www.iamcalgary.ca I Am Calgary Float the Bow w Gary

Floating the Bow and our kayaking essentials checklist

As novice kayakers, it was quite an adrenaline rush to gather our equipment, load the boats, decide upon a suitable launch location and then stand on the banks of the Bow River surveying its flow pattern.  This, partly to look as if I knew what I was doing and partly to reconsider whether we should be doing this at all.  As it turned out, it was the best thing we did that day.  So much so, we repeated the thrill a week later, this time inviting my gung-ho niece, Lindsay, to enjoy the experience along with Christa and I.  It was a blast.

All packed and ready to hit the water

We had been on the Bow River with friends several years prior when we rented a large raft.  So, the experience on the river wasn’t completely foreign to us.  Somehow, though, floating solo in a kayak was a little more thrilling.

There are numerous ways to “float the Bow”, as Calgarians affectionately call it.

Inflatable rafts, tubes, kayaks or stand-up paddle boards are the most common formats.  These may be rented from several well-known outfits like Sports Rent, AQ Outdoors, or the ever-popular Lazy Day Raft Rentals.  These are some of our go-to friendly Calgary outfits.

Kayakers, rafters and tubers navigating the shallow waters in late summer on the Bow

Floating season for the novice could be anytime from the May long weekend (or even earlier) through to September, by which time water levels in the Bow have started to drop making navigating the river’s flow a little trickier.  There are periods when meltwater from the nearby thawing Rocky Mountain ice-packs cause water flow to be substantially stronger.  During this time, the river runs fast and full, and the temperature can be pretty invigorating, to say the least.  Later in the season – from mid-July – the river is generally calmer, making it one of Canada’s most sought-after, family-friendly urban rafting and tourist activities.

The City of Calgary issues great guidelines for river-users.  Several items on their list – which we have duplicated below – are mandatory.  The Calgary Fire Department’s river rescue team patrol the river daily throughout the busy periods.  If you are found floating without the mandatory items, or being irresponsible, you will be subject to a fine or at least a very severe warning.

An example of several City of Calgary information boards posted at various launch locations along the river
The Calgary Fire Department patrolling the river during the busy leisure seasons

Here is a list of requirements for river users, issued by the Fire Department.  Mandatory items are highlighted with an (*):

  • A watercraft (*) that is appropriate for river use and that meets the weight capacity of your group;
  • properly fitting life jackets (*) or personal flotation devices for each person on board;
  • cell phone;
  • water and refreshments;
  • sun protection;
  • water safety kit (*) that includes the following mandatory items:
    • a bailing device to remove water from inside the watercraft. A hand-held bailer can be purchased or made by cutting the end of a bleach bottle;
    • a paddle or oar to help you control your craft;
    • a sound-signalling device to help with navigation, alerting others of your approach, or in case of emergency. This could be a portable air horn, whistle, mechanical whistle or bell;
    • a heaving rope or towing line (15 metres long) that floats to use for rescue or to pull your craft to safety;
    • navigation or safety light to be used at night or in poor visibility.

Before departing for your splash fest on the water, be sure to familiarize yourself with the following City of Calgary water safety recommendations:

  • River conditions and flow rates. Not sure what the flow rates mean? Visit understanding flow rates for more information;
  • Weather conditions at Environment Canada.  For safety advisories: If river conditions require, we will post safety advisories on this page as well as on our Facebook and Twitter. If you are unsure about the status of an advisory, call 3-1-1;
  • The river’s course, safe put in points, and known hazards. Find out more on our river access page;
  • For water quality advisories by visiting the Alberta Health Services website. River water quality can vary due to heavy rainfall and upstream sources;
  • Remember to tell someone responsible where you are going and when you expect to return.

The estimated time you will spend on the river is dependent on several variables: river flow rate, size and type of your craft, number of people in your party, any stops you might choose to make on route, and your launch and finish point, to name the most obvious.  Our preferred launch point has been Baker Park, where parking is readily available nearby.  Our favourite finish point has been along River Walk in the East Village at the George C. King pedestrian bridge where street or city lot parking is readily available nearby.  By kayak, this roughly 17km paddle has taken us a comfortable two hours.  By raft, this may be closer to three hours.  Check out a high-speed video I captured of the downtown section of our route in summer 2018 on our YouTube channel.

