Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Danger flows from calm

Qu'Appelle River Dam the western edge of drainage basin

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DOUGLAS PROVINCIAL PARK, Sask. ---- On a windy March morning at the Qu'Appelle River Dam, the only sign of life is a coyote crossing a snow-covered field below the spillway.

The lip of this dam -- 27 metres high, 3.1 kilometres across -- is the smaller of two embankments that created the artificial Lake Diefenbaker, the largest body of water in Saskatchewan below the Canadian Shield.

Lake Diefenbaker's other major dam, the 64-metre-high Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River, is far more famous because it's among the biggest embankments in the world.

But the Qu'Appelle River Dam is important to Winnipeggers because it represents the western edge of the Red River drainage basin, a massive expanse of relatively flat land where all the rivers and lakes are upstream of where you probably are right now.

The Red River drainage basin stretches far beyond the Red itself to cover 288,000 square kilometres of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Dakotas and Minnesota.

It's roughly 925 kilometres wide, from a rivulet near Central Butte, Sask., to the marshes east of Red Lake, Minn. It's also about 875 kilometres deep, stretching from the north in Saskatchewan's Nut Hills -- the source of the Assiniboine River -- to Lake Traverse on the Minnesota-South Dakota border in the south.

The Assiniboine, Red Lake, Pembina, Roseau, Souris, Sheyenne and Pembina rivers all drain directly or indirectly into the Red.

And so does the Qu'Appelle, which spills out of Lake Diefenbaker as a trickle and then meanders through an impressive valley carved out of southern Saskatchewan by glacial meltwaters thousands of years ago before it drains into the Assiniboine River at St. Lazare.

Near the source of the Qu'Appelle, road maps suggest the existence of a town called Bridgeford. The tiny hamlet actually amounts to a couple of buildings at the junction of Saskatchewan Highways 19 and 367.

Happily, Douglas Provincial Park begins just north of the Qu'Appelle River Dam.

Even during the winter, you can pull off Highway 19 and drive up a short, icy loop road to a vantage point above the dam and the frozen surface of Lake Diefenbaker. Saskatchewan Highways & Infrastructure recently plowed the loop, apparently just for me.

The coyote at the spillway is the only living thing I spotted outdoors on a -18 C day in this relatively empty corner of south-central Saskatchewan, aside from pickup trucks and semi-trailers. I counted three coyotes in total on the drive up to the spill. The source of the Assiniboine River proved a little more lively. While the river's source in the Nut Hills can only be reached by making a trek into the bush, within 40 kilometres it crosses Saskatchewan Highway 49 at the town of Preeceville, which not only exists but has 1,000 residents and will celebrate its centennial year in 2012.

The pesky anniversary led the town to cover its "Welcome to Preeceville, headwaters of the Assiniboine" signs with advertisements for next year's centenary, depriving me of a cheap photo op.

The Assiniboine itself in Preeceville is a fraction of its flow in Winnipeg. The river valley is only a fraction of the depth of the grand post-glacial spillway that provides enough of a drop for downhill skiers at Asessippi Provincial Park.

Plenty of Preeceville homes face the Assiniboine, but there were no people on the river itself. On the -26 C morning I visited, a pair of large, white-tailed deer scampered down the banks onto a surface already stapled with other deer tracks.

To canoe from here to The Forks would take a summer. To drive, about six hours.

It's roughly eight hours by car from The Forks to the Qu'Appelle River Dam and the western edge of the Red River basin.

The snowpack in the region is deep, but there is little talk in southern Saskatchewan about the flood expected this spring, much further downstream, where the Qu'Appelle will deposit its burden.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 4, 2011 A11

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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