Fire and water sustain us. We need the nourishment of air, like a fire does, and we need water. The planet Earth is 70 per cent water and so are we. Sitting by a body of water comforts us because a river runs through us, as well as the landscape of southern Alberta.
A watershed is defined as an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas. The Lethbridge County area is part of the Oldman Watershed Basin. The Oldman River begins as a collection of rivulets and trickles that merge into a creek way up in the Rocky Mountains in the Beehive Natural Area. This is an area of alpine tundra otherwise known as “above the timber-line.” The rain falls and snow melts in spring, releasing the nourishment we so desperately need many miles away on the semi-arid desert of southern Alberta.
On the mountain tops only tough plants and lichens can survive where the wind blows and it’s colder because of the low air pressure. The Pika and other members of the rabbit family, mountain goats and bighorn sheep can live up there in summer but the large mammals have to move below the timber line in fall. Of course the predators of these creatures will occasionally take a tour up there too, to look for a meal.
Below the alpine are the old-growth subalpine forests of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. Birds such as the Ruby Crowned Kinglet, the Grey Jay and the Hermit Thrush live there. I love the call of the Swainson’s Thrush as well, at dusk. Mammals like the Pine Martin, Yellow-Bellied Marmot, bear, cougar, and elk make use of the upper elevation forests, too.
The little creeks and streams keep draining the land and join and flow into the foothills and ranching country. The Aspen, Ponderosa pine, Lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and White spruce, Limber and White-bark pine are home to bears, mountain lions, elk, moose, deer, grouse, and many more animals and birds sip from the sloughs and creeks that pass through their habitat. Now rare trout such as the Bull and Cutthroat reproduce in the cold streams.
The Oldman is joined by the Crowsnest and Castle rivers then to the east by the Waterton, Belly, and St. Mary Rivers by the time it moves onto the prairie. Willow Creek joins them near Fort Macleod. Fort Macleod has a good place to launch a canoe into the Oldman River.
Before 1915, the river that flows past Lethbridge was called the Belly River and its tributary was called the Old Man River. Politicians thought the name Belly was a bit rude. Eventually, a geologist pointed out the Old Man River has a bigger stream flow than the Belly at their confluence so they changed its name.
At Lethbridge, the St.Mary River comes up from the south and unites with the Oldman. Off past Taber and Grassy Lake it flows. Then it joins with the Bow River to form the Saskatchewan River. From its birth in the Rocky Mountains, the life-giving river flows about 360 kilometres to the Hudson Bay. For many centuries people camped and hunted by the river. They collected berries, firewood, and stones there and used the river water to wash in. The river was and is as sacred as the river that flows in our bloodstream.
Today, eighty-seven percent of total surface water and groundwater is devoted to agriculture.
I wonder how many farmers give thanks to the river, as it flows out the irrigation lines and pivots. A lot of jobs depend on agriculture.
I wonder how many of us deposit our cheques into the bank knowing the Oldman River came all this way and flows through the whole landscape of our lives.