Explore the cottonwood floodplains and coulee ecosystems of the Oldman River at the Helen Schuler Nature Centre, where you can find more than 200 bird species and relics of the earliest days of the City of Lethbridge. (Previously known as Helen Schuler Coulee Centre - the name was changed in 2009).
The Nature Centre offers a variety of nature interpretive programs, exhibits, and walking trails for the public. Themed programs are offered throughout the summer season, mid-week, and on weekends. Visitors young and old are encouraged to experience first hand the natural habitat and learn about ecosystems located in the river bottom of our city. Organized groups are also welcome and personalized programs can be booked through spring, summer, and fall.
The community that has become the City of Lethbridge originally started in this river bottom. Markers and remnants of some introduced plant species still show signs of that early settlement. Repeated flooding in the late 1800’s prompted residents to move up to the plains above the river.
A series of floods on this normally quiet meandering river have shown again the power of nature. Since the 1990’s, the river bottom has experienced three significant floods altering the water’s course, uprooting mature poplars and up-heaving large tracts of pavement that formed part of the pathway along the river banks.
Signs of the effects of the raging water remain, and the Nature Centre has used these natural occurrences to further educate the public and foster an appreciation for the natural world around us in this city.
The Elizabeth Hall Wetlands Park, a relatively recent addition to the city’s park system, is located across the river from the Nature Centre and just north of the High Level Bridge. Viewing stations have been set up to assist people in viewing the wildlife in that parkland.
Other river bottom parks include the Alexander Wilderness Park to the north, Cottonwood Park to the extreme south edge of the city’s West Side. These also offer excellent wildlife viewing and walking trails.
Two additional river bottom parks offer recreational facilities and cooking facilities that may be booked through the Community Services Department of the City. Pavan Park is located at the north end of the city, and Popson Park can be found on the south end of the West Side of Lethbridge. Organized group camping can be arranged by permit only through Community Services of the City of Lethbridge.
Helen Schuler Nature Centre is located in the valley of the Oldman River at the Western edge of Downtown Lethbridge, just north of the High Level Bridge and Indian Battle Park.
The Nature Centre and surrounding river bottom park is home to a wide variety of mammals, deer, beaver, as well as over 200 species of songbirds, birds of prey, shorebirds, dabblers. A checklist of birds of the Lethbridge area was complied by the Centre with the assistance of members of the Lethbridge Naturalists Society. It includes over 300 species of birds that have been seen within 80 km (50 miles) of the city.
A variety of reptiles have also found home in this region, including rattlesnakes. The City has developed a rattlesnake management and education project and Cottonwood Park (the city’s newest parkland area) is also home to a city-maintained rattlesnake hibernaculum, which provides additional viewing and research opportunities.
In recent years growing numbers of American Pelicans have taken up summer residence along the river bottom. On one summer evening I counted 60 that had gathered and were feeding along a gravel riverbed island north of the Nature Centre; between the high level Bridge and Highway 3 crossing the river. They can be often be seen at the river diversion for the city’s water system, a weir located south of Whoop-up Drive.
The Nature Centre came to fruition though the diligent efforts of local naturalists. The Centre was created in 1980 and built to be a key component of Indian Battle Park and the river parks program of the city of Lethbridge. They began operations in the building in 1982.
The namesake of the Centre (Helen Schuler) was a remarkable woman. She was a principal organizer of the Lethbridge Naturalist Society and served as its first president. She was also active on a provincial level and also became one of the founders of FAN, the Federation of Alberta Naturalists.
The programs offered by the centre reflect her philosophy of nature appreciation. The programs extend throughout the city, as they provide interpretive tours in all river bottom parks as well as urban parks such as Henderson Lake and Nicholas Sheran.
The main objective of the programs offered here is to develop awareness by Lethbridge and area citizens of the natural environment in which we are living. The Centre offers wildlife viewing programs and sessions on the identification of birds, mammals, animal tacks, trees and vegetation. They have several self-guided trails with descriptive brochures for the visitor (printed on recycled paper; you are requested to return the pamphlets to the brochure box at the trail’s end, as trees are a precious resource to us all).
Volunteers play a significant role in the operation of the Centre. They have compiled and presented numerous programs and interpretive works for the public over the years. Numerous enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers participated to publish several checklists. The checklist of plants of the city is one such publication. It lists over 400 species of plants, noting that 28% of those (114) have been introduced over the years from elsewhere (and not always with positive results). It also points out that within in the city limits there are at least 13 species of plants that are considered to be rare in Alberta.
Several other creative volunteer and funding support programs have developed with the Nature Centre over the years, now under the umbrella of “Growing the Grassroots Endowment Fund”.
Each season has its own particular attraction. Early morning & early evening best for birding.
The nature centre will re-open to the public this Spring. Grand Re-Opening | Feb 27 - March 8, 2014 A sneak peek this past month has provided me with a view of a most remarkable new facility. The staff is now settled in and they have re-established their school programs.
We patiently await the opportunity for the public, local and visitors alike to explore the tremendous new features of the centre.
I suspect they will also get their LEEDS certification, but at which level is yet to be determined, and that process of certification does take some time. In the meantime, stay tuned for news on the re-opening. Enjoy the renovations and expansion to their facility.
From Alberta Highway 3, take the exit to Scenic Drive South, from Scenic Drive turn Right at 3rd. Avenue South, then follow the gently winding roadway into the Riverbottom. Once you are in the river bottom take the first RIGHT.
Lethbridge is located 2 hours south of Calgary 75 minutes north of the Canada US Border crossing of Coutts via Alberta Highway 4, 90 minutes northeast of Waterton Lakes & Glacier National Parks via Alberta Highway 5