Changing Planet

What the River Knows: Saskatchewan Delta at Cumberland House, Canada.

By Basia Irland (with assistance from Dr. Graham Strickert and Dr. Tim Jardine, University of Saskatchewan Researchers at the School of Environment and Sustainability; Gary and Karen Carriere, Swampy Cree River Delta Advocates.)

Photographs by Basia Irland

I am the Saskatchewan River, Kisiskâciwani-sîpiy (in the Swampy Cree dialect, traditionally an oral language), and I have created the largest inland freshwater alluvial delta in North America. It covers approximately 3,860 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), larger than the Everglades National Park in Florida, yet I receive little recognition for this treasure, and almost no protection from the human forces that negatively affect me. My delta is formed from the sediment dropped as I slow down to enter Cumberland Lake. There, my main waterway splits into numerous smaller channels forming dendritic patterns, similar to tree branches or arteries. As I’ve matured over thousands of years, the principal channel has changed course many times. This natural process, known as avulsion, is a characteristic of all rivers, and occurs when one channel is abandoned in favor of a new course, due to erosion caused by fluctuations in discharge.

Map of the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Rivière Saskatchewan illustration depicting interweaving channels.

Sign beside road entering Cumberland House.

Traveling through the marsh on the Saskatchewan River.

Over eighty percent of my delta consists of vegetated wetlands, and millions of birds pass through it annually. I am both feeding and nesting grounds for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that migrate to and from the United States, including about 200,000 mallard ducks. Dr. Tim Jardine of the University of Saskatchewan, has analyzed chemical ratios, including stable isotopes, in duck feathers, and has found that my enormous wetland provides a critical stopover for this massive number of ducks, most of which hatch outside the delta, not within it.

Inhabiting a small island and vying for space are cormorants, pelicans, and sea gulls.

My entire ecosystem is threatened, and has been drastically disrupted by several dams, including the E.B. Campbell Dam, built in 1962. As with most of my river cousins around the world, dams have altered my natural flow regime. The transport of sediment has all but stopped, and my wetlands are being starved of nutrients. Man-made hydro-electric structures also prevent seasonal floods, thereby speeding up what would normally be slow change. Cumberland Lake used to be twenty-two feet deep. Now, it is only about three feet deep, and my wonderful delta is shrinking along with habitat for countless species. At the same time, human demand for my water is increasing, for household purposes, for agricultural irrigation, and for industrial needs, further reducing flow to the marsh. My entire system is out of balance.

E.B. Campbell Dam.

Water quality is an issue for me, too. In the past, mercury was one of the most significant risks, especially to the fish who call me home. Inputs of mercury from a bleach factory, and the filling of reservoirs over what was previously pasture, and agricultural land, introduced mercury into my system.  Fortunately, scientists who monitor my delta today find that this problem has subsided, but many of the upland agricultural areas are still draining pesticides and other toxins into my already stressed body.

Collecting water samples to test for mercury.

Yet another threat to my wetlands is a prolific invasive perennial grass, Phragmites australis, which lowers biodiversity, and secretes gallic acid that is toxic to native plants. Because Phragmites monoculture reed beds spread across vast distances, their physical size above and below ground chokes out healthy plants. Animals don’t like to eat it, and so it has mostly negative effects on a marsh ecosystem. One way to control it is through burning, something that was regularly done by local trappers on my banks for generations. Currently, this practice is discouraged by provincial government agencies that see any fire as a threat to nearby forests.

Phragmite reed beds.

Even though I am the third largest river in Canada, and I pass through many populated areas, there is one small village that I’m especially fond of near the end of my journey. Cumberland House is home to both the Swampy Cree and the Métis (who trace their ancestry to First Nations peoples and European settlers, particularly early fur traders who intermarried with the aboriginal inhabitants of the region). The Cumberland House Cree Nation has a population of approximately 820 members living ‘on-reserve,’ and another 570 or so members who live ‘off-reserve.’ The nearby Northern Village of Cumberland House is largely a Métis community of about 770 people. Together these indigenous people and their ancestors have looked after me for as long as I can remember.