While easing our kayaks into the eddies at the river’s edge, and then trying to step into the boats without capsizing them or butt-planting onto the river bank, it took significant concentration for this novice couple to not lose our oars to the river’s clutches. Expert kayakers make this look so effortless. Yet once in the craft and being swept downstream by the current the world returned to it’s calm tranquility.

The river really does tend to morph one along without the need to expend much energy. All we really needed to do was steer, hold our course, and try not to reverse down the rapids, as Christa casually did despite my repeated warnings.

As we meandered through the various neighbourhoods, we could only wonder how some of the residents of the homes with sprawling river-font yards spent their days. Living rooms with floor-to-ceiling picture windows opening to gorgeous patios; colourful reclining deck chairs; hammocks strung between towering trees; jungle gyms; secluded bistro sets in hidden gardens. Closer to downtown we bypassed familiar city parks. The snaking CN railway line that parallels and criss-crosses the river feels like an ever-present handrail to a scenic walkway.

Approaching the downtown skyline is always somehow surreal to me. It’s not often that one is able to enjoy this kind of raw nature within an urban setting. Seeing Calgary from this vantage point makes for compelling photographic opportunities that somehow never quite capture the moment. River traffic increases as one approaches downtown. You become more aware of fellow river-users propelling their water craft in varying group sizes, some expressing loud guffaws while others are just enjoying casual chatter. It really is the most sociable and enjoyable way to spend a few hours on a summer’s day.

Passing the railway bridges at Bowness
Encountering a light sprinkle of rain as we approach Edworthy Park
It’s always thrilling to approach downtown and be reminded just how privileged we are as Calgarians to be able to enjoy this outdoor activity right on our doorstep. This would be the envy of anyone around the world.
Approaching downtown from Crowchild Trail
Approaching one of the numerous downtown bridges
Approaching the C-Train and pedestrian bridge
Calgary’s iconic Peace Bridge at Prince’s Island Park
Approaching the gateway to the city, Centre Street Bridge
Christa nearing the end of her paddle while a downtown C-train passes overhead
Beaching and ending our paddle in the East Village across from St Patrick’s Island Park
Our summer paddling trio

The logistics of arranging equipment drop-off and pick-up for your group is probably the biggest challenge of the day’s activity.  We have tended to leave our vehicle at our launch point.  Once reaching our final destination, one of us has caught a taxi or Uber back to our launch location (approximately a 20-minute drive), retrieved our vehicle and returned to the end point to pick up the waiting members of our party and the equipment.  You will need to be sure to figure out these logistics – and factor in the extra wait- or travel-time and possible cost – before embarking on your adventure.  Lazy Day Raft Rentals offer a convenient shuttle service with raft delivery to your launch location at a very competitive rate that is well-worthwhile for the convenience.  Check out their website for details.

Additional helpful items that we like bringing along include:

  • waterproof camera or GoPro;
  • gloves to combat blisters if you’re not used to rowing, particularly once your hands are wet and soft;
  • ziploc or other water-tight bags;
  • towel;
  • water-friendly shoes;
  • a light-weight long-sleeved top for sun protection and / or for warmth in the event of a sudden change in weather or a breeze picking up across the cool river waters;
  • a dry change of clothing;
  • credit card or cash to enjoy a beverage or snack at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery along River Walk in the East Village at your end-point while you wait for your pick-up.

Enjoy watching some of the more experienced paddlers and river surfers as they hone their skills on the white-waters of man-made rapids system at Harvie Passage, accessible to the public for viewing from Pearce Estate Park. Look out for events to showcase their skills

Gary getting in on the action as a group of kayakers hone their skills at Harvie Passage
Kayakers ride the white water at Harvie Passage while onlookers enjoy the action from the creative and extensive seating along the length of the route
Water flow through Harvie Passage varies throughout the season, making each visit there potentially different

We can hardly wait to wet out boats and dip our oars into the Bow again, and enjoy a few more outings with family and friends this summer season. 

For another great family-friendly adrenaline-rush summer outdoor activity, check out our blog about Skyline Luge.

Share your favourite floating-the-Bow experiences with us by leaving a comment below.

IAC’s Moral-of-the-moment: Why paddle alone when you could splash about with friends?


Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all safety guidelines, recommendations and City of Calgary-related website links have been used with credit to the City of Calgary and were correct at the time of publishing this article.

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