Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Monday, 22 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Eleven

Return to the River

 “The journey is the reward.” - Chinese proverb

The Li'l Titanic
There was a lot less planning for the second half of my journey than there was for the first half and a lot less time to get ready, but the logistics were much simpler. I would put in at East Coulee and I didn’t plan on taking my boat out until Estuary, Saskatchewan. It took a little bit of work to load up the boat at the start of the trip, but the weather was good and the water high. Soon I was off again. This time I had the sound of my small Mercury outboard to endure, but I soon got used to its reassuring drone. I stopped to talk with my wife at the boat launch in Dorothy. Everything seemed all right. I originally wasn’t sure how well my little boat would fare on the river, but it was going along very well. I talked to a couple of gentlemen who were pulling their large raft out of the river after traveling for a couple of days. One of them was eighty years old and he looked fit and tanned. I hope that I am still able to have little adventures of my own when I reach my golden years. Then it was off again as I waved good-bye to my wife. She was heading back home and would be returning to her job while I attempted to complete my journey.

I traveled downstream for a few hours through the familiar looking badlands. It was feeling very much like that first evening of canoeing near Sundre. I had a big stupid grin on my face and found it exhilarating to be back on the river again. There were many beaver on the river that day, along with ducks and their progeny. I passed a rookery of great blue herons and saw some common terns. At certain points I would cut my motor and just let the current pull me slowly downstream. It was getting near sunset so I pulled over to the side of the river to a perfect bench, on which I made camp.

I made supper on my little Coleman Peak1 stove and watched the gorgeous prairie sunset before I retired to my tent. All was right in my world except for a beaver that(every time he surfaced during the night) saw my tent and whacked the water with his tail in the customary manner and caused me to awaken. Just as I was dozing off again, the beaver would slap its tail and startle me back from the edge of sleep. This was repeated ad nauseam. Apparently my ideal camping spot was also a preferred spot for a certain beaver to sit and chew on his favorite food - tender willow sprouts. After an hour or so the annoying rodent moved on and I fell into a sound sleep.

The next morning I reviewed my maps and realized that I was just upstream from Finnegan Ferry. I packed up my gear and headed downstream and past the ferry to a section of the river that I was completely unfamiliar with.

Gradually the river emerged from an enclosed badlands valley to an open landscape of rolling hills followed by flat grassland. Most of this area looked to be uncultivated and probably appears today much as it has for hundreds if not thousands of years. You may think that this isn’t unusual, but very little of the prairie environment has survived the last hundred and fifty years.

When the first Europeans arrived in this part of North America, the irreversible natural decline of this vast area began and it has continued to devolve ever since. There are only a few small isolated pockets that even resemble the original landscape. Fortunately for me, many of these spots are along the Red Deer River valley. I have always liked to imagine what this vast ecosystem would have been like before my people arrived in this land and this journey was affording me a small glimpse of that ancient place. Even if the reality of a wild Red Deer River valley has disappeared with the passing of time, the river still cuts a ribbon of unspoiled territory (which holds the aura of a true wilderness) through a sea of progress and cultivation. As I traveled these waters, my line of sight revealed the forgotten soul of a land that hasn’t existed since the passing of the buffalo and the displacement of its aboriginal peoples.

The sun was beating down again on that day and I had learned from my first attempt at traveling the river to cover up my skin with sunscreen and clothing. There was very little insect activity and mosquitoes were conspicuously absent. I was having another great day out and enjoying every minute of it. There seemed to be little activity by the inhabitants of the river valley -- probably due to the heat. How does the old saying go? “Mad dogs and Englishmen....”

In the early afternoon I passed under the Highway 36 Bridge and began to see the layers of clay and steeper walls of the badlands valley reappearing ahead of me. After a bend in the river which turned it due south, I saw an unexpected sight. Downstream from my boat, three large figures appeared from the brush and dived noisily into the cool waters just upstream from Three Owl Island. The moose appeared to be having a wonderful time as they frolicked about, totally oblivious to my looming presence. I positioned myself in the water so that I was directly upstream from them and cut my motor and drifted slowly toward them. I began to shoot video as I drew closer. There appeared to be a bull, a cow and a yearling calf. Soon I was getting too close for their comfort and they emerged from the river -- first the calf, then the bull and finally the cow. They ran back into the brush and left no sign of their presence, but for trails of wet clay near the bank. I felt slightly guilty for my intrusion into what was an obviously enjoyable interlude, on a hot afternoon.