The original Cumberland House dates to 1774, and is the oldest permanent settlement in Western Canada. In the Swampy Cree dialect, its name is Waskahikanihk, which means “at the house,” for it was an important fur-trading post and a depot for pemmican, a staple food of the voyageurs who paddled my waters in canoes laden with furs and trade-goods. Pemmican (pimîhkân in Cree) is a nutritious mixture of protein and fat made from whatever ingredients were available including bison, deer, moose, or elk mixed with fruits such as Saskatoon berries and cranberries. A non-perishable and portable food supply was a necessity, for it took about forty days of paddling to get to the Hudson’s Bay Company base at York Factory, and almost five months to reach Montreal.

It makes me sad that as the productivity of my great marsh declines, many of the indigenous cultural ways of surviving also decline. Fortunately, there are people fighting for my existence. Among them are the Swampy Cree voices of two strong advocates, Gary and Karen Carriere, who run a hand-built wooden lodge on my banks to host hunters in the fall months, and provide shelter, meals, and a living laboratory for artists and scientists from around the world who visit throughout the year. One of these scientists, Dr. Graham Strickert, of the University of Saskatchewan, has been here many times working with interdisciplinary colleagues, most recently a university class of artists. As he sat on a dock at Cumberland House, I heard him say, “Science can move the mind, but art can move the heart.”

Karen and Gary Carriere at breakfast in their hand-built Mistik Lodge.

They say that Karen Carriere cooks a yummy, tender walleye caught fresh from deep in my interior, and breaded with crushed cornflakes, lemon, pepper, and eggs. But another mainstay of the Cree culture here, sturgeon, are far fewer in number than they were historically. Passionately, Gary Carriere explains to anyone who will listen how the entire food chain is affected by the changes in my marsh. He bemoans the fact that since the delta habitat is shrinking, so is the number of mammals. Gary used to make a steady income by trapping muskrat, but now they have all but disappeared from my shores. He takes his motor boat out along my spine, and acknowledges that he owes his life to my delta, where he was raised. Gary is always trying to figure out ways to give back, and he asks poignant questions: While the government will protect an endangered species, what about the endangered indigenous cultures who rely on this wetland for their survival? He says he would like to see traditional indigenous knowledge added to school curriculums, because passing along native wisdom about me and the animals who rely on my water, is one way to preserve this irreplaceable region.

Yes, I am fortunate to have the remaining beaver who live here building lodges on my shores, slapping their tails as a warning to kinfolk. Otters bob in and out of my current, and almost daily I see moose, woodland caribou, elk, deer, bear, badger, skunk, fox, martin, squirrel, weasel, wolverine, and coyote, although at greatly reduced populations from a few decades ago. Oh, I am a happy river, to be able to co-habit with such a rich variety of creatures!

There are light-hearted curiosities, such as the satellite dish sitting atop one beaver lodge, ready to help receive far-away messages. And there are festivals, dances, and canoe races upon my skin. Another advantage of being a river this far north is that I get to witness the aurora borealis dancing across the night sky, a ribbon of lights arcing from horizon to horizon mimicking my own shape – an undulating, luminescent river in the sky.

Satellite dish atop a beaver lodge.

Once, I heard a song about me. The lyrics of “The River,” by Coco Love Alcorn say:

Water heal my body,
Water heal my soul,
When I go down, down to the water,
By the water I feel whole.

Thank goodness, there are people who can relate to these words.

Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at
  • Herman cook

    I do believe they forgot to mention D.U and the damage they did too by putting.water control dikes all over

  • Illa kakum

    I always think about my home town and how it’s forgotten, if only there was way to help

  • Lynne Gallimore

    Very interesting and informative blog. While reading it I felt as if I was the river reminiscing my long history. Excellent!!!

  • Toddi Steelman

    Thank you for visiting us and telling this important story. More people need to hear about this beautiful part of the world.

  • Jay Gallimore

    A river, any river, Saskatchewan River is alive, is expessive, feels, emotes, breaths, struggles to breath, has history that defines it, and an indefinite future to sustain or, maybe, define it.

  • Michele Minnis

    This is a fine piece! A lovely writing. Am charmed by the way Irland adopts and then can stay in the voice of the river. And by how she introduces so many related subjects from this POV. Wonderful!

  • Dominique Mazeaud

    Speaking as a river. Speaking for a river, Thank you for welcoming such a voice. Art touches the heart, and that’s the place we need to go to.

  • Susan Hoenig

    Thank you for this sensitive narrative of the Saskatchewan River Delta that I hope will bring attention to the wildlife and environmental justice for the indigenous people.

