The Clearwater River flows westward from its headwaters in Broach Lake, in northwestern Saskatchewan, to its confluence with the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The Clearwater River is, as its name implies, an unspoiled, clear-water river in a pristine wilderness setting of spectacular beauty. As it flows downstream, the river passes through two distinct geological areas and its character alters to reflect the underlying changes in bedrock. The upper portion flows over the Precambrian Shield, through boulder strewn rapids, over rocky ledges and small waterfalls and through at least one sizeable gorge. Downstream, the river valley deepens as it enters the Interior Plains, and meandering channels are characterized by sandbars and islands.
The river’s most spectacular feature is the broad, deep, glacial spillway in its lower reaches, but other interesting landforms include evidence of glacial drift along the valley corridor, where small gorges cut deeply into sedimentary rocks.
The Clearwater has served human communities since the pre-contact indigenous cultures of 6,000 years ago. Contact between First Nations and Europeans first occurred in the 18th century, following Peter Pond’s use of the 19 km Methye Portage in 1778. A national historic site plaque commemorates the significance of the portage, which was an overland link on the Churchill-Clearwater-Athabasca route between Lac La Loche and the Clearwater, and was used to avoid the Clearwater’s difficult Precambrian upper section.
During the period of European exploration and the 18th century fur trade, such notables as David Thompson, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Pond, Sir John Franklin and Sir George Simpson took advantage of this relatively quick exploration and trade route to the west. Competition among members of First Nations who were suppliers and guides to the fur trade during this period caused significant shifts in aboriginal territories. The Dene (Chipewyan) first displaced the Dane-zaa (Beaver Indians) who were in turn displaced by the Cree. The Métis also played an important role along the river during the fur trade, and the community of Fort McMurray was built in 1870 to facilitate transportation across the Methye Portage.
The Clearwater’s greatest recreational value lies in the opportunity it provides for visitors to experience an extended wilderness canoe and camping trip through an area of unspoiled and outstanding natural beauty. Representing virtually every type of river condition from challenging white-water rapids through narrow channels and gorges, to broad, meandering sections with islands and sandbars, this remote river provides an excellent opportunity for experienced paddlers to test their skills.
Three interesting and important pictographs are located on the upper (Saskatchewan) portion of the Clearwater between Lloyd and Careen Lakes. These reddish painted symbols and shapes on vertical rock surfaces are the furthest north and west of all such sites documented to date in Saskatchewan.
The Ministry of Saskatchewan Parks, Culture and Sport and the Alberta Ministry of Environment and Parks are responsible for the CHRS program and the designated section of the Clearwater River in each province. The section of the river that is designated is protected within the Clearwater River Provincial Park in Saskatchewan, and the Clearwater River Committee provides leadership for the designation within Alberta.
The Clearwater River was designated on the strength of its outstanding natural and cultural heritage features, as well as its diverse opportunities for recreation. The Saskatchewan section consisting of 187 km from the outlet of Lloyd Lake to the Alberta border was designated in 1987, while the Alberta section, which includes the 31-km lower section of the Christina River, was designated in 2003. The total length of the designation is 326 km.