People & Culture

Crossing time: Alberta’s last river ferries

The province’s remaining river ferries are enduring meeting places, shuttling people and property across this ancient landscape 

A car is transported across the Bow River at the Crowfoot Ferry, 120 kilometres east of Calgary within the Siksika Nation. By 1919, 77 ferries operated in Alberta. Now, only six remain.
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“Everything in my lifetime seems to be across the river,” Molly Douglass told me. I’d come to Newell County in Alberta’s rural southeast to meet Molly and her husband, John. We sat in their dining room, eating a lunch of leftovers from their previous night’s Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to talk to them about crossing the river, as Molly said. More specifically, I wanted to talk about the ferries.

Ranchers and their horses wait to cross the Red Deer River at the Finnegan Ferry near Dorothy, Alta.
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In the late 1800s, European settlers in Alberta established river ferries to serve independent traders and bison hunters. The West was wild then. Many early ferries were unregulated, and opportunistic ferrymen took advantage.

“The rates charged are frequently exorbitant,” complained an 1883 annual report of the North-West Mounted Police, “and the traveller is at the mercy of the owner of the ferry who can, and does, cross him when he is ready and at his own price.” The territorial government eventually imposed a ferries ordinance that would, among other things, regulate tolls and ferrymen salaries, establish safety guidelines and ensure that schoolchildren and “Her Majesty’s mail” be transported free of charge. By 1899, all of Alberta’s ferries were owned by the government. When the government of Alberta was established in 1905, seven ferries operated in the new province. 

Seven wasn’t enough. Immigration boomed in those years. Settlers demanded bridges to convey their livestock, tools, furniture and building supplies — along with the occasional piano — from the new CN rail stations to the homesteads. The fledgling Alberta government could scarcely afford such infrastructure and opted instead to install relatively cheaper ferries. By 1919, 77 ferries traversed Alberta’s waterways.

An evening river crossing on the Bleriot Ferry that brings tourists back from Drumheller and its world-famous dinosaur museum.
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Today only six remain. Three operate in the Alberta Badlands: the Crowfoot Ferry crosses the Bow River, and farther north, the Finnegan Ferry and the Bleriot Ferry cross the Red Deer River. The Klondyke Ferry traverses the Athabasca north of Edmonton. And farther north still, the Shaftsbury and La Crete ferries cross the Peace River.

When I first heard about the river ferries, they seemed to me like something archaic. A relic from a nostalgic Prairie past. I thought they’d resemble the grain elevators that stood iconic on the Prairies before growing obsolete and disappearing. I thought my visit to the ferries of southern Alberta would be a last-chance journey to the end of something. I was wrong, though, in the way that the city-raised often are. The ferries endure because the ferries still serve.

John Douglass uses the Finnegan Ferry nearly every other day. His family grazes cattle on pasture across the Red Deer. “We got 500 head over there. I make sure the fences are up and they’re not gettin’ out,” John told me as he passed the gravy. “We take our post-pounder to fence. And take salt out to the cows. Take the bulls over. And bring ’em back.” In the spring, John’s cows calve there in the long grass. 

Officially, the ferry shuts down each year on November 2, and when the river runs low in the fall there’s always talk about closing early. “But they won’t shut it down until your cattle are home,” Molly said. The annual homecoming was scheduled for the weekend after I visited. As always, area ranchers would meet at the ferry crossing. “Their horses all get hauled over to do the roundup,” said John. The cattle would be forded across the river, but all the ranch hands, their horses and their gear would cross on the ferry. “It’s probably the biggest day of the year for the ferry.”

When I first heard about river ferries, they seemed to me like something archaic. A relic from a nostalgic prairie past. 

When the ferry is shut down for the year, residents must make long detours to get to the other side of the river. Molly and John’s neighbour’s place, for example, is only 13 kilometres away, but a Christmas visit requires an 80-kilometre drive to the Emerson Bridge if the ice isn’t thick enough to drive on. 

Molly told me a story about when she and John were first dating. They planned to attend a spring dance at Homestead Coulee across the Red Deer River before the ferry started running for the year. John drove Molly’s truck to the river’s edge, where they could see the ice had begun to thaw. John turned to Molly and said, “You should take your seatbelt off. And wind down the window.” This way she could more easily escape the truck if they broke through the ice. Before she could object, John eased the truck onto the ice and began slowly driving across. Molly was speechless with terror. What is a new romance, though, without a little danger?

The Borissov family returns from a paddle trip down the Red Deer River at the Bleriot Ferry.
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I drove from the Douglass house to the Finnegan Ferry, named after the Scottish homesteader who first operated a ferry here in 1913. According to local lore, John Finnegan’s wife was as famous for the fine pastries she served at her rooming house as John was for his enduring physical strength. He could still turn the ferry’s hand springs at the age of 75. The current ferry operator, John Kuchle, is also known for his physical strength. “John was a tough guy when he was young,” Molly told me by way of introduction. “A formidable foe.” 

Kuchle has been a Finnegan Ferry operator for six years. He grew up nearby and farmed and ranched in the area for 40 years before running pack horses and mules for hunting camps in northern Alberta and B.C. Kuchle knows many of the farmers on both sides of the river. The small snatches of conversation he enjoys on the five-minute ride across the river keep him up to date on the local gossip. “You’re gonna get to know what everybody’s up to,” he said.