This isn’t the type of environment that most people envision when they think of these largest members of the deer family. I remember once, when I was talking to a visitor (an avid outdoorsman) from New Brunswick about the local moose population. He gave me an incredulous look and asked pointedly, “Where would a moose go around here?” His experience was one of hunting them in thick boreal forest and that was a paradigm that he imagined was true everywhere. Moose do live, and thrive in open prairie environments and these three were a perfect example of that.

I started up the motor and continued downstream into the deepening valley which swung east again and continued to get more spectacular at every turn. When I passed Steveville Bridge, I noticed a couple of families were putting their canoes into the river for an evening paddle to my day’s destination - Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was confident that the channel was deep as it curved around the right hand side of Coyote Island so I opened up my small outboard motor and cruised toward the Sandhill Creek boat launch. I planned to stay an entire day at Dinosaur Provincial Park and then to set off again on the next morning.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Interlude


“People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.” - St. Augustine

The months that followed my return home were tumultuous indeed. I was somewhat happy with what I had accomplished, but it also felt like I needed to complete my journey. That was looking more and more like that would never happen due to one fact… The day that I returned the canoe to the rental shop, I felt a pain in my right buttocks and down my right leg. It was sciatica and it would have repercussions over the next year of my life.

Sciatica is one of those things that you actually have to go through in order to understand what exquisite pain it can inflict on someone. The only way I can explain it, is to compare it with a bad toothache and not favorably so. Now imagine that instead of a tooth, it is your whole leg that is in intense pain. To make a long story short, my condition became worse and worse until I could no longer walk or even stand for more than a few seconds. I was off work for months that winter and I couldn’t do much besides lie on the couch, swallow painkillers, drink rum and Coke and watch TV. I was extremely depressed and my journey down the Red Deer River was far from my thoughts. It was many months before I got any better, but after Christmas I started to feel a bit more mobile. I nursed my back and tried to walk as much as possible, but even getting around the block was quite a chore. Many times I would cut my walks short and limp home in pain and frustration. I have always considered myself lucky to be blessed with good health and this was probably the worst episode in my entire life.

The fact was that my journey had contributed greatly to my ailment. I was able to see my M.R.I. many months later. Viewing them, it was immediately obvious what was causing me so much difficulty. I had a herniated lower disk and it had a bulge ( it was more like a tongue) that extended out, touching my spinal cord and irritating my sciatic nerve. Ignoring my pain and carrying a heavy pack had caused my already torn disk to herniate and canoeing for days on end only exacerbated the problem.

By March, however I was back at work and already thinking about returning to the river to continue my journey. I talked about it to my friends, but they just looked at me with stunned disbelief. “You must be kidding!” At the time I was only half serious. It did seem hard to believe.

When it came down to it, I still felt like I was on my journey. This ailment was only part of my passage. It only served to strengthen my resolve. An old friend of mine would have said this was “character building”. That was a running joke between us. When the river got high again in June, I would be on my way if I could help it at all. Some compromises would have to be made, though. I decided that the only way I was going to make it was by taking my small flat bottomed boat, which I had named “’Lil Titanic”, powered by my little 5 hp Mercury outboard. A nice high backed seat, for back support would also be needed.

In June, I was test running my outboard in the back yard and my neighbor asked me what I was up to. When I told him that I was going back to the river, he just said, “You’re determined to screw up your back!” I was feeling good though and with a little help and planning, I believed I could make it. So, on June 26, 2004, my wife and I loaded up the truck and set out to the Red Deer River valley (at East Coulee) for the second part of my journey.

Three months of lying on my couch added some pounds, but I felt I was ready to return to the Red Deer River
photo courtesy Len Yandeau

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Ten


“The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” - Charles Kuralt
prickly pear cactus
Drumheller was once a coal mining community and still remains a business hub in this region. It supports the agriculture and booming oil and gas industries, as well as being what has become a major tourist destination. This section of the valley is what most Albertans and visitors picture when they think of the Red Deer River. Tourists descend into the valley on highway nine and visit the famous “Hoodoos” and Royal Tyrrell Museum.

