Serious Alberta road trippers know that sometimes the best way to bridge a river is with no bridge at all. Instead, they roll onto a ferry. One hundred years ago, close to 80 vessels shuttled passengers to and fro on Alberta’s many rivers. Just a few are in operation today. Overseen by Alberta Transportation and free to use, the ferries typically run from the spring thaw to late autumn, though high water levels sometimes disrupt service. And while they’re no longer the only way for automobiles to ford a river, these off-the-beaten-path icons continue to attract drivers—who are rewarded with a chance to enjoy a piece of living history, plus a few minutes’ peace on their journey. Here’s what you need to know about Alberta’s six remaining river ferries.
Though ferry-based travel harkens back to a bygone age, the vessels themselves are of mostly modern stock. We’re not talking wooden rafts here! That said, the Shaftesbury Ferry, which crosses the Peace River about 25 kilometres south of the town of Peace River, is definitely an elder statesman. Built in 1962, it’s got two full decades on the next oldest ferry in the fleet. On the other hand, the oldest crossing is the Bleriot Ferry, just north of Drumheller on Highway 838. The current ferry is a late-’90s vintage, but there has been a conveyance across the Red Deer River for more than 100 years.
The Shaftesbury Ferry can transport up to eight mid-size cars, 46 passengers and two operators—to a maximum load of 38,000 kilograms. This is the lowest capacity of Alberta’s ferries. Yet it’s not, physically, the smallest of them. That title goes to the Klondyke Ferry, a 20.42-metre-long, 9.96-metre wide vessel that fords the Athabasca River at Highway 661.
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Conversely, the La Crete Ferry is both Alberta’s largest ferry (at 33.4 m x 32 m, with a 95,000 kg maximum load, it often carries large transport trucks), and the one with the longest distance to travel: 680 metres across the Peace River.
The La Crete Ferry is also the farthest from a major population centre. Found on Highway 697 (just off Highway 35), it’s about 80 km south of High Level but more than 400 km north of Grande Prairie. In winter, temperatures are typically cold enough that an ice bridge replaces the ferry crossing. Meanwhile, the Crowfoot Ferry is notable as the only ferry on Indigenous land—the Siksika 146 reserve. About 100 km from Calgary, it spent four years out of the water after being damaged by the 2013 floods.
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Four of Alberta’s six ferries are guided by cables connected to both shores of the rivers they traverse. The large La Crete Ferry, however, has its own motor, and the Shaftesbury Ferry is actually pushed by a small tug boat.
The Finnegan Ferry (Highway 862 over the Red Deer River) holds something of a unique place in Canadian cultural history: It makes a brief appearance in the music video for Tom Cochrane’s iconic road-trip rocker, “Life is a Highway”. The wood-decked ferry in the circa-1991 clip, however, is no longer in operation; a newer model replaced it 10 years later.