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COLUMN: Getting river into ‘Sheep-shape’

The Sheep River is a big draw come summertime, so more could be done to enhance the experience.
SA-Sheep River RK 7862
People cool off in the Sheep River near the Laurie Boyd pedestrian bridge in Okotoks on Aug. 8.

If I’m reading the situation correctly, it’s the most popular, yet unofficial, recreational amenity in town. I’m referring to the Sheep River, which has been a magnet for people of all ages trying to beat what has seemed like a never-ending heat wave this summer. 

Not long after I arrived here this spring, the Town sent out a couple of notices warning of the potential dangers associated with the waterway, saying the fire department does not recommend people use the Sheep River to cool off due to high flow rates and unstable footing. There were reminders about not venturing in without a properly fitting life jacket and cautions about the erosion of riverbanks due to fast-moving water. 

I suspect this is an annual occurrence aimed at reinforcing the potential dangers associated with a river, particularly in late spring when melting snow and heavy rain can cause water levels to rise and flows to increase. After reading the notices, I figured the river was pretty much off limits to everyone but the bold and the stupid, those who tend to interpret such warnings as personal challenges. 

It wasn’t until I saw an eight-year-old standing in the middle of the river, the bottom of his swimsuit still visible, that I realized the danger might not be as great as I originally thought. When I saw others in the river, sitting on folding chairs, cold beverages in hand, watching the tubers float by, it was obvious this was a recreational hotspot, safety warnings be damned. Granted, this was after peak water levels had receded, so the danger meter was far lower, but it reinforced the notion the river is a place to congregate come summertime. 

What I’ve also come to notice is that accessing the river isn’t the most inviting experience. I recognize that it’s a river, not a lake or an ocean, so there’s not going to be a sandy beach, but given the amount of activity it generates, I figured there might be more defined access points. The absence of such perhaps underscores the aforementioned safety concerns but I’ve got to believe there are spots where this could be accomplished. 

I’m not looking to endanger anyone, and it’s certainly not my intention to mess with Mother Nature, but the notion of groomed paths and not-so-rocky beaches adjacent to calmer sections would be a huge draw for families and young people. Maybe even create a designated area where the town's four-legged residents could splash around. 

Perhaps it’s just too difficult to define where safety ends and danger begins when you’re dealing with the unpredictability of a river, or that manipulating the landscape leads to unintended negative consequences, but if it can be done without causing any harm, it would definitely be something worth exploring. 

The river is a focal point of recreation in the summer, teeming with all kinds of folks looking for a way to beat the heat, so it’s not like they’re staying away because of the lack of man-made infrastructure. I’m pretty sure they’re going to keep coming, so providing amenities would simply make their experience more enjoyable.