I began searching for a place where I could beach my canoe, while I drifted through town. I spotted a potential boat launch next to a motel and I pulled in and tied up my canoe. It turned out to be part of a privately owned oilfield company’s property, but it was the last possible place I could have stopped, so I walked through the yard and over to the hotel. After I checked into my room, I began the arduous task of unloading all of my goods from the canoe and transporting them through the yard of the oilfield company, up the street and over to my hotel room. It was hot and tiresome work and I noticed people watching me and wondering what on earth I was up to. Finally it was down to the canoe and this was the part I was dreading the most. I planned on lifting the canoe over my head and portaging it over to the hotel. This was something I hadn’t attempted to do since I was in Sundre and I was a lot more tired by this point.

Finally someone came over from the oilfield company to ask me what I was up to. I explained my circumstances to him. He told me to wait by the canoe and said he would be back in a little bit. After several minutes he reappeared, driving a tractor/forklift. He lifted my canoe out of the river and carried it across the yard and over to the front of his business, where he allowed me to chain it to his sign. I thanked him for his help and went back to my room and crashed onto the bed in a heap.

One of the greatest surprises for me was the generosity of my friends and many strangers that I had met along the way. Even though my journey down the Red Deer River was a solo effort, I would have never managed to get very far without the help of others. I found total strangers were constantly wishing me luck, giving me words of encouragement and helping me along the way. This is one of the main lessons that I learned from my trip. There are a lot of good people in the world. It’s something I had forgotten and this regained belief has affected my outlook ever since. I did expect to learn some things from my adventure, but perhaps this was the most important thing of all.

I spent the next day taking it easy and wandering around Drumheller. The place was packed with tourists. Children paddled in the fountains next to the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus Rex, trying to beat the heat. It’s impossible to escape the ubiquitous dinosaurs. Their statues litter the sidewalks and most of the businesses have a depiction of, or a name referring to the prehistoric beasts. I even saw a “Dalmatian-osaurus” in front of the fire hall. Perhaps it’s overkill, but I think most Drumheller residents regard the prehistoric theme in a spirit of fun.

The Last Day

“A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pin cushion cactus in bloom
A good friend arrived from Calgary to canoe the next stretch of the river with me. We sat up late into that warm summer’s evening, talking and drinking next to the water. The next day, with the help of a taxicab, we arranged to canoe from Newcastle Beach downstream to East Coulee. Circumstances dictated that this would be the last day of my journey. We had an enjoyable time as we canoed together out of Drumheller, under the footbridge at Rosedale and past the hoodoos.

The hoodoos are formed when the umbrella of a hard cap rock protects the softer clay underneath it from the forces of erosion. Other than Lake Louise, these mushroom shaped formations are probably the most photographed scene in the Province of Alberta. This small area is one of the most well known and heavily visited spots in the prairies.

My friend caught her first goldeye on the way to our destination. I should have brought her with me the whole way. She really knew how to paddle and was very energetic. Soon enough we could see the Atlas Coal Mine on the south bank and we knew we were drawing close to the East Coulee bridge. We hauled the Prospector out of the river and put it on top of her Jeep Cherokee and we were off. My trip was over. Or so I thought at the time...

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Nine

Doubt in the Badlands

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” - Buddha

The next day began like a lot of days on the river. The sky was clear and blue and it was already warm as I made my way downstream towards the Starland Bridge. One thing made me feel happy that day. I had a slight tailwind. Someone had warned me that when they canoed on the Red Deer River, years before, they had a constant headwind, no matter which direction they were paddling and I had experienced the same thing. From Sundre onward, facing north, south or east there was almost always a headwind. Something like that can wear a man down, especially when you are paddling by yourself. It means that you dare not take a break from paddling or you may be set off course. It was getting worse as I tired and the current lessened with each mile. On this fine day however, I actually had a tailwind and I was damned glad of it.

You may detect a note of sourness creeping into my story at this point. I only want to convey the true nature of my journey. Like all journeys there are highs and lows. Traveling towards my destination definitely agreed with me. There were many times along the journey that I found I actually knew what I was doing and traveling this way came so naturally to me that I wondered where my knowledge, confidence and strength had come from. It certainly wasn’t from anything that I experienced in my everyday life. I had gone on plenty of day hikes and backpack trips, but none of my trips had lasted more than a few days. My canoe trips were all of the day trip variety, with companions who shared both the experience and the work. It had been over fifteen years since I had even dipped a paddle in the water. What had made me think that I could complete a voyage of such magnitude?

