If there’s one thing I’ve learned to maximize days on the water, it’s to have quick easy adventures planned for that last minute day off or change of schedule.
Living in Canmore, Alberta, I’m lucky to have a backyard full of different rivers and lakes to get out and explore. At first I was dismissive of anything that wasn’t rowdy whitewater, but getting out for a float trip, soaking up the sun, and getting the paddling muscles moving can do wonders for an otherwise wasted day.
One of my favorite quick trips is the Bow River from Banff to Canmore. This glacial river runs through a spectacular corridor, starting its journey from Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway and flowing through Banff National Park, past Lake Louise and Banff. It twists and turns through Canmore and on to Calgary, across Alberta, merges into the Saskatchewan River, and eventually empties into the Hudson Bay. Now that would be a journey of many months, but for my quick trip adventures, I like to paddle the stretch locally in the Bow Valley.
The section from Banff to Canmore is especially wonderful for a last-minute adventure because of the ease of transport. Local buses with Roam Transit run between the two towns, and with a packraft easily fitting on public transport, you don’t even have to take your car! The Legacy Trail, a favorite local paved bike path, also runs between the two if you’re in for a multi-sport bikerafting day and there are spicier mountain bike routes too.
My first trip down, I hopped on the bus, packraft all rolled up in my backpack, and set off from Canmore. I got off in downtown Banff and walked a couple blocks down to Bow Falls. Eyeing the ragged stepped waterfall with a dream of paddling it someday, I held my packraft tighter as I actually scouted the sharp rock-infested lines. Whitewater kayakers have taken on Bow Falls at precise water levels, but it was a no for me.
I put in just below the falls amongst crowds of tourists on the sunny, pebbled beach. The first few hundred meters swiftly pulled along as the current raced past cliffed walls and around the first bend. This section of the Bow Valley sits between Mount Rundle (Washahigan Watchi in Cree) and the Sawback Range. Mount Rundle is one of the iconic peaks in all the postcards of Banff. Its jagged ridgeline extends all the way down the valley with several sub-peaks, right up to Canmore. The Bow River snakes its way along the base of Rundle the whole way.
Minihapa, also known as Cascade Mountain, towers behind as the river twists and bends around Mt. Rundle. Stands of pine trees whipped past and smooth river stones flew by below with the quick flowing, clear current. The Bow is glacial fed, giving it that crystal clear yet brilliant blue tone. When glaciers carve their way through valleys, they leave behind rock flour which suspends in the water and refracts light, creating the bright turquoise blue tones that are so revered. The Bow River is no exception and delivers spectacular color.
Mid to late summer in the Bow Valley also brings bright hues of purple, orange, yellow, and pink wildflowers all along the banks. Most notably is fireweed - a regenerative or “pioneer” species that establishes first after wild flowers and floods. Its bright pink to purple tones color the banks in July.
As the Bow continues to flow alongside Rundle, it snakes around in various directions, sometimes feeling like you’re about to paddle into the cliffed mountainside. I leaned my head back on my raft and just drifted, looking up at the towering peaks and letting my fingers drag in the cold water.
The river braids at times with side channels leaving and rejoining the main current. Many people paddle it each year in inflatable pool toy-type boats or after several beverages, but this river is not to be underestimated. It's fast flowing, especially in springtime, and has many surprise corners with strong eddy lines and log jams. It’s a class one to two river so easily do-able by most, as long as you’re paying attention and reactive to the current. Locals have even added directional traffic signs at a few corners to help out with navigation.
Another highlight along the Bow River are the sections of hoodoos. Areas of the riverbank are peppered by varying types of stone and when the lower layers erode faster than the top, it creates the impressive mushroom-shaped towers of rock. I looked up and waved at more tourists along the banks who hiked down to see the hoodoos, feeling grateful for my front row seat from the water.
Along with wild humans, the riverbanks are full of wildlife. Osprey and bald eagle circle overhead while elk graze the shoreline. I was fully surprised when a giant elk jumped into the river and swam behind my packraft. The splash startled me and I whipped around to see its massive head just above the water. The elk held its own ferry angle as it crossed to the opposite bank.
Rundle’s many peaks floated by and eventually Ha Ling, the well-hiked mountain just outside of Canmore, came into view. There are many places to take out as the Bow River floats through downtown Canmore. Riverside Park has been my go-to as I can hop out of the river, lay in the sunny grass for awhile, and then simply walk home. I anticipated turning a few heads when carrying my packraft down main street in my paddling gear, but not a single fuss goes to show the kind of typical mountain adventure town that Canmore is - nothing unusual to see here.
The Bow River has since become a staple back pocket adventure for me. I’ve paddled it solo and with friends, taking the bus, my bike, or carpooling. It’s a comfort to know I can head out at a moment’s notice and the sparkling blue water and towering peaks will be there.
About the Author
Rachel Davies is an avid paddler, both professionally and personally. She has made home bases in the South Island of New Zealand and in the Canadian Rockies, where she has worked as a hiking, cycling, rafting and kayaking instructor. Packrafting came into her life to piece together her love of all these worlds while exploring new places through challenging, type-two fun adventures. Rachel aims to share this passion through her writing and artwork - follow along on IG @rachelmydavies and racheldaviesart.com.
(All photos courtesy of Rachel Davies)
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