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Adventuring into The Past on The Athabasca River with Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures

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The Athabasca River is something most of us in Fort McMurray cross every single day, and often more than once. We watch it anxiously in the spring for the river to break and the rapids to make their way through and push the ice up on it’s banks, and then we get to enjoy it throughout the summer.

THIS SUMMER, I WAS LUCKY enough to be invited on a river trip with the team at Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures, taking a trip that brought us about 160 kilometres upstream from Fort McMurray to a very remote backcountry lodge. Our trip actually saw us drive down to Poacher’s Landing boat launch near Athabasca and then take a roughly five-hour boat trip back downstream the river to get to the lodge, but was it ever worth it!

I learned so much on this three-day trip, far too much to share it all with you, but I’ll do my best to capture the joy, serenity, information and fun we had!


(well, a very small piece of it)

Most of us know that the Athabasca River has an incredible amount of history, and I thought I understood it’s importance to Fort McMurray. But after spending time on it and learning more about it from our river guides, Darcy and Shirley Zelman, I absolutely underestimated it’s power and influence throughout our region’s history.

The Athabasca River is 1,231 km in length (the 14th longest in Canada*) and originates from the Columbia Glacier of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. It runs through Jasper National Park, to the town of Athabasca, then further north to Fort McMurray, and then drains into the Peace-Athabasca Delta near Lake Athabasca at Fort Chipewyan.

It has been inhabited by many different aboriginal tribes, including the Sekani, Shuswap, Kootenay, Salish, Stoney and Cree tribes, who hunted and fished along the river prior to European colonization. From about 1778, the Athabasca, along with the Clearwater river, were part of the main fur trade route from the Mackenzie River to the Great Lakes being used by the Hudson’s Bay Company*.

The Grand Rapids, the main attraction of a trip up to this part of the Athabasca, made transportation of goods very tricky and dangerous. Scows could be guided through the Grand Rapids but often the goods were often drenched and had to be unpacked and dried out before a voyage continued. Goods were transported across the island at a rate of $2.50 a ton and it is estimated that the tramway netted about a half a million dollars a year in profit.**.

Back to the scows; these were boats that were about 35 or 40 feet long and 10 to 12 feet wide, which would hold about 10 or 12 tons.As you can imagine, moving up a swift river against constand headwinds in bad weather with the scrow was arduous work, and required eight to 10 men to pull the boats upstream...laden with cargo.

Once steamboats were constructed, everything changed. Although they weren’t fast boats, they were capable of carrying more cargo and of making more trips than the HBC actually required to supply its northern posts.

As much as these steamboats helped, weak links in the route still remained. The series of rapids from the Grand Rapids north meant time, lives and freight were still lost occasionally, and in bad weather, some of the other rapids downstream also drowned their share of men.

The river was designated a Canadian Heritage River for it’s importance to the fur trade and the construction of the national railways and roads that opened up the Canadian West and thus has been considered a crucial transportation hub that link east and west.


(with so many options, what can you expect?)

With so much history at it’s core, the Athabasca rapids and specifically the Grand Rapids is an ideal place to explore the past.

With no vehicle access at any point of the year to their backcountry lodge, access is limited to paddling, boating, and fly-in’s via float planes, making the trip truly a remote wilderness destination.

Darcy and Shirley go above and beyond to make sure you get the kind of trip you want - completely customizable with them giving advice along the way from their years of experience. Options include all jet boat tours, paddling tours, local day trips, single and multi-day fishing trips, canoe trips and snowmobile trips. With any option comes the knowledge of the local history and stops can include historical points, fishing options and more.

Whatever option you choose, it will be an unforgettable journey through a rarely paddled and pristine stretch of the majestic and historic Athabasca River. For us it was a chance to get out of busy Fort McMurray, unwind, have a few drinks, and spend some quality time together. We got to see lots of wildlife, including bald eagles, deer, pelicans and more. The scenery was spectacular and the natural wonder that is the Grand Rapids will blow your mind.

For those of you who have never heard about the “Grand Rapids” on the Athabasca River, it is essentially a rock formation made of “concretions”. These 6-10 feet wide concretions congregate in the river bed when they’re dislodged by the fast flowing river water from the nearly vertical sandstone wall along the valley. As they tumble into the river, they create natural dams and rapids which run for about 1.6 km and fall for about 35 feet***. They make it very challenging to access this part of the river but with skill and tenacity Darcy gets you close enough to be able to hike through the rapids and enjoy this natural wonder in our very own backyard.


(a.k.a. - the Darcy and Shirley experience)

When you think of a backcountry lodge, you don’t always think about the hospitality you will receive. You first think about the kind of fishing you could probably do, the quality of the lodging, maybe the food and drinks you’ll consume. However, when you think of the Grand Rapids wilderness Adventures you should first think of the five-star level of service and hospitality you will receive. Darcy and Shirley Zelman, a husband and wife team know how to do it right so that you will have the trip you want to have.

Darcy Zelman has spent most of his life as a big game guide and outfitter in northern Alberta, and has been piloting jet boats up and down Athabasca River for over 20 years. With his wife at his side who prepares the most amazing meals and provides great information about the local wildlife and plants indigenous to the area, the pair of them work around the clock to ensure you have the best possible experience. Simple details like showing up with water that’s been heated up in a kettle to get washed up in the morning, to bringing bottles of icy cold water to refresh you when you bask in the sun! That they enjoy being around nature and getting to know new people is obvious and they put care and attention into making you feel welcome.

The cozy log cabins could be out of a movie and certainly make you feel relaxed, at home and ready to enjoy some down time. Without cell reception, you’re able to truly unwind from the busy pace most of us who live and work in Fort McMurray feel. For those of you (myself included) who enjoy working in solitude, or checking in with reality, high-speed internet is available at your pleasure all through the lodge.

If you’re interested in planning your own, very customizable trip to the Grand Rapids on the Athabasca River, contact Darcy and Shirley at 780-675-3784 or email You’ll be happy you did!


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