I thought back to that first day. My back was sore and I had taken painkillers just to be able to walk properly -- never mind carrying a heavy pack and video camera. I was worried when the Skoki Lodge driver looked at me with a disapproving frown, while we attempted to hoist my pack onto the roof of the shuttle bus that would carry us up the service road to the trail head. “Sure is a heavy pack you got there!”

I was worried after a few hundred metres, when I had to stop to rest as all the other Skoki Lodge hikers disappeared from sight. Was I making a big mistake? I still had eight hundred kilometres ahead of me with god-knows-what challenges and I was already tired after just a few steps! Somehow I made it through that day, crossing over two high mountain passes and felt stronger at the end of the day than I had at the beginning.

Now here I was, after weeks of effort and hundreds of kilometres and I was beginning to realize something. There was no way I was ever going to reach my destination at the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers in the time I had available. I was beginning to tire both physically and mentally. The river was slowing at this point and the water level seemed to be getting lower as well. Being alone, except for brief conversations with total strangers, was starting to get old. There are times when I have found that being alone with one’s own thoughts is not only desirable, but necessary. There are other times that the diversion of meaningless conversation, along with the noise and activities of the surrounding world, help to drown out that inner voice and one is glad of them. I decided that I would aim for Drumheller that day, check into a motel, have a nice hot shower and a restaurant meal and think things over.

Piccadilly Circus(London)
My life could have been very different...
As I approached the next crossing (the Munson Bridge), I was reminded of something that had occurred on that highway, just west of the river valley. It was April of 2001 and the snow had melted from the fields leaving them a golden brown. I was hurtling down the road in my little car, as I did on so many of my working days. Just two days earlier, I had been riding The Tube in Central London. I was on my way back to my North London hotel after a football match. We were all jammed on a train --thousands of us. My face was jammed in someone’s armpit. I could barely move. It was hot. A woman got onboard with her crying newborn baby... My car got to a high point on the road and I pulled over to the side, got out and looked around me. Amber, empty fields stretched from horizon to horizon. The sky seemed to go on forever that day. I could not see one other person. The stark contrast of those two days in April have stuck with me ever since and given me an appreciation for the life that I have, compared to the life I might have had.

A lone coyote on the prairie near my home
After the Munson Bridge, the next major human landmark was the Bleriot Ferry. It was busy shuttling vehicles back and forth across the river. It certainly was larger and more modern looking than the cable ferry I remember from my childhood. Over thirty years had passed since I was last at this spot. I waited until it had stopped briefly on the south bank, then I paddled by and waved back at the ferryman. It was a gorgeous day and the wind at my back allowed me to appreciate it all the more. The river turned from the southerly direction I had been traveling since the Great Bend, back to the east. I paddled past Nacmine and some nice riverside houses and into the heart of the Town of Drumheller.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Eight

From Parkland to Prairie

“Nature is not human hearted.” - Lao-Tzu

Blooming prickly pear cactus in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
The next morning, I was off down the river as usual. It was a Saturday, so plenty of people were out canoeing this popular stretch of the river. From Trenville, the next major stop is the MacKenzie Crossing, which was busy with canoeists, campers and fishermen out to catch some goldeye or possibly a pike or walleye. Some of the walleye in this section of the Red Deer can get very large. The largest one I’ve encountered was twenty-nine inches long. Goldeye are more common. They arrive from downstream in late May and can be voracious through June and into July. They were a favorite meal for the members of the Palliser Expedition.

“Burnham, intent on the search for gold, wanted to see if there was any to be found in the Red Deer River. Palliser told him that he feared the geology of the country would not admit of there being any, but went along with him and Paul. They washed and panned for a considerable time, they found no gold, but they did get a couple of gold-eyes as well as a beaver for dinner.” 1

As I continued heading southward, the valley began to deepen and to look more like the badlands that most Albertans are familiar with. I was approaching a place with which I was very familiar.
I parked my canoe at the boat launch of one of my favorite parks. Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is both biologically and geologically diverse and is situated on the transition zone between parkland and prairie regions. The valley at this point is two hundred metres deep and contains several distinct levels.

