimmer by that point in her life!
Life jackets are a must for the young ones and swimming lessons are critical as they grow older. This is a river community so give your children the skills that they need to play safe in the coming years. You never know where they may end up as teenagers so teaching them river safety and a healthy respect for the moving water is a good idea.
In the spring and early summer the water is moving too fast even in our smaller creeks to be taking small children out for a dip. If you are new to an area check around and find out who has lived there a long time. Ask them where the best places to swim are. Ask them if they would take kids the same age as yours down to the river. Treat the river with respect. It may look like one from wherever you are from, but it may be a totally different animal out here.
Also be aware that after a flood, like the ones we had last year in 2013 the path, change the undertow, and the current of the river dramatically. A spot that you enjoyed in the past may now have debris or it may be completely different. In some areas the river has even moved over 100 meters from where it was before. So if it was safe before, it may not be safe now. Check it out by going into it yourself first. Be watchful.
When playing near the water keep a consistent eye on the children. Team up with other parents to be sure that no child is left near the moving water. You will want some old running shoes or some good Windriver or Sports Sandals. It is impossible to walk in many spots because of the rocks. You will bruise your feet if you try to swim without shoes. Also, keep your pets on a leash so they don’t get caught in the current and swept downstream.
The river can be a lot of fun to splash around in and on a hot day it is wonderfully cooling, but play safe. Think things through and teach your kids to do the same. Keeping kids away from water entirely is very difficult. As they get older they will often want to go tubing for the day or go out boating on the larger rivers. They will usually take the first chance that they get somewhere along the way, so teaching them about the river is probably a better way to keep them safe.
Below is a video of rafters on the Bow River. Not all of the Bow is safe. There are some pretty dangerous spots. This video has some warnings in it, but it is best to go with people who are familiar if you have never done this kind of thing before. The smaller rivers have less water in them but that doesn’t mean one should have any less respect for them. Swiftly moving water over shallow rocks can cause a bump on the head, that is why many of the river rafters out in Black Diamond use helmets and life jackets on the parents and the children while having a day of summer fun.
Another safety note: Our rivers are subject to flash flooding. Not usually a problem after mid July but raining in the mountains can cause the river to swell quickly bringing a flood down quickly. Usually though there is lots of warning. Check the weather report here in Calgary and pay attention if there is raining in the mountains. Also use Twitter and not just the news. Twitter gives instant alerts with video footage so pay attention when planning a family outing on or near the rivers.