Clearwater Geology, History & Archaeology 101

Whitewater Key to a Piece of Canadian History

Clearwater River article by Cliff Speer

In 1987 the Clearwater River in Northwest Saskatchewan was officially designated a Canadian Heritage River. The Clearwater easily met the demanding criteria for inclusion in this prestigious national system of heritage waterways. The river rates highly for its pristine water quality, unique geographical features, superb scenery, prehistoric cultural and archaeological resources, importance in Canadian history, and challenging wilderness whitewater paddling.

insert photo: clearwater101-1.jpg Caption: Skull Canyon on the lower Clearwater Alt Tag: Skull Canyon on the Clearwater River

Geography 101 Revisited

On the natural heritage theme, the Clearwater has outstanding lessons to teach in geography. No other Saskatchewan river can boast of geological features representing the four major eras in earth’s evolutionary history. At various points on the river, dramatic and scenic features highlight ancient geophysical processes. At Contact Rapids, for example, the granite riverbed ledges of the Precambrian era give way to riverbank cliffs of dolomite of the Devonian period of Earth history. Smoothrock Falls, the highest waterfall on the Clearwater, is a fault-induced waterfall with an abandoned channel exposing polished bedrock and deep potholes. The river cuts a deep gorge through sedimentary rock at Skull Canyon. Below Warner Rapids (where the Cluff Lake road crosses the river) the valley opens up into a large glacial meltwater spillway formed during the retreat of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet of the most recent Cenozoic era, 11,000 years ago. From river level there are views of distant valley walls rising upwards of 200 meters, at times creating the impression of a mountain-like landscape.

Aboriginal Cultural Connections

Prior to Europeans setting foot in the valley, the Clearwater had a rich association with Indigenous culture. Some evidence of this exists in four Aboriginal rock art sites located on the upper Clearwater between Lloyd and Careen Lakes. These pictographs, one of unusual origin, are the most northerly and westerly that have been documented in Saskatchewan. On our journey we’ll stop to explore and learn about the legends associated with these enigmatic paintings. Preliminary archaeological investigations on Portage La Loche and at Warner Rapids indicate occupation of the valley by several aboriginal cultural groups with the likelihood of the river forming the northernmost extension of the Plains Indian culture. Overall, the Clearwater has a wealth of untapped archaeological potential.

insert photo: clearwater101-2.jpg Caption: Aboriginal rock art site on the upper Clearwater Alt Tag: Clearwater River rock art site

Fur Trade Links

Peter Pond was the first white man to explore the Clearwater in 1779. Those who followed on his heels read like a who’s – who of early Canadian exploration: Mackenzie, Thompson, Franklin, Simpson, Hood and others. Pond’s efforts resulted in a crucial fur trade link between the Arctic and Hudson Bay watersheds using the 20 km (12.5 mi) Portage La Loche (or Methye Portage), which operated for over a century. Our interpretive program will highlight aspects of the river’s human and natural heritage, including a trek up the height of land at Methye Portage. Here one can figuratively step into the moccasins of ancient travellers treading the deeply rutted portage trail and stop to view the valley vista from explorer Mackenzie’s viewpoint:

This precipice, which rises upwards of a thousand feet above the plain beneath it, commands a most extensive, romantic and ravishing prospect. From thence the eye looks down on the course of the little river . . . the valley which is at once refreshed and adorned by it, is about three miles in breadth, and is confined by two lofty ridges of equal height, displaying a most delightful intermixture of wood and lawn, and stretching on till the blue mist obscures the prospect.

— from the journals of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, circa 1789

insert photo: clearwater101-3.jpg Caption: Clearwater River valley is an ancient glacial meltwater spillway Alt Tag: Valley of the Clearwater River

Bountiful Wildlife

Wildlife is abundant in the valley, most noticeably in the river’s upper reaches. Moose and black bear are frequently seen and occasionally wolves and woodland caribou. White pelicans have an established breeding colony near the river. Several kilometers upstream of the Virgin River confluence, two bald eagles’ nests perch on a river edge cliff.

Unparalleled Experience

There are numerous beautiful natural campsites along our route, many situated on open park-like jack pine ridges overlooking rapids or falls. Fishing for walleye and pike is excellent on the river and arctic grayling can be found at the outlet of Lloyd Lake and below the cascade in the Virgin River. Inspiring wilderness scenery is typical of the entire Clearwater, and rates spectacular where major geological formations are evident. Human traffic on the river is still low due to its remoteness and its demanding paddling environment. Uncrowded pristine wilderness combined with unique heritage attractions, make the Clearwater an unparalleled experience.

Our 12-day journey on the Clearwater starts at Lloyd Lake, 125 km north of the Dene community of La Loche and ends with a float plane pick-up at Cascade Rapids (260 km/156 mi) downstream. On the easier going rapids of the upper river we’ll spend time reviewing paddling skills and preparing for the more demanding runs on the lower reaches. The challenge level ranges from riffles to Class IV rapids, with most in the Class II to Class III category. The current is moderate to strong, except in meandering sections where more energetic paddling is necessary to keep up a reasonable pace.

Well-trodden portages exist around major rapids and falls. Most rapids are relatively short, however, a few range from 3 – 5 km in length around which no portages exist. Technical maneuvering skills are necessary to safely negotiate any rapid, but longer rapids mean you and/or your boat have more chances of sustaining damage if you go for an unplanned swim early into the rapids.

If you are unsure whether your skills are a match for the Clearwater, please discuss this with us before booking the trip. CanoeSki recommends prior whitewater training and/or previous wilderness whitewater tripping experience.

insert photo: clearwater101-4.jpg Caption: Smoothrock Falls Alt Tag: Smoothrock Falls – Clearwater River