Western wood lily in badland coulee within the park
The north side of the park is fairly typical of a badlands environment, but with some surprises. There is the riparian zone at the lowest level, containing tall grass and willow. On the edge of the riparian zone are some cottonwoods. The next level is a mixture of grassland, bentonite clay and stands of balsam poplar and aspen. Greasewood and cactus dot the harshest parts of the landscape. In June/July there are a multitude of flowers in bloom - including the cactus. More sheltered spots have the beautiful wood lily on display. The typical badlands clays, layered in lighter and darker bands, rise up from this level to that of the surrounding prairie. Also on the north side of the park is the “Dry Island” - a plateau that rises above the surrounding badlands. At its flat summit is a sample of the natural fescues that dominated the surrounding prairie before cultivation. The isolation of the Dry Island serves to preserve these unspoiled natural grasses.
On the north facing slopes and in the many coulees that intersect the badlands there are stands of white spruce. On many a hot afternoon, I have found myself seeking out the cooler shelter of one of the coulees, while I take a break for lunch or simply to get out of the overpowering heat that builds up in this valley. When one looks around themselves in these coulees, they could almost believe that they were in the rocky mountain foothills. This provincial park certainly is a place of contrasts.

On the south side of the park the landscape is different again. It still contains some of the badland’s characteristics, but less so. The land rises more suddenly from the river to a “step” about a hundred metres above the valley bottom. On this level there are aspen, white spruce, willow and dogwood. There is also a stand of paper birch, which is at the southern limit of its range in this province. This is a favored spot for porcupine. There are many mule deer in this area and their trails are every where. There are also some surprises in this knob and kettle terrain. Many hidden ponds and marshes dot this section of the park. They contain boreal chorus and wood frogs. They also provide an attraction for the moose. Of course, the park’s many coyotes can be heard, especially near dusk. Their lonely cries echoing across the valley usually draw a chorus of responses from their kindred animals.

The western edge of this level is contained by sheer sandstone cliffs that rise up to the grade of the surrounding prairie. Prairie falcons nest on these cliffs and can be viewed as they hunt and defend their territory. One section of the escarpment was used as a buffalo jump by aboriginal peoples intermittently over a ten thousand year period. The bones of the bison can be found in the soils below the jump. The view from the top of the escarpment is superb. Many times in the spring, I have stood atop these cliffs and watched groups of bald eagles coming from the south, following along the valley on to their northern destinations. I have watched a bull moose in rut during an early winter snow storm, laboring under the heavy weight of its huge antlers. I have seen flocks of turkey vultures flying next to and falcons soaring below this vantage point. Richardson’s ground squirrels (“gophers” to most of us) and badgers live in these uplands and once I came upon a porcupine whose only way to protect itself in this exposed position was to place its head out over the cliffs while it showed me its spiny backside. One spring, in defense of its territory, a mountain bluebird attacked the side mirror of my truck. I returned to the cliff top parking lot to find my driver’s side door covered with droppings and the angry bird still crashing repeatedly into its own reflection.

I had lunch near the boat launch (sandwiches again!) and set off downstream. This time I had a lot of company on the river. Several groups of canoeists were traveling alongside me. A small group made up of two young men and their bikini clad girlfriends, floating along in a motley collection of tubes and dinghies, braved the stretch from the buffalo jump to Tolman Bridge. I’m sure that this stretch of the river was longer than they expected and it was made even more difficult to traverse due to a particularly strong headwind. The scantily clad tubers had few supplies or alternate clothing, but they did have plenty of beer. I was a bit concerned about their safety, but my worries seemed to be for nothing, because I saw them much later in the day, laughing and frolicking in the river.

At one point I got fed up and pulled my canoe up onto the bank to rest and curse the raging headwind. After a little nap, the wind died down a bit and I set off again. As I passed under the Tolman Bridge, I waved at some of the folks that I had chatted with at the buffalo jump and continued on for another hour or two into a more opened bottomed section of the valley. I found a site along the bank, near the opening to a narrow coulee and set up a makeshift camp.
A sudden storm during supper almost spells disaster
I was considering sleeping under the stars and not bothering with setting up the tent, but when I looked northward, toward Tolman Bridge, there were black clouds forming and moving eastward across the sky. I was famished so I quickly set up my tent, threw everything inside except my stove and cooking utensils and began cooking supper. The angry looking clouds were moving closer and I realized that my dinner preparations had become a race against time. Supper was almost ready and it looked like I would have enough time. A bit of rain wouldn’t be that much of a problem after all, on such a hot day. Suddenly a huge gust of north wind blew my tent and its contents right on top of me. It was a miracle that my stove didn’t catch the whole works on fire. In my haste to set up camp, I had neglected to peg my tent down. I instinctively grabbed the tent and threw it down. I unzipped the doorway and jumped inside, hoping my weight would hold everything down. I reached outside and shut off my trusty Coleman stove, grabbed my (now ready) pasta supper and sat on the edge of my air mattress, watching the rain and the lightning bolts. After five minutes, the storm moved on and the sun reappeared. It was once again, a still, warm summer evening as I reflected on this typical prairie weather.

