Crowfoot Ferry

This is a story and video I produced after an afternoon prairie drive late last summer.

Ferry operator Tom Daw stands on the deck of the Crowfoot Ferry on the Bow River between Bassano and Cluny last June.
(click image to be redirected to video)

Prairie Mariner
by Stuart Gradon

From it’s source at the Bow Glacier in the Rocky Mountains, the Bow River snakes it’s way through southern Alberta before joining the Oldman River and becoming the South Saskatchewan before crossing the province’s eastern border.

Adventurers flock to the river for rafting and canoeing, while fly fishermen wade it’s shallow shores hoping to reel in a rainbow trout.

It’s easy to forget how daunting the Bow River would have been to those in the early part of the last century.

Bridges were few and far between. A water crossing often meant boarding a river ferry like the one found south of the tiny community of Crowfoot, Alberta.

The original ferrymen would manually navigate the 1920’s wooden ferry through the current of the Bow River, named by the local First Nations people who used the reeds found on it’s shores to make bows. The heavy work of pushing the boat through the waves was the only way for the harvested grain to be transported from the surrounding farms.

The Crowfoot ferry still exists, these days operated by Alberta Transportation. Located 5 km south of the Trans Canada Highway, it is one of seven ferries that are part of the province’s highway network. But the transporting of grain is now done along the paved asphalt of the surrounding roads. Wood has given way to steel and the current ferry is operated by the ferrymen from the relative comfort of the starboard control booth.

Tom Daw, one of the ferry’s current captains, operates the engine-powered ferry, smoothly transporting travelers of Range Road 201 between the banks of the river.

The farming passengers have been replaced by the odd oil worker servicing the numerous pumpjacks that dot the landscape north and south of here. The occasional fisherman drives onboard after a day’s angling, provided they’re prepared to answer queries regarding that day’s catch from the affable 65 year-old Daw.

Despite his seemingly secluded posting, Daw’s control room windows provide him a unique view into the area’s economic state. There’s been a drop in the number of passengers from previous years that Daw says is due to the slump in the energy industry.

“This year’s been quieter,” says the 30 year veteran. “They’re not doing as much oil exploration, so there’s not as many oil vehicles coming across.”

But that’s not a source of concern for Daw, who spends his off hours tending to his cows 30 km away in Gleichen, Alberta.

For Daw and the Bow River, life pretty much flows as it has for years.

The wake of a swimming beaver can be spied from the boat’s deck. The flat tailed rodent eventually climbing up to rest on the river’s western bank. A barn swallow sings it’s song from it’s perch atop the oar of one of the vessel’s life boats. The late afternoon sun bounces off the river’s naturally-carved steep golden eastern bank.

It’s these sights and sounds, observed during the lazy seven-minute long crossing, that will bring the prairie mariner back next season after the winter ice has given way to the spring melt.

“It’s nice and peaceful and the wages are good,” says Daw. “You don’t have to worry about stress.”

(as presented on

Image ©2010 Stuart Gradon

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