Chapter 6. Recreating AT The River

So many of us enjoy outdoor recreation in the Elbow watershed, whether it be hiking or camping or off-roading or canoeing. Careful as we might be, the impact from our activities can still result in areas within the watershed that are damaged and need the care of volunteers, such as those that assembled on a May afternoon. In the McLean Creek Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), it was cold, damp and muddy down by the stream and the surrounding spruce-clad hills were shrouded in a light mist. Our motley group of rubberbooted people carried shovels, saws and long lengths of cut willow down the sloppy access road to the creek. Colourful rainjackets provided the only splash of warmth on that grey day as we started an afternoon’s work in the McLean Creek Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) area. This was the second day of a two-day workshop organized by the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) — another in a series of initiatives to improve conditions within the watershed and to raise awareness about water issues.

The previous morning, a dozen other workshop participants gathered at the Elbow Station Fire Base for training in soil bioengineering. In preliminary workshop introductions, the wide range of people participating became obvious. College students, provincial government employees, academics and environmentalists and all stated a common interest in learning more about landscape restoration and reclamation, and in implementing this knowledge within the Elbow watershed.

Over the day, our instructor reviewed soil bioengineering history, methodology and successful project examples of the use of live plant materials for restoration and reclamation of damaged riparian sites. Engrossing stuff for me and others who believe in the power of things natural and native. The second day’s work would involve cutting truckloads of live willow, a fast-rooting and fast-sprouting native species at home in riparian environments, from nearby thickets. The willow was to be used to repair stream banks and adjacent slopes torn up by all-terrain vehicles in the McLean Creek area. And so, the second morning found our group spread out in the muck of a tall willow patch, sawing off the straightest and largest branches possible and dragging them to the road for pickup. Next, we went to the creekside, ready to begin the actual construction.

The ERWP bioengineering workshop took place in the McLean Creek OHV Area, created in 1977 as one of three in Kananaskis Country specified for OHV use. McLean Hill, McLean Creek and McLean Pond are all named for Jack McLean, who established an independent logging operation in the area around the turn of the 20th century. He was the first, but not the last, to float logs down the Elbow River to the upand- coming town of Calgary. About one-third of this 200-square-kilometre OHV area lies within the Elbow River watershed; the remainder is in the Fish Creek watershed to the south. Within the OHV area is the McLean Creek Provincial Recreation Area which includes 170 heavily-used campsites, a campers’ store, two day-use areas for picnickers, and a couple of self-guided walking trails. It is a busy area, winter or summer. So busy, in fact, that its recreational users multiplied by an amazing 450 percent between 1990 and 1999.

After OHVing, fishing is perhaps the next most popular recreational activity here, and receives considerable attention from government agencies. McLean Pond, a small silvery reservoir dammed on McLean Creek in 1983 and stocked every spring by the government with thousands of rainbow trout, provides fishermen with seasonal sport. Upriver on the main Elbow, between Canyon Creek and Elbow Falls, the silt-free water provides valuable spawning habitat for bull trout. Elbow tributaries like Quirk, Silvester and Howard creeks in the McLean Creek area provide critical habitat for fall-spawning bull trout and for spring-spawning westslope cutthroat trout (a threatened species in Alberta). Quirk Creek has been part of a native trout restoration project since 1995, when it was discovered that nearly the whole creek had been colonized by the non-native brook trout. Current thinking says brookies are bad — but why are they even here?

Figure 6-1. Sketch map of former Elbow Ranger Station and Elbow River recreation areas, including McLean Creek OHV Public Land Use Zone.

Figure 6-1. Sketch map of former Elbow Ranger Station and Elbow River recreation areas, including McLean Creek OHV Public Land Use Zone.

 Working for the Watershed: The ERWP

The Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) was formed in 2002 to bring stakeholders together to “protect and enhance water quality and quantity” in the Elbow watershed, with the vision of providing ample clean water for all. In many watersheds in Canada and elsewhere, water issues have become so critical and potentially divisive that such partnerships are seen as an important approach to achieving collaborative results. Watershed stakeholders are broadly-based, and include four levels of government, private industry (including land developers), individual land owners, environmental and research organizations, universities and First Nations, along with the general public. 

Since its formation, the ERWP has built up a significant membership, organized stakeholder and volunteer workshops and meetings, fostered relationships with other similar groups and sponsored awareness-building and educational activities. These activities promote the importance of caretaking of watersheds in general and of the Elbow watershed in particular, where no such effort previously existed. The ERWP also provides input to regional water issues as a member of the Bow River Basin Council (BRBC), the Alberta Stewardship Network, and the Water for Life provincial program.