I was in the prairies now. I had left the parkland region that morning, somewhere near the buffalo jump. There was not really a clear demarcation, but this was definitely prairie. The rest of my journey would be through some version of this vast region and I wasn’t even half way through my trip. I was feeling a little tired and lonely as I retired to my sleeping bag that night.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Seven

The Great Bend

“Art is man's nature: Nature is God's art.” - Philip James Bailey

Metis flag at Tail Creek - the oldest flag to originate in Canada
I woke up amongst a flock of pelicans, who were fishing the stretch of river near my camp. I watched a small cattle roundup across the river, while I had breakfast and took down my tent. This was a stretch of the river that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. It wasn’t because it was a difficult stretch, but it didn’t seem like a very interesting prospect when I was planning my trip. I thought of it merely as a necessary prelude to the badlands portion of the journey. I was pleasantly surprised.

This stretch of the river heads nearly straight east and away from Red Deer before it jogs north briefly, then east again to the Content Bridge. It also travels through some fine parkland country. I tackled a small rapid below a sandstone cliff where some falcons made their home. I was later told that these were transplanted peregrines as part of a project to reintroduce them into this area. Further on, I watched a coyote stalk through some high grass near the river’s edge, hoping for a snack of killdeer chicks. The passing of my canoe ruined his morning hunt.

I approached a bend in the river and some unique cliffs with some historic significance. Palliser Expedition geologist, James Hector mentions these burning bands of coal in his journals. They are evident because of the layers of shale which have become a pink color due to the heat of the burning coal. His Cree guides told Hector that this coal had been burning for as long as they could remember. I have heard that trees in the area have been known to catch fire from the roots up.

Above the cliff containing the coal seams (their wings a telltale “V”) a couple of turkey vultures soared -- riding the thermals up into the sky. Two red tailed hawks joined them. Turkey vultures are a fairly common sight in the badlands of the Red Deer River, but they would have been here in the thousands when James Hector ventured into this region. At that time, huge flocks of these scavengers grew fat consuming the carcasses of the buffalo that existed in their millions. What a different world it was in those days. Perhaps, in the Red Deer River Valley one can just catch a glimpse of what that world might have been like.

As I drifted around the beginning of the “Great Bend”, a massive nest perched in a large cottonwood tree came into view. I pulled the canoe onto the bank and got out to investigate. Sure enough, there were a couple of unfledged bald eagles in the nest. I scanned the surrounding trees and sky and I spotted the parents of the two homely looking juveniles. They swooped down and called at me, threatening me with their outstretched talons, but I was never really in any danger. It was all for show and the eagles never got close enough to be a problem. They were nothing like the Swainson’s hawk of the previous summer, who tried to dive down onto me when I got too close to her nest. I had to fend her off with a camera tripod held above my head like a three pronged crown. Pleased at having confirmed an active bald eagle nest along the river, I got back into my canoe and paddled on to the Content Bridge and the campground, where I spent that night.

One of the few signs of the Metis
settlement near the Content bridge
I woke up in a noisy campground (due to its location adjacent to a gas plant). It wasn’t the most beautiful spot in the world, but the campground operator was friendly and helpful. I managed to get all my video batteries charged and get some ice for my cooler. I even had a tasty ice cream cone -- such luxury! After the usual routine of breakfast, tearing down camp and loading the canoe I was ready for another day on the river.

I continued under the Content Bridge and on my way around the “Great Bend”- a point at which the river changes its heading from eastward to a southerly direction. Almost immediately the scenery began to change. There were still plenty of white spruce, aspen and poplars along the river, but the clay that one associates with the badlands became visible along the walls and embankments of the valley. The river was flowing southward now into a transition area between the parkland and prairie regions. I came to a rapid of some note. It is, in my opinion, the last real rapid on the river. The water pours over a small dyke of harder rock, which creates a bit of a ledge. It was an easy enough ride and afterwards I turned my canoe around to look at “The Backbone”.

