Red Deer River Canyon’s bid to become a national park

This year marks the centennial of Parks Canada, the world’s oldest parks service. There have been events and celebrations throughout the year all across Canada.

While the Canadian (Dominion) Parks Service was established in 1911, the first national park was created in Banff at the Cave and Basin mineral hot spring in 1885.

What has been forgotten is the fact that at the turn of the last century, a national park was almost established a short distance east of Red Deer at the Red Deer River Canyon.

The Red Deer River Canyon is a unique, but relatively young (geologically speaking) natural feature. It was created near the end of the last Ice Age. As the vast glacial sheets retreated northwards, the meltwaters were prevented by the ice from following the course of the pre-glacial Red Deer River (the old riverbed now forming what is known as the Chain Lakes near Ponoka and New Norway).

As a result, a massive Glacial Lake Red Deer was formed, bounded the glaciers to the north, the Divide and Hunting (Horn and Antler) Hills to the east and south, and Poplar Ridge to the west.

Water can only be held back for so long.

Eventually, the massive pent-up meltwaters created a gap through the Divide Hills, a short distance downstream from where the current Blindman River enters the Red Deer. The sudden rush of water cut the dramatic new channel that is the Red Deer River Canyon.

Not surprisingly, this spectacular feature was a major landmark in the region. It therefore attracted a great deal of attention over the subsequent millennia.

Many of the First Peoples hunted and camped in and around the Canyon. Early legends developed about the origin of the enormous gash through the prominent range of hills.

There is a major outcrop of sandstone in the Canyon, which became widely known as the Old Man or the Faces due to its strong resemblance to the face of an old man. Until they became victim to ongoing erosion, there used to be carvings in that sandstone, some of which could be dated back at least two hundred years, if not older.

In the 1860s, the famous missionaries George and John McDougall, together with their friend Peter Erasmus, were hunting ducks in the Canyon. John accidentally dropped his gun, causing near fatal wounds to his father George. Fortunately, George eventually recovered from his wounds. However, while John and Peter were waiting for him to recuperate, they panned for gold and found what they considered to be promising colours.

In 1900, Captain William Cottingham became the new Dominion Lands Agent in Red Deer. He was impressed by the beauty and dramatic appearance of the Canyon.

In March 1903, he made application to the Department of the Interior to have 4,000 acres at the Canyon set aside as a national park.

As often happens, the wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly. However, Captain Cottingham was not one to let a good idea drop. He kept lobbying the Department. He eventually received what was described as “reasonable assurances that the request would be granted.”

Disaster struck in the summer of 1910 when a major fire broke out in the Canyon. It burned for almost two weeks. Most of the trees on the west bank were wiped out.

Then, on Dec. 13, 1913, Captain Cottingham passed away. While there was a notation in his obituary that his dream of creating a Red Deer River Canyon national park might still happen, without his ongoing lobbying the proposal faded away.

On Feb. 16, 1958, the Crystal Canyon Ski Hill officially opened on the west side of the Canyon. Now known as the Canyon Ski Hill, it remains a major regional recreational facility.

Much of the wonderful natural beauty of the Canyon also remains intact. There are spectacular vistas, not only for the skiers, but for all others who venture out to enjoy a bit of natural paradise, a short distance east of the City.

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