Canoeing the Elbow River

Wet and Wild

get ready

Getting ready at Allen Bill

river canoe

On our way enjoying a quiet time on the river

launchledge

Launch at Allen Bill (left). Ledge across river (right)

tree hazard

Uprooted tree hazard in the river

island hazard

The white water is caused by a slab of rock. A sharp right turn is required as you enter the corner around a sweeper. The ledge is exposed at low water.

high water

Rapids during high water in June. Near the Centennial Trail island on the approach to the Trading Post in Bragg Creek.

pull-out

Pull-out in the hamlet of Bragg Creek

rapids

Rapids downstream of the pull-out

spiral

Spiral of underwater rocks

The bow of the canoe slices through a white froth of rapid sending a splash of frigid Elbow River water over the gunwale, into the canoe. I'm kneeling in a puddle, soaked from the knee down. Either the cold has numbed my legs or the adrenalin surging into my system has blocked the sensation of the bone chilling cold, but I don't feel it. I'm straining to pull the craft out of the current, into calm relief the eddy by the shore affords. Here we can dump the water, compose ourselves and plan our next foray into the raging torrent.
I had no idea. I love canoeing, but my experience is of serene lakes, where I can watch the swirl from the paddle disappear in the sparkling water and the rippling waves as the canoe glides across the surface. This is anything but serene. It's thrilling and scary. It's not the gentle float down the river we enjoyed when we launched into the Bow River in Banff and paddled to Canmore. Paddling the Elbow is a rough ride. Only experienced paddlers with qualified guides should attempt it. This river can demolish canoes, injure and even kill people.
An obvious place to start your paddling adventure is the "Boat Launch" opposite the Canyon Creek Rd. on highway 66 inside Kananaskis. But, we "put-in" at Allen Bill Pond as we wanted to avoid a ledge that is reported to be troublesome. A summer of frequent rain had doubled the flow of water over the year previous. It was racing down the river valley. Apparently this is a good thing as less water would have left us few options to avoid hazards along the way. There were quite a few of those. Huge trees, uprooted and wedged along or across the river with nasty gnarly roots, spikes really, reaching out to snare us as we approached.

Apart from a few breaks to recompose ourselves, we were able to paddle the length of the river. There was one ledge that was particularly troublesome. It is hidden around a sharp right turn, where the Provincial Park borders Bragg Creek. You can faintly hear the crashing water, but there is no visual clue. This slab of rock spans most of the width of the river except for a small channel on the far right. Normally you would be inclined to go left as that is the direction of the current, but our guides were able to spot the hazard and direct us to paddle madly for the right-hand bank hidden behind the bend. From there we were able to plot a way forward into the swirling water and a sharp left turn as we continued downstream.

There is another wide ledge and churning rapids as you approach the hamlet of Bragg Creek. At this point our nerve was pretty well gone and we decided to pull out at the bottom of River Dr. S., down the street from Front Porch Square. Someone had created an attractive spiral design in the water there, using football sized rocks. Our guides continued on through the rough rapids upstream from the Balsam Street bridge. Rafters seem to have no problem with these rapids either, but we had had our fill of adrenalin for the day. Downstream from the bridge a small channel on the left is the safe way to get through to the pull-out at Spruce Avenue. This is where we left one our cars, the one used to return to Allen Bill where we parked the other at the start of the day.

The river around the bridge is a popular playground for bathers and tubers. They use air inflated tire inner tubes to float from just above the bridge through small rapids and falls to the pull-out at Spruce Ave. Read about Playing in the Elbow River.

I'm sure you know by now that we aren't experienced whitewater paddlers. I don't know what thrills and chills the rest of the river holds, but I've heard that people paddle the river up around Cobble Flats. I've seen people preparing to kayak over Elbow Falls, but others have died there. So I recommend using a guide when paddling the Elbow. Contact the canoe clubs to find out more.

rapidsClick on the image (left) to download and view an Mpeg4 format movie of paddling the rapids in the hamlet. File size is 875 KB. You'll likely need Quicktime to view this movie.

Sorry this is such a large file, but you can't see my sister-in-law toss her paddle into the rapids near the end, when the movie is too small.

River discharge - cubic metres per second (m3/sec)

Name of river

Watershed area (sq. km)

Daily Mean

Min (Month)

Max (June)

Bow at Banff

2210

39.7

7.64 (Mar.)

127

Bow at Calgary

7860

90.9

44.2 (Mar.)

231

Elbow above
Elbow Falls

437

7

1.8 (Mar.)

17.2

Elbow at
Bragg Creek

791

7.1

2.6 (Feb.)

24.2

Kananaskis near Seebe

933

15.4

7.2 (Apr.)

40.6

Sheep at Black Diamond

595

4.6

0.9 (Feb.)

18.2

Source: Water Survey of Canada, Environment Canada

 

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