ECAMP sets sail on another curiosity tour

Last year, having never canoed down the North Saskatchewan River before, I was sure we were going to beach ourselves during Float Yer Boat, organized by the Heritage Council’s Edmonton City as a Museum, or ECAMP, initiative.

The event (offered again but sold out this year on Sept. 13, 2015) is one of their curiosity tours — showcasing a variety of interesting, weird, historic and culturally important sites around Edmonton — but unique in the fact that the tour is on the river, not around it.

ECAMP Float Yer Boat event
Canoeing down the North Saskatchewan River as part of the first Float Yer Boat event. Photo: Catherine Szabo

“It’s really tough to find places [along the river] where you can just pull an ETS bus in and out of a parking lot,” said Meredith Mantooth, program assistant for the Heritage Council. “So we decided, why not on the river?

“I mean, the river was the original highway, if you will, it’s how most people in the early stages of Edmonton, as a settler community, got around. Even before that, First Nations people have been using the river since time immemorial, it was an important source of everything, and the river has played a huge role in the development of Edmonton as a city.”

While we did beach ourselves at launch last year (watch out for sand bars), it’s mostly a float, rather than paddling and vigorous exercise, Mantooth explained. In this case, it allows for Billie Milholland, communications manager for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, to discuss the geographical shape of the river, and how it has influenced how humans have interacted with the river valley.

“She’s providing an amazing amount of expertise on the ecological and environmental history of the river valley that would take me years to even get close to knowing,” Mantooth said.

Having Milholland take part in the river curiosity tour is an example of ECAMP’s larger mandate, which is to build relationships with different organizations and community groups, sourcing expertise throughout Edmonton about all aspects of the city.

One day, the goal is to possibly have a bricks-and-mortar space for all things Edmonton. But right now, ECAMP embraces the city itself as a museum, capturing the unique features of Edmonton while also acknowledging its history and relevance to today’s events.

“I think there is a really important relationship between space or place, and human interaction,” Mantooth said. She added that when they’re out touring the community, not only are people learning, but it attracts other public attention as passerby get curious and ask their own questions.

“So when you’re really in the space, and you’re standing there and you can look around and you can hear and you can smell and you’re really involving all of your senses, you can feel the pavement below your feet, I think that gives people a different experience, and it appeals to different learning styles.”

North Saskatchewan bridges
The High Level and Walterdale bridges, viewed from the North Saskatchewan River. Photo: Catherine Szabo

As the program assistant, Mantooth describes her role as a jack-of-all-trades, offering logistical support for events, working on the various programs that the Heritage Council offers, as well as helping with the grants stream. She focused on museum studies during her master’s degree in anthropology, studying museums, their role in society, how people interact with them, and the good and bad aspects of the institution in society.

There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes of organizing ECAMP’s different projects, she said with a laugh. Interestingly enough, while the initiative aims to build relationships between organizations, they also excel at capturing the individual characteristics and stories of different groups.

During the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, Mantooth and a colleague spent a day in Old Strathcona, capturing oral histories from volunteers, performers and audience members about their experiences and memories of the Fringe. Like most of ECAMP’s work, it begins with a small experiment that Mantooth said she hopes turns into something bigger.

Growing the initiative itself is really about getting the word out there, she continued, adding that while she wished she had a better answer than, “Like us on Facebook,” it really is about people talking about ECAMP’s projects to their friends, attending events and even writing for the heritage blog.

Mantooth said as far as she knows, Edmonton’s approach to a museum site is unique. Other cities are experimenting with exploring spaces, though, she continued, including Kelowna, which is borrowing from Edmonton’s Heritage Council model.

“I see lots of similar things where people are really starting to program cities as spaces for adventure and exploration and learning,” she said.

Actually, Traverse City, Michigan, has combined two of events Edmonton has also offered — since a lot of breweries are on the Boardman River, Paddle for Pints organizes canoe, paddle board or kayak trips to visit six breweries and brewpubs.

Unlike the Edmonton river tour, which has a completely different focus this time around (last year, city archivist Kathryn Ivany and former councilor Michael Phair provided a historic and human interest look at the river valley), the next tour of Edmonton’s brewing and malting history — aptly named the Brew Curious tour — is on Saturday, Oct. 3, and will be very similar to the tour offered last April.

Shaw Conference Centre
Shaw Conference Centre viewed from the North Saskatchewan River. It was built to look like the incline railway, which occupied the hillside nearby. Photo: Catherine Szabo

More details will be announced shortly, Mantooth said, but it will be similar simply because while Edmonton has an interesting brewing and malting history (the second oldest standing brewery in Alberta is in Rossdale — the oldest is in Calgary, but it doesn’t even have a roof, she said with a laugh), there just aren’t as many spaces to explore.

ECAMP has been organizing curiosity tours since 2013, but Brew Curious is the first themed one, and something they’re experimenting with, Mantooth said, in contrast to more general tours with a variety of stops. They’re also working to preserve the experiences, so even people who can’t attend can still easily find information about Edmonton’s oddities.

In the case of the sold-out river tour, Mantooth said they plan on making information and maps available afterwards, so while people may not be able to ask Milholland questions on the spot, they can still canoe the river with a fresh perspective.