Sometimes he’ll meet passengers whose parents and grandparents farmed in the area years earlier. “It makes it nice for them to come back,” Kuchle said, and he asks his most interesting passengers to sign a guest book and “write a little story.” Most of his passengers are locals, like John Douglass. “He’s been here forever,” Kuchle said. “He crosses lots. He’s got a brother that farms big on both sides of the river and runs lots of cattle. He’s got three boys with him and they cross steady here all summer long.”

One of Kuchle’s other regulars is a young man who used to cross the river to play poker with his friends. “I’ve known him since he was a little kid,” the ferry operator said. “He’ll sit somewhere and play cards and visit with the boys, and he’ll get here maybe five to 12. Or five after 12.” Even though the ferry stopped running at midnight, Kuchle would always wait a few minutes for the card player. “I got to calling him Midnight,” Kuchle said. “Now everybody calls him that.” Midnight and his wife just had a baby, though, and he doesn’t cross for late-night cards as often. 

Brent LeBoutillier (left) and Taylor Mckenzie kiss at the Bassano Dam lookout on the Bow River near the Crowfoot Ferry.
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Cyclists disembark at the Bleriot Ferry during the Gran Fondo Badlands race.
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Farther south, on the Siksika Nation, the Crowfoot Ferry crosses the Makhabn (Bow River). Ferry operator Jeff Kowalski’s passengers resemble the crowd at Finnegan: ranchers, farmers, the occasional oil and gas worker. He also ferries children going to and from the school on the reserve. “I’ve also seen a lot of friendships,” Kowalski said, referring to relationships between migrant workers from Mexico and members of the Siksika Nation. He lowers the ferry ramp for them so they can sit on the edge and fish. I loved the poetry of this scene: one of the Prairies’ most recent arrivals sitting alongside a Siksika man whose people have always been here, each enjoying a quiet morning pulling pike out of the Bow. 

The Siksika have always had some sort of ferry here, too. The Indigenous dwellers of the plains used to wrap bison hide around circular frames of willow saplings to create bowl-shaped bull boats. The vessels could fit one or two people and would either be paddled by a passenger or pulled across by a swimming person or horse. The bull boat builders, usually women, often left the bison’s tail on the hide as a convenient strap to tie a rope: an ancestor to the cable-borne ferries that cross the river today.

The Crowfoot Ferry crossing isn’t just a junction for the human residents of this land. As soon as I arrived, Kowalski pointed into the distance at a figure on the riverbank. “That’s a blue heron. When it flies along the river, its wingtips touch the water. Hopefully you’ll get to see her fly. Because that’s something you’ll never forget.”

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Engaging with the wildlife of this place fills Kowalski’s heart. “I particularly love the pelicans,” he said. He also told me about the summer a female coyote made her den near the ferry terminal. She used to come up to Kowalski and rub against his legs as he sat on his chair reading a book. Beavers lumber past, too, from their dens on the Bow’s edge. Bucks with full racks of antlers come and stand in front of Kowalski’s trailer door sometimes, as if waiting for him to emerge, and let him touch them as he walks past.

I never got to see the heron fly, but Kowalski paused his story to make sure I noticed the bald eagle overhead. Such moments demand reverence.

Two men, a child and three dogs aboard a ferry over Little Smoky River circa 1911. (Photo courtesy University of Calgary)
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Duck Chief (left) and John Drunken Chief at a river crossing on the Blackfoot reserve, now Siksika Nation, in 1910. (Photo courtesy University of Calgary)
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The landscape near Drumheller is made famous by its prehistory and the dinosaurs that stomped through back when the Badlands were wetlands. On the banks of the Red Deer River stands a relic of more recent history, one not yet extinct. The Bleriot Ferry, built here in 1913 by French homesteader André Bleriot, is Alberta’s oldest still-operating river ferry. 

Gerry Connelly was on ferry duty the day I visited. Unlike at the Finnegan and Crowfoot ferries, only one of Connelly’s regulars is a local farmer. “He’s got land on both sides, so he brings his tractors and stuff across,” Connelly said. He ferries a few locals, too, who “just like to go for a drive.” Most of his passengers, though, are tourists. The day before, the Saturday of a long weekend, Connelly worked nonstop from 10 a.m. until nearly 7 p.m. bringing visitors across the river in a steady to-and-fro.

An early morning view of the meandering Red Deer River valley at Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Alta.
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I found the idea of the ferry as a tourist attraction strange at first. What thrills could be had in dawdling, seven-minute journeys across a hundred metres of shallow water? The answer lies in the setting. The striated hills of the Red Deer River valley rose up around us, each horizontal band of sediment signalling a petrified line of time. No wonder so many visitors would want to linger here for a few minutes. “You don’t see this landscape anywhere else,” Connelly said.

There was something else, though. It wasn’t the scenery that most entranced me. As I rode the ferries, taking voyages so slow and quiet I could barely tell we were moving at all, I found myself valuing the slowness and quiet itself. Each of the ferries I visited did more than simply transfer me across a river. Each enforced a short reprieve from dusty highway journeys. The ferries insist you pause. Not for a burger or bathroom or a tank of gas. Just a few slow minutes to catch a bit of gossip, or a glimpse of a bald eagle. Or maybe just to catch your breath.

Cowboy Aiden Lewis (left) and ferryman Jim Mittelstadt at the Finnegan Ferry. For generations, families of ranchers and farmers have been relying on this ferry to ensure safe travel across the river.
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This story is from the July/August 2023 Issue

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