  • Vicki Mcshannock

    As a child I loved to talk to animals in the wild and enjoy the energy I received from sitting on a rock. A mother bird scolding me for getting to close to her nest or the cloud formations that said –go home a storm is coming! Now I walk down the street and nod at those I know! I seldom see hugs when the buses are gone now now and we have to hurry if we find a ride! Do we have time to give thanks for the beauty of the sunset! A hello from a friend! A flower in Blume or a door held open! We are too busy to see a sunset or hear a songbird! Each day the good parts of the old days are chipped away at and we lose more of who we are and what we have loved! It is not just Mother Nature who is under attack ! Do we notice droughts , floods, famaine and loss of joy of what was good?

  • Lillian Ball

    I hear the rivers speaking, but this time in these strong images and flowing words by Basia Ireland, transporting us to Saskachewan
    “Life in us is like the water in a river” Henry David Thoreau

  • Shsron Kallis

    Wonderful Basia, This series speaking as the river is so powerful as a narrative storytelling method. I also find it interesting having just returned from Ireland where Phragmites is the thatchers material of choice for thatching a roof and for it to be such a problem here…hmmm. This plant out of place could be an opportunity?

  • Michele Minnis

    This is a fine piece! A lovely writing. Am charmed by the way Basia Irland adopts and then can stay in the voice of the river. And by how she introduces so many related subjects from this POV. Wonderful!

  • Lucy Lippard

    Beautiful as usual. And so important.

  • Diana Hartel

    To hear the timeless river’s voice through Basia Irland gives life to the issues, heart to the science, and beauty to all. The Saskatchewan River now lives in me, and with the river, I watch the iridescent flow of the Northern Lights, hoping for restoration of the lands of its First People and all its creatures. Thank you for this series, magnificent.

  • Carol Flueckiger

    Dear Basia & Saskatchewan River,
    Please keep me posted on your work and history. I am in Lubbock and we are thinking about water, water, water.

  • Deborah Gavel

    Such an interesting point made in the comments about phragmite reeds. Maybe there is a solution if the reeds can be harvested for weaving baskets and thatching. Perhaps a new way to remove the reeds needs to be examined rather than removal by fire.
    Have there been some efforts made to remove the dam and save the Saskatchewan?
    Thank you for this informative blog!

  • Chris Fremantle

    It’s so important to have personal relationships with elements of the environment. Basia Irland’s writing from the perspectuve of the river (rather than say an animal) opens up whole new perspectives. She is able to talk about change over lifetimes as well as suggest that the relationship between people interested in the life of the river is two way – the river knows the scientists and indigenous people who study and care.

  • Jo Face

    So touching to read of tje huge inland delta of the Saskatchewan River, and te myriad threats to its health even in this remote place. Toxic phragmites threats (repeated in other eco sysems with different species, as in tamarisk of New Mexico) has seemingly no easy solution. Do he locals feel any hope? Loved seeing you braceleted arm! Thanks for your consciousness-raising blogs.

  • Jo Face

    So touching to read of tjhe huge inland delta of the Saskatchewan River, and the myriad threats to its health even in this remote place. Toxic phragmites threats (repeated in other eco sysems with different species, as in tamarisk of New Mexico) has seemingly no easy solution. Do he locals feel any hope? Loved seeing you braceleted arm! Thanks for your consciousness-raising blogs.

  • Vicki dern

    I can imagine the feel of this place, its grand underlying silence as we, so accustomed to the noise of machines would call the stillness that in fact is filled with the calls of birds, the rustle of swimming mammals, the movement of water, the breezes that riffle through. I can feel what it would be like to float through that expanse of water In a canoe, to watch the play of the northern lights dance the sky. Surely the first step in keeping a place alive is knowing that it exists. Thank you for your revelation of this great branching tree of a river and it’s delta.

  • Antonio José García Cano

    I enjoyed a lot reading this post. It is wonderful. I think it generates empathy with the river. I am willing to know more about your process of learning when you visit different rivers. Thanks!

  • Kathryn Green

    Even many of us living in the same province as Cumberland House are unaware of the grave problems facing the delta–of which our needs and desires are largely the cause, Thank you, Basia, for coming here and sharing what you learned so eloquently!

  • Glenn t

    This natural process, they call avulsion is caused by fluctuations of water discharge from where? The two dams, that sit upstream of it.

  • Karen Carriere

    …as the river, everything in it and everything around it, weeps…thank you Basia for the real story. I hope that this story reaches the hearts of the ones that have the powers to help our dying delta…we weep with it…

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