Right now, there’s a small section of the Bow River bank in Fish Creek Provincial Park that looks like it’s been gift-wrapped in burlap. But what’s really interesting is what’s going on underneath the surface of the river at this spot, the longest side-channel on the Bow between Bearspaw, just west of Calgary, and Carseland, more than 50 km southeast of the city.
The channel cuts out of the main flow of the river at a right angle, circuiting the north end of Poplar Island and providing near-pristine fish habitat, created through a partnership between the park and Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC), with an assist from the 2013 flood.
The channel was identified by TUC as a key trout habitat 20 years ago, and some excavation and surveying was done then, but by 2012 the spot had no water flow at all in fall and winter, and biologists were looking at ways of opening it up again. The flood saved them the time and trouble, reopening and deepening it and creating an excellent opportunity to demonstrate TUC work in conserving and enhancing fish habitat in a place that’s easily accessible to park visitors.
A couple of months ago, TUC staff, contractors and volunteers went to work on a section of the river bank adjacent to the channel. They lined it with heavy logs with intact “root wads” that create lots of hiding spots for fish outside the main run of the water, and wrapped the bank in layers of jute and coconut fibre for natural protection against erosion. Volunteers planted more than 2,700 willow and poplar stakes, which will further arm the bank as time goes on.
Lesley Peterson is a biologist with TUC, and has been hands-on with this project for the past year. “This will hold everything together until the willow roots take hold,” she says. “The willow will grow out to provide shade. All of this improves riparian and river health and function, and when you have a healthy, functioning river, you have fish, birds, insects.”
TUC biologists expect the channel to become a popular spawning area for brown trout and mountain whitefish, which lay eggs in the fall so they can incubate all winter. Peterson and her colleagues will check back on the habitat to see if there’s a change in spawning numbers as it gets more established, and will be particularly interested in how it holds up in future high water events.
But she’s particularly happy about creating this opportunity in such a high profile spot in the city, just south of the Sue Higgins Bridge at Mallard Point. “We want to show that you can protect riparian areas by incorporating some natural structures,” she says. The fish likely agree: “Fish like areas where they don’t have to exert any effort.”