Near and within the Athabasca River corridor, unique natural features provide evidence of the earth’s development and the interaction of water, wind and glaciers in shaping the surrounding landscape. The Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains and is the source of the Athabasca River. Other fascinating geographical features include dramatic river gorges, such as the narrows just below Athabasca Falls; the sand dunes on Jasper Lake (a shallow portion of the river); and the large fans of sand, gravel and silt, such as those found at the mouths of the Astoria and Snake Indian rivers and at Portal creek that provide an important habitat for large mammals.
The river is home to 15 species of fish, two of which have been designated provincially as species-at-risk – the bull trout and the Athabasca rainbow trout. Five species of amphibians can be found in wetlands adjacent to the river and bird species such as Harlequin ducks and osprey make their homes there. Lucky river users may catch a glimpse of an elk or a grizzly bear, two of the many large mammal species that frequent the river’s edge.
Before Europeans traveled the Athabasca, the Sekani, Shuswap, Kootenay, Salish, Stoney and Cree people hunted and fished along the river. With the beginning of the fur trade, Iroquois also came into the river valley.
David Thompson, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, travelled through the Athabasca Pass in 1811, establishing Canada’s first transcontinental route. Later, two transcontinental railways, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern, were constructed in the Athabasca valley.
The Athabasca River corridor provides many opportunities for outdoor adventure. River trips by canoe, kayak or raft allow visitors to test their paddling skills in the Athabasca’s fast-flowing waters. Camping near the river is provided at two large, serviced campgrounds, Wabasso and Wapiti, as well as at Mount Kerkeslin and other, smaller, unserviced campgrounds. Several other campgrounds are located within a short drive.
Fishing is allowed with a permit, although the silty, swift waters make it a challenging sport. Numerous trails and picnic areas enable visitors to enjoy the river from its banks.
Who Manages the River?
The designated section of the Athabasca River lies within Jasper National Park and is managed by Parks Canada.
Several national historic sites commemorate the fascinating history of the Athabasca River, including Jasper House National Historic Site and Athabasca Pass National Historic Site.
Mountain whitefish are the most common fish species found in the designated section of the Athabasca River. Every fall, tens of thousands of these fish migrate long distances into the park to spawn, with each female laying 1,500 to 7,000 eggs before returning down river. The eggs over-winter in the river bottom and hatch in the spring. One tagged fish caught in Jasper National Park had traveled 850 km.