There’s More Than One Way to Cross a River

by Paul Bunner

If there is one thing that every single one of the 1.3 million people who live in the Edmonton Capital Region agree on, it is that the North Saskatchewan River Valley is the best natural asset we have. Ask how we can make the best use of that asset, however, and you’ll get 1.3 million different opinions.

I know this because I’ve been opining on the subject ever since I settled in the great downtown river valley community of Cloverdale 28 years ago. Not everyone has disagreed with every idea I’ve had, although at last count the nays are running ahead of the ayes at roughly 700,000 to 600,000.

Most recently I received a barrage of nays in response to my suggestion that the City of Edmonton should consider a summer ferry or water taxi service, and a winter ice path, to transport pedestrians and bicyclists back and forth across the river downtown during the estimated 34 months that the beloved old Cloverdale footbridge is being torn down and replaced by a combined LRT-pedestrian bridge as part of the Valley Line LRT project.

I offered this suggestion to an Edmonton Journal reporter who was sufficiently intrigued to do a story about it. Being a diligent journalist, she sought out expert reaction from a river hydrology expert who said, more or less, that the ice path was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard. So I am very grateful to the editor of the River Valley Alliance newsletter for this opportunity to set the record straight, and attempt to rebut the arguments against the summer ferry/winter ice path proposal.

First of all, the City asked for my opinion as part of its “public engagement process.” They put out the call last spring, as part of a survey and count of bridge users which found that about 1500 people use it every weekday, rising to about 2300 a day on weekends.

I initially recommended the cheapest ferry I could imagine: A modest, flat-decked scow with a railing around the deck, powered by small outboard motor, that could carry 10-15 pedestrians and cyclists at a time from the existing boat launch at Rafters Landing (where the Edmonton Queen riverboat is anchored) to the temporary dock the City installs every summer at the riverside promenade below the Convention Centre.

Someone then suggested water taxis, such as ply False Creek in Vancouver, as an option. They’re worth considering, but I’m partial to the ferry because it would probably be cheaper, and it would pay historical homage to the old John Walter ferry that connected Edmonton to Old Strathcona a century ago, before the Low Level Bridge was built.

Shopping the idea around last summer, the most common response I got was “cool.” So, emboldened by the substantial increase in my ayes count, I decided to expand the idea to include a winter ice path. This proved my undoing when the aforementioned river expert told the Journal reporter that the downtown ice pack is inherently unstable because of the periodic winter release of large volumes of water from the Bighorn and Brazeau dams.

I am the furthest thing from a river expert, obviously, but those dams are hundreds of kilometres upstream from Edmonton, and during my three decades in the downtown river valley, I have never seen a winter river tsunami.  From my observations, the ice pack below the Convention Centre and McKinney Park is very stable from December to March. Judging by all the footprints criss-crossing it – animal and human – it is widely considered safe to traverse.

But even I wouldn’t recommend doing so unless an ice path was carefully built up, marked, monitored and maintained. This would involve an ice auger, a couple pumps and some water hose for building up the path, and a bobcat for clearing the snow off it. In other words, like the summer ferry, it would be cheap.

Winnipeg builds ice skating paths on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, despite the alleged menace of their upstream dams. Dawson City does it on the Yukon River, which I’m told is 30 feet deep and very fast flowing under the ice. And in the 1950s, as the Journal recently reported in a piece mined from its archives, an ice road was built across the North Saskatchewan in east Edmonton to carry fully-loaded 20-tonne gravel trucks from one side to the other. It used refrigerated pipes to sustain the road but that would hardly be necessary to hold up an ice path for walkers, bikers and skaters.

I’m agnostic about the recently-floated idea for an Edmonton “freezeway” involving refrigerated sidewalks that would carry ice skaters from the Blatchford Field redevelopment to downtown and beyond.  But I can’t imagine why we would go to all that trouble and expense when we have a natural “freezeway” running through the heart of the city.

Inspired by the Uber “pirate taxi” service, I’m thinking of buying a little boat, painting a skull-and-crossbones on the prow, and running my own outlaw ferry during the three summers the bridge is down. And all those human footprints you see on the ice below when you now walk across the bridge in winter? From 2016-2019, some of them might be mine.

Paul Bunner is a freelance journalist and member of the River Valley Alliance Advisory Committee who has lived in the downtown Edmonton river valley community of Cloverdale for nearly three decades. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not the River Valley Alliance.