As our water taxi pulled up to the dock in Winnipeg's Exchange District, a boy was hauling a channel catfish the size of my arm out of the murky shallows of the Red River. The muscular fish slid from the water seemingly half-asleep, its whiskers twitching as though it had just woken up from a nap in the sun.
Although the pastoral scene would have made a perfect summer postcard, the Red River isn't a place for Huck Finn types who dream of lazy days floating on a wooden raft. The Red is a waterway of epic proportions - its primordial power first acknowledged by the Cree, who called it Miscousipi, the Red Water River. The only major river on the Canadian Prairies that flows north, its quiet surface often explodes in a torrent of floodwaters that wreak havoc on the people and landscape around it.
Now, its importance is being recognized. At the Canadian Heritage River Conference in Winnipeg, June 10-13, bets are it will be designated a Canadian Heritage River, joining such distinguished waterways as the Fraser, the Rideau and the Athabasca.
To be granted heritage status, a river must meet a rigorous set of federal, provincial and territorial criteria that consider its natural, cultural and/or recreational values. The Red boasts an illustrious record on all counts. Much as it carved its way across the prairie landscape, the Red River also shaped Western Canada's history. Native settlements along its banks date back more than 6,000 years. From its headwaters in South Dakota, the river's 877-kilometre route was a vital link in a transportation network that connected first with east-to-west waterways, then north to Lake Winnipeg and finally Hudson Bay. It was a vital fur-trade route for the Hudson's Bay Company and Northwest Company that included Upper Fort Garry, Lower Fort Garry and Fort Gibraltar during the 1700s and 1800s. Later, the Red River Valley's rich soil was an agricultural hub for European settlers.
Despite its pivotal role, the Red spent much of the past century being overlooked. Hidden behind railway and industrial yards, it was a slice of murky water that meandered quietly behind the cottonwood trees lining its banks - unless it raised its watery head to overflow its banks.
"Most of the time, the Red is a pretty good-natured river," says Jeff Palmer of Rivers West, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing the Red River Corridor as a destination. "Even when it floods, it gives plenty of notice."
Of all of the rivers that flow through Canada's capital cities, the Red has overflowed its banks more times than any other. Almost every resident has tales of sandbagging, evacuation or rescue in their family history. In 1997's devastating Flood of the Century, the Red grew in width from a normal 180 metres to 30 kilometres, forcing more than 28,000 people from their homes.
Despite the spectre of annual flooding, the establishment of the Forks National Historic Site at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in 1989 transformed the river's image. Today, its banks in downtown Winnipeg are the site of one of the most successful urban renewals in Canada. The revitalization of the area's railway yards created an urban oasis offering a mix of food, eclectic shopping and recreation. A fleet of comfortable water taxis ferries visitors to drop-off points along the waterfront, and new outdoor opportunities such as boating, fishing and ice skating abound.
"The Riverwalk and port finally allowed people to reconnect with the river at the water's edge," Palmer explains. "Today, the Forks is Manitoba's most popular tourist attraction."
The metamorphosis is not over. Routes on the Red, a series of more than 20 themed cycling, walking, paddling or driving itineraries, showcases the river's history and culture. Highlights include St. John's Cathedral, where Lord Selkirk first met his settlers in 1817; the Winnipeg Floodway, one of Canada's engineering marvels; and St. Andrews Church, the oldest church in Western Canada. Signature architecture, such as the Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge, which links Winnipeg's downtown to the French Quarter, has reshaped the city skyline.
Although the spotlight might be shining more brightly on the Red with its heritage nomination, for those living nearby the appeal is more immediate. Warm weather means it's time to head to the riverbank and check the water level.
"Often the water seems to retreat before your very eyes," Palmer says. "It's a sure sign summer is on its way."
Pack your bags
WHERE TO STAY
The Fairmont Winnipeg
2 Lombard Place: 1-800-257-7544; http://www.fairmont.com/winnipeg . B&B packages start at $185, single or double.
The Royal Crown
83 Garry St.: 204-947-1990; http://www.rcrown.mb.ca. Enjoy a panoramic view from the 30th and 31st floors in Winnipeg's only revolving restaurant and lounge.
Best Scenic Tour
M.S. Paddlewheel Princess 204-944-8000; http://www.paddlewheelcruises.com. Offers afternoon sightseeing and evening dining and dance cruises.
The Forks market
http://www.theforks.com. This is the place to sample pierogies, rye bread or Steinbach sausage.