Outstanding natural features within the Athabasca River watershed provide evidence of the earth’s development and the interaction of water, wind and glaciers in shaping the surrounding landscape. The Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains, 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 large fans of sand, gravel and silt, such as those found at the mouths of the Astoria and Snake Indian rivers.
The river is home to 15 species of fish, three of which have been designated provincially as species-at-risk: the bull trout, the Athabasca rainbow trout and the pygmy whitefish. 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.
The Athabasca River has a rich human history. Long used by Indigenous peoples, including Beaver, Cree, Ojibway, Shuswap, Stoney, and Métis, to travel, hunt, and fish, the river played a key role in Canadian development. For more than fifty years, it served as the major fur trade link between the New Caledonia and Columbia districts and the Canadian interior. The fur trade brought Haudenosaunee into the territory as well.
Thomas the Iroquois guided David Thompson 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. A century of protection as a national park has ensured that early fur-trade river routes and land transportation corridors in the Athabasca valley have changed little in appearance from those early days.
After the creation of Jasper National Park in 1907, Indigenous peoples were no longer allowed to hunt, trap, fish, and practice their culture within park boundaries. More recently, the Park has been working to re-establish relationships with Indigenous peoples and encourage them to bring their culture and traditional practices back to the landscape.
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.
In spring, the Jasper House trail winds its way through a brilliant display of wildflowers, to end at a platform overlooking the river. Across the river lies the site of the former Jasper House fur trading post and 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.