Everything I didn't know about the Red River

When I was little, I lived in an apartment building in downtown Saskatoon that overlooked the South Saskatchewan River. The river has lovely blue-green water, rushes almost straight through the city, and never floods. When I moved to Winnipeg, I got to know the Red River, which, in contrast to the river of my childhood, is a repugnant brown, winding back and forth in loops around neighbourhoods, and come spring, a river that may or may not flood. You can’t see into its water, the banks on either side are muddy, they suck at your feet and make you loose your footing. When I sit on a stump to watch the river, I balance my fear against the quiet and try to feel the calm. 

I can’t swim and even if I could, the thought of not being able to see into the water makes me feel as if it holds all kinds of secrets. It might not, really. The Red River might just hold a lot of fish. Paired with the Assiniboine, it shares some seventy nine species out of the one hundred and eighty in Canada, so that if you were to collect fish, you wouldn’t need to leave Winnipeg to find almost half your collection. Most especially, the Red River hosts sturgeon, a great big fish that has evolved since pre-historic times, with a flat bony plate on its head and eyes to the side, almost forced to extinction when in 1890, its meat was found to be a passable substitute for the fancier smoked halibut. Sturgeon are bottom-feeders, they don’t stop growing, and only when they are a mature twenty-five years old do the females spawn every four to six years. 

The Red River is eight hundred and eighty kilometres long, but almost half of that distance is its east-west bends. In a straight line, the Red River travels four hundred and fifty kilometres from the confluence of Ottertail and Bois de Sioux rivers in the United States to lake Winnipeg’s Netley Marsh in the north. Old rivers meander, drawing loops back and forth until perhaps, during a period of high water, there is a breach between the ends of a loop, and the river decides to leave the circuitous path and straighten out a bit. It’s called lateral migration and the abandoned loops become oxbow lakes, and while the Red River is eight thousand years old, it hasn’t created many oxbow lakes. In fact the rate at which it widens its loops is slow, only four centimetres a year near St-Jean-Baptiste. 

It is assumed that there is a valley because there is a river, but for the Red it’s the opposite. There was a glacier, then there was Lake Agassiz, and the clay deposit those two left behind was heavy. It sunk a little and drew tributaries to its centre.

Our time in the history of the Earth is like the lead-lined tip of a long spiralling pencil shaving, and lake Agassiz’ formation and rule over Manitoba was the last big event. So much of what the province is and has is attributed to Lake Agassiz; the dark black soil, the mineral deposits, the south to north flow of the river, the way conifers and then grasslands followed its retreat into the Hudson Bay. 

The Red River tends to flood, forming a lake over land, and it has done so for centuries. Geologists used to look at settlement records, and then examine oak tree rings, and now measure sediment layers in lake Winnipeg for clues into the river’s past floods, concluding that the Red River has a major flood once or twice every one hundred years, and then that these floods occur in clusters: 1747 and 1762 (15 years apart); 1826 and 1852 (26 years apart); 1950, 1979, 1997 and 2011 (29, 18, and 14 years apart). 

Rivers give the impression of time passing, possibly change, but the Red River maintains a kind of temperamental sameness. Its opaque water resembles what it did hundreds and thousands of years before and you wonder if in all its consistency it’s not just us who are temperamental. The more I learn about it, the better I appreciate it. 

I learned all of this thanks to a great little book entitled “In Search of Canada’s Ancient Heartland; Discover Manitoba’s Geology, Palaeontology and Archaeology” by Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway, published just this year. My favourite quote from the book is about climate change on page 34. It reads: “In fact, even as we worry about global warming, even as arctic and mountain glaciers shrink, even as polar bears sit each fall at the edge of Hudson Bay, doing the polar bear equivalent of twiddling their paws, we are STILL in the midst of the Ice Age. Our warming world is simply an interglacial period, a period between glaciations, though admittedly one that may indeed be significantly affected by the impact of human endeavours.”