Feeling the Wake in Athabasca


Jetboat adventure brings northern Alberta frontier to life

ATHABASCA, AB - Glenda Gray points and shouts to get our attention as a pod of pelicans simultaneously takes flight from a nest of driftwood floating close to the Athabasca River shoreline, near Athabasca. For the next minute or so we are treated to soaring views of the birds in flight formation as Darcy Zelman guides the jetboat alongside.

I’m sitting next to Sheena Garton, a friend of Gray’s, who almost didn’t make the trip. Intimidated by the prospect of her first jetboat ride during high runoff, she nearly let fear get the better of her. “I was terrified,” she admits. “I just had never been on the river, so I think that’s what it was.”

Watch Feeling the Wake in Athabasca on YouTube.

Fortunately, the Zelmans, Gray and the rest of our party managed to coax her into the boat. Once she got a chance to see Zelman in action, her worries soon dissolved. “I could see how confident Darcy was, so I was nervous, but I was like, I can do this.”

Now, she’s exhilarated. “I am so happy I got on that boat! It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen this part of Athabasca before.”

#TakeItToTheLake and discover rich history as you explore Athabasca. Plan your adventure today...

Darcy and Shirley, his wife and business partner, operate Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures, a wilderness retreat and jetboat tour company with a backcountry lodge some 250 kilometres down the Athabasca River, only accessible by boat.

Now in his 50s, Darcy has been running the river almost his whole life. His parents started out as outfitters when he was just two years old. Twenty years ago, he and Shirley took over.

Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Being on the river is the best par, for Darcy Zelman.

Asked what he likes most about being on the river, his answer is simple. “Being on the river,” he deadpans. Then he adds, “The history, the wildlife, the scenery - and of course the Grand Rapids. Staying at the lodge, it’s not really the destination, it’s just where you stay while you have all these adventures.”

We get a little sampling with some fishing and wildlife viewing, before heading back for town. Strolling the quiet streets of the little community of 3,000, it’s hard to imagine it was once a contender to be provincial capital, but for a rerouting of the railway.

Photo: Jeremy Derksen
Gray and Garton take a stroll through historic Athabasca.

The former trading port still oozes history, from the old Athabasca School, to murals depicting the famed “river rats” who used to haul giant scows full of furs over the Class VI rapids out by where the Zelmans’ lodge now stands.

Many residents still hew natural resources to make a living, but Athabasca University also has its main campus here. Young families like Gray’s and Garton’s have been lured by the natural beauty, easy pace and abundant activities - and the possibility of a pulse-raising new encounter, now and then, to get beyond the comfort zone.

From the plateau at Lions’ Park, overlooking the river, Athabasca is surrounded by a vast boreal wilderness. Green, oxygen rich, mysterious and untamed, it’s a place where rewards reserved only for the adventurous await. Just ask Sheena Garton.


Did you know the Athabasca region is full of awesome opportunities for boating? Find out more about the Athabasca region here.

For more on how to #TakeItToTheLake this summer, either search the tag on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or read more here.

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