itou-kai-you – The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) name of our local river


The Niitsitapi First Nations  used to camp along the river they called itou-kai-you. In 1792 scout Peter Fidler from the Hudson Bay Company noted the name in his journal as “eetookiap”. Stoney First Nations called the river Kisk Wapta, both words translated mean “Sheep River”, taking its name from the abundance of big horn sheep that are found at its headwaters. The early settlers called it “Sheep Creek”, but it eventually became the Sheep River.

It is only a small, short river, all of 107 km long, but it is an important tributary sub-basin of the Highwood River watershed. It originates in the mountain valleys of the Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park in the mountain ranges of Kananaskis Country in Alberta. It flows east through the Sheep River Provincial Park and connects with the Highwood River about 8 km east of Okotoks; in turn the Highwood River flows into the Bow River.

Our Sheep River is our municipal water source, as well as for the towns of Turner Valley and Black Diamond, and up until a few years ago Okotoks had a population cap of 30,000, which was dictated by our river’s capacity of giving us water. The cap has since been lifted and the Town is looking at various options to deal with the eventual water deficit, but that is material for whole separate post.

A number of creeks are tributaries to the Sheep River, and as always with these names I wonder what the story behind their names are: Burns Creek, Wolf Creek (rather obvious this one), Threepoint Creek (not so obvious), Death Valley Creek (wonder who died to give it this name), and Pothole Creek (did First Nations have a word for Pothole I wonder?) to name but a few.

The upper reaches of the river are apparently only accessible by foot or horseback, and if you managed to reach it you will see (again apparently, as I haven’t personally been yet) that it has carved  massive canyons through the mountains and foothills. It flows through all kinds of terrain, alpine, foothill parkland and prairie, meaning that it provides a habitat for bighorn sheep, moose, bear, coyote, cougar, beaver, eagles, mountain whitefish, and rainbow, brook, bull, and cutthroat trout.

Residents along this river have had to get used to an almost annual flood, depending on the snowpack in the mountains and the weather, this river can flood real fast, as has been the case almost every year since we moved here in 2009. In June 2013 it flooded again, but thankfully Okotoks got away with it lightly when compared to Calgary and worst of all our neighbouring town of High River.

Below is a photo of the railway bridge that crosses the river in our town; as you can see a large part of the bridge was washed away in that flood; the tracks were just hanging in the air. I recently went down to the bridge, and although initial repairs were made to the bridge to get the trains going again on that route, work still continues down there.

With the weather on the turn here in our area, the waters are again starting to rise and everyone hopes that the damage will be minimal this year, as repair work is still ongoing along the river.

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Categories: Local History | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “itou-kai-you – The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) name of our local river

  1. Fascinating background information. This time of year, were are always getting flood warning as the combination of snow melt and spring rains cause the rivers and streams to overflow their banks. Your photos show well the incredible power of water.

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  2. Small town Rivers a source of Pride and terror.

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  3. Tammy

    I am sure work will continue for a long time! Hard to believe that something so beautiful can cause that much damage, but I have seen it here too!

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  4. We were pleased with the slow melt down of the snow thinking that the yearly flooding would be minimal, but then came the rain and more snow. Hope the rivers do not cause to much spring damage up your way.

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