Floating Calgary’s Rivers
Are you interested in floating one of Calgary’s rivers this summer? Check out some tips around where to start, what to bring and how to assess hazards. For general water safety, visit calgary.ca/watersafety.
Call 9-1-1 if there is an emergency.
Drift boats, canoes, kayaks, or rafts powered by human efforts are welcome on the Bow River. The Federal Government prohibits any motorized watercraft such as motor boards or seadoos within Calgary city limits.
Calgary’s two rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, have several launch points within the City.
The Bow River flows eastward and southward. It is usually deep, with fast-moving water and several features for users of varying experience levels, like Harvie Passage, and the standing Wave on 10 Street NW.
The Elbow River flows eastward from the city’s western edge and is usually shallow and calm compared to the Bow. This river is ideal for families and inexperienced rafters.
Specific river access sites have been selected because to pose the least risk to the environment. For example, while walking along the riverbank you may track harmful sediment into a particularly sensitive area or you may not be aware that where you launch your raft is an important fish spawning area. By using designated sites, you can help ensure the health of the river for years to come.
Floating the Bow River can take between one and seven hours, depending where you launch.
Floating the Elbow River can take between three and six hours depending where you launch.
River float times also depend on water levels and flow rates. For a detailed breakdown based on start and end points visit our river access page.
Several items are essential for a safe and enjoyable floating experience.
- Watercraft that is appropriate for river use and meets the weight capacity of your group.
- Properly fitting life jackets or personal flotation devices are required for everyone on board.
- Complete Water safety kit to carry in your watercraft. They are sold at most general goods and outdoor recreational retailers.
- Cell phone to call for help in case of emergency.
- Water and refreshments.
- Sunscreen and hats.
Learn more about lifejackets, water safety kits, and general water safety at Calgary.ca/watersafety.
Wearing a life jacket is required by bylaw on all of calgary’s waterways. Failure to comply is ticketed offence, which entails a mandatory court appearance and up to $500 in fines.
Whitewater rafts are made from strong sturdy materials such as polyester or nylon, and are typically coated with a synthetic rubber. Pool inflatables (air mattresses or inner tubes) are not recommended for use on the rivers, as they are not durable and can easily tear when they come into contact with rocks or debris.
Every raft should be equipped with two paddles and rope. Ensure you familiarize yourself with weight capacity and usage instructions.
- Check river flow rates at rivers.alberta.ca and read understanding flow rates
- Check for river safety advisories at calgary.ca/watersafety
- Familiarize yourself with the river’s course and hazards
- Tell someone you trust about your plans and when you will be finished
- Arrange for transportation from your end point back to your vehicle at your launch point
You should know where you are headed and what obstacles/water features are on your route. Examples include bridge abatements, underwater hazards, shallow spots, etc.
On the Bow River, the following hazards should be noted:
- 10 Street wave: Keep north (left) when approaching 10 Street. Not only is this wave dangerous for rafters, it also frequently has surfers who could be injured by oncoming rafts.
- At Harvie Passage there are two passages for river users:
- Eastern (river left) passage: This is considered a Class 3 passage. This passage should not be used by inexperienced or less-experienced boaters as the risk is significant. Experienced boaters should still exercise caution while navigating this passage.
- Western (river right) passage: This is a Class 2 passage. The waters are slower moving; however, caution is still required when navigating through this passage.
- There are also opportunities for less-experienced boaters to exit the river before the passage and portage the major water features.
- Always look out for other hazards to avoid such as trees, waves and rocks. Bridge pillars in particular can capsize even sturdy rafts.
- Never tie craft, such as rafts, together.
- Be aware that the Bow River may be very cold and very fast, and is generally not suitable for swimming.
River water quality can vary due to heavy rainfall and upstream sources such as agriculture, stormwater discharges, wildlife that live in the corridor, high river flows, recreation and other factors. Alberta Health Services monitors the water quality of the Bow and Elbow Rivers and issues advisories.
Yes, being intoxicated and/or transporting alcohol or drugs on Calgary’s waterways is illegal. Operating watercraft requires focus, concentration and quick reaction to frequently-changing river conditions. Intoxication by alcohol or drugs can impair your judgement on the water much like it does on the road.
Police and Bylaw officers patrol Calgary’s waterways throughout the summer. Anyone engaging in unsafe or disrespectful behaviour on the water will be subject to fines.
Litter and public urination are the most common infractions. With portable toilets and garbage cans at each designated access point, river users can now do their part to make sure these harmful activities do not affect our environment.
If you see someone in trouble on the river:
- Call 9-1-1
- Shout for help
- Try to reach out to the person with an object they can grab onto, like a rope of paddle
- If you can’t reach the person, try throwing a Personal Flotation Device
- Don’t leave, try to stay near them and reassure them that help is on the way