CALGARY — The first rafts of the season hit Calgary’s glacier-fed rivers when their banks still glitter with ice.
So popular is the pastime of lazily drifting down the city’s waterways, aboard craft ranging from professional rafts to flimsy inflatable mattresses, that a hardy few can’t wait to claim the first float of the season.
Just as in Red Deer, where a meander down the river on a sunny day can bring out a flotilla, Calgary’s rivers truly can draw a crowd.
By the May long weekend, crowds of people are setting out for afternoons floating along the city’s Bow and Elbow rivers and, at summer’s peak, thousands take the trip each sunny weekend.
While the float is a local tradition, it’s also a great way for tourists to relax while watching an entirely different view of the city drift by.
“It’s a fun thing to do, absolutely,” says Doug Frizzell, operations manager with the city of Calgary. “It’s a different way to view the city.”
People can take the trip down two very different Calgary waterways.
The Elbow is much shallower, slower moving and winds its way largely though people’s backyards. The Bow is wider and faster, with more hazards such as bridge pillars but it offers a great view as it enters downtown.
“There’s not a ton of skill required, you get in the raft, you put it on the river,” says Calum Macdonald, a program manager at the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre, which rents rafts and runs an annual education course.
Basic knowledge of how to paddle is a plus, he said, but the rafts aren’t tippy like canoes or kayaks.
“These things are stable, they’ll just float through it. All you have to do is kind of point to where you want to go and paddle forward.”
Most people park one car at the starting point of their route and another at the other end to take them and their rafts home.
It’s also possible to bike or take a taxi back to the starting point if need be.
There are some rules to follow, says Frizzell.
Under a city water safety bylaw, rafters need to have life-jackets not only in their boats but on their backs at all times, or risk a $500 fine.
Provincial legislation also forbids alcohol either on the water or on shore.
“A lot of people will take beers down either to the park or to float with them, and that’s absolutely against the act,” says Frizzell.
He adds there are also behavioural no-nos — if you need a bathroom break, find a public washroom, not the river bank.
One other hazard is the city’s weir, which is located along the Bow River slightly downstream fro the zoo.
The weir is used to divert water from the river for agricultural use, but it results in a powerful hydraulic wave that has earned it a reputation as a “drowning machine.”
It’s well-marked as you float down the river, with a large boom laid across the water before it starts as a last-ditch measure to keep rafts from floating over.
“There’s enough warnings to portage upstream,” says Frizzell. “You need to know where that weir is.”
The outdoor centre is running its annual course about safely rafting the river June 19. It includes a demonstration about what to watch out for and how to rescue people if they fall out.
Last year there were 50 rafts on the river for the event, shepherded along by about 10 safety boats.
Floats can take between two and four hours. A guide to routes and a rough estimate of time can be found at http://www.calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca/raft—routes
Macdonald says a ride down the river is a great way to escape the rush of the city for a few hours.
“You jump in the boat, you can goof around and chat with your friends, have a water fight on hot days,” he said. “It’s just a fun activity.”
If you go
l Rafting 101: http://www.calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca/rafting—101
l Rentals: http://www.rockymountainpaddling.com/