The Battle River

“May the countryside and the gliding valley streams content me.  Lost to fame, let me love river and woodland.”   Virgil

The Battle River begins in west-central Alberta, southeast of Wetaskiwin, and winds its leisurely way for roughly 350 miles before emptying into the North Saskatchewan river at North Battleford, Saskatchewan.  A key word is “winds” as it twists and turns like a demented garter snake all the way from source to destination. Although the distance covered is 350 miles, the struggle to carve out a river bed on the prairie suggests the water course itself is more like 1000 miles long.

There is a old scientific theory about river lengths. It goes like this: If you compared the lengths of ALL the natural  water courses of the globe with the total of ALL their straight line lengths from start to finish, the resulting ratio would be Pior 3.14.  In other words, the average natural water course of a river (the scientific term is sinuosity) is roughly 3 times its straight-line length.  Some rivers would be less (i.e. the MacKenzie) and some would be more (the Assiniboine).  With that in mind, I think the Battle might be the perfect example of 3.14 to 1.  Of course, the theory is unproven.  There are a lot of rivers in this world and Google Earth can only help so much.  Still, it’s an intriguing theory.

History tells us Anthony Henday followed the river back in 1750’s but did not name it.  That happened when Peter Fidler came through 40 years later.  The Battle probably referred to an ongoing friction between the Cree and the Blackfoot.  Given the age-old enmities shown by those two aboriginal groups, it’s no surprise that some skirmishes took place in the river valley.  I’m sure the bounty and the shelter provided by the “Battle”, was coveted by both sides.

The Battle is described as a “prairie-fed river” which means it doesn’t own its origin to glaciers or mountain-generated snow melt. This humble river relies totally on rain and snow melt from its watershed and drainage basin.  The good thing is it rarely floods, the bad it is frequently moribund and overtaken by microbes and pollutants.

It’s the river of my youth and played an important part in my life’s lessons, starting with it was the place I learned to swim. Most of us learned to swim by watching each other and exchanging suspect tips on what we thought we knew. There were no swimming teachers. What resulted was a flailing dog paddle designed primarily to keep the river’s gentle flow from carrying us into the fearsome rapids 20 yards downstream. In truth, those rapids weren’t fearsome at all, simply a slow-moving river moving a little quicker to pass over a submerged ridge but when you’re nine years old, the sudden increase in current takes on the appearance of the Niagara rapids.

The Battle river may sound a tad underwhelming, an overgrown creek perhaps. Yet I can always hear the river’s imagined voice pleading “Do not sell me short.  I may look like a tired small river but look on what a beautiful valley I forged”.The roughly one-kilometer wide valley carved out on route to Battleford is one the prairie’s great views.  When you travel frequently on the prairie and become numbed to the monotony, it is thrilling to suddenly encounter this broad deep valley.

At Fabyan, a hamlet roughly 7 miles from my home town of Wainwright, The Grand Trunk Pacific railroad built an 800-meter long trestle over the valley (70 meters high) and was, for a brief time, the longest railway trestle in North America. One hundred-plus years later, the bridge still functions on the Canadian National’s main line stretching from Moncton, New Brunswick, to Vancouver. The trestle crossing was often frightening to rail passengers as the train slowed to inch across with nothing but air to support it.  Maybe that’s the reason the trans-continental trains always passed through in the night.

Before my parents rented, then purchased, a cabin at Clear Lake, east of Wainwright, the Battle River valley at Fabyan was the recreational destination of choice. Highway 14 also crossed the river here and before the highway was moved a half-mile to the west in the mid-1950’s, the bridge was immediately adjacent to the recreation area. There were no parks as we know them today but three decades of recreation picnickers and swimmers had carved out of the river bottom by the bridge a labyrinth of narrow car tracks and small clearings where picnics could be enjoyed.

A small beach was the centre of the recreation area and on a warm Sunday was jammed with people wading and swimming.  The image in today’s world would be jarring.  Dozens of people of all ages dressed in mostly woollen swimwear all sloshing about in this dark brown water.  Battle river was very susceptible to metallic impurities that turned the water the color of a rusting drainpipe. No one seemed to mind.

There were fish in the river – Northern Pike, Walleye, and Goldeneye but I don’t recall seeing anyone ever catch a fish or even claim to catch a fish. Still, a few Sunday visitors persisted.

Sunday was the only day the recreational area was busy.  In those days, people generally worked 5 and 1/2 days a week.   On other summer days, the only visitors were kids who hiked, bike or hitchhiked the seven miles from Wainwright.

Because the Battle was fed solely by rain and spring snow melt, its levels could fluctuate year to year depending on the weather.  I can remember it flooding only once in the 1950’s and it very nearly took out the bridge.

In the 1950’s, there was very little wildlife roaming the valley.  Deer, elk, bears, and wolves had all been eradicated  and what few bison remained were confined to a paddock east of Wainwright (and soon to be shipped to Wood Buffalo Park).  A few coyotes remained and we once spotted a bobcat or lynx at the swimming hole.

One summer Saturday when I was 13, my friend, Donny, and I packed lunches, took our .22 rifles and hiked to the Battle River north of Wainwright, a hike of about 10 miles one way.  We thought we might find a stretch of the valley less trampled by humans than the Fabyan valley.  The .22’s were for shooting gophers but if a badger or coyote materialized, they would be considered targets.  That’s how we thought in those days.  No apologies.

Anyway, it was a long, hot hike only to find a river valley swarming with grazing Herefords.  No sign of any critters not even gophers. What we came upon was every bit as beautiful as the Fabyan valley but even more heavily farmed.  We hiked along the crest and were preparing to return home when we spotted some debris in the undergrowth of a poplar grove.  It was the remains of a small cabin or lean-to and we were excited to find a small quantity of square nails, something that had not been made for a very long time.  We then turned up a leather pouch, a smallish purse similar in size to a Scottish sporran.  Such a discovery would pique any kid’s interest.

We packed the nails in the pouch and walked back to town with what we hoped were historical artifacts.  Both our families were less than interested in our discovery so we planned to show them to the district agriculturalist (Officialdom’s usual representative in farming communities) on Monday morning.  He was much more interested than our families and excitedly said he would forward the pouch and nails on to Edmonton for analysis. “Who knows”, he said, “Anthony Henday was supposed to have traveled that route.  Maybe these belonged to him”. Now we were excited.  As it turned out, we never did hear back from Edmonton and were stuck with our “Maybe Anthony Henday” story.

On summer Sundays, our family, all five of us plus Paddy the collie cross, would pile into the cab of the Fargo pickup and find a picnic spot at the river. After a swim, my brothers and I would hike the valley, often climbing to the top of the valley to look for exotic plants and signs of wildlife.   Occasionally, we’d encounter a tiny spring dribbling out of the side of the hill and dare each other to drink the water.  No one became ill. These pleasant excursions stopped in 1950 when we rented a cabin on Clear Lake.

Everyone has their own favorite river valley and the Battle River valley is just one of hundreds in America.  It doesn’t have breath-taking cliffs carved from stone and no deep gorges to entice the canoeist.  There’s no white water to speak of; rather the water is a slow-moving brown ribbon that is quite uninviting to the eye.  But with its broad-shouldered hills and varied botanical growth, its occasional tilled field, and its open vista that draws the eye miles down the valley to absorb the green hills dappled with poplar, willow, aspen groves and small thickets of rose bushes  It is a pleasant landscape, one that quiets the mind, and delivers a modest prairie beauty inviting all who experience it to return.

Robert Alan Davidson

March, 2018

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