Depiction of Henday meeting Blackfoot chief near Pine Lake
courtesy Alberta Museum
The Backbone certainly has some possible historic significance. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Anthony Henday, along with his two Cree guides, is said to have crossed the Red Deer River at this point. It was in October 1754 and the river would have been a lot lower than on this July day. He used the Backbone to ford the river and presumably keep his feet dry. Working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was on a mission to establish trading with the local Indian tribes and to encourage them to bring their furs to York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay. The mission was a failure. The Nitsitapii people weren’t at all interested in making the long journey to the Hudson’s Bay. They didn’t travel by canoe and probably felt they had everything they needed, but they were gracious hosts and politely received Henday at a large encampment at nearby Pine Lake. Nevertheless, this smuggler from the Isle of Wight and net mender for the Hudson’s Bay Company became the first European to visit this land and see the Rocky Mountains. That is one version of the story anyway. Henday’s original journals have disappeared to be replaced by four somewhat contradictory and highly edited versions of his journeys. I prefer the version in which he came this way and (for me) seeing the Backbone gave life to his amazing story.

Pileated woodpeckers
I was near my home now and I pulled my canoe into the familiar Trenville Park Campground. It is a very pleasant spot and is a favorite destination during the summer months. I checked out the bird boxes along the fence line and found mountain bluebirds bringing various grubs to their progeny along with one containing a purple martin. There was a family of ruffed grouse, some cottontail rabbits, as well as sapsuckers and pileated woodpeckers in the campground. I lowered a shotgun mike into a beaver lodge to listen through my headphones, to that year’s young make plaintive noises while their parents splashed in and out. It was a warm evening and human children played, splashed and cooled themselves in the waters of the river. I retired early to my tent for a sound sleep.

At Tail Creek Cemetery. One of the only pictures I have of me shooting the video for "Red Deer River Journey"

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Six

The City

Aerial view of Gaetz Lakes (an oxbow of the Red Deer River)

 Illustration of how an oxbow is formed (from Red Deer's Kerry Wood Nature Centre)
Gradually the surrounding landscape began to look more pastoral. The rumble of background noise began to get louder as I approached the next bridge. This was the Highway 2 Bridge and the gateway to the City of Red Deer. As usual, the traffic was busy. I drive across this bridge daily while I go about my busy working life. Approaching Red Deer in this way gave me a new perspective on the city and indeed my life. I felt like an outsider looking in.
Even after I had crossed under the bridge and into the city, the immediate surroundings didn’t look too urban. The only way you would know you were in a city was by the constant drone of the traffic in the background. There were poplar trees on one side of the river and white spruce hemmed in by high north facing banks on the other. I passed a fox with some prize in his mouth, running through the willows while being pursued by several crows. A fly fisherman was in the river catching some goldeye and no doubt hoping for a nice brown trout. I paddled under the Taylor Street Bridge and beached my canoe at a boat launch near the center of Red Deer. It was five o’clock and quitting time - another hard day at the office! I wish that all of my work days could be like this one.
My brief stay in Red Deer gave me a chance to get cleaned up, do my laundry and have a nice meal with friends. I also had a chance to nurse my ant bites from the previous day. They had become swollen and red. I must have been quite a sight. I looked in the mirror to see my sun reddened face with the white outline of my sunglasses around my eyes. My nose was burned and blistered. I also had dropped a few pounds which really wasn’t such a bad thing. It was a nice change to worry that I wasn’t eating enough food.
An old schoolmate of mine had come from Calgary to join me for a day’s paddling and we met for breakfast the next morning. He was now a school teacher and had brought along one of his colleagues to accompany us. They were in their seventeen foot “Coleman” and I was once again alone in the “Prospector” as we departed from the boat launch and quickly paddled beneath the Gaetz Avenue Bridge. We carried on past the 67th Street Bridge, beyond the Riverside Industrial Park and Three Mile Bend. This was the first stretch of the river that one looking from their canoe could really see that they were in an urban area. We canoed out of Red Deer, past the mouth of the Blindman River and into the Canyon area.
The Canyon
Aerial view of the Canyon (from SD video)
The Canyon was formed quite recently on the geological scale of events. Thousands of years ago the Red Deer River flowed north from this spot and followed the present course of the Battle River to link up with the North Saskatchewan River. At the end of the last great ice age (twelve thousand years ago) the retreating ice sheet blocked the northerly flow of the river and formed an expansive lake, which covered the entire Red Deer area. This large body of water stretched as far south as present day Innisfail. The river found a way eastward, carving through the “Divide Hill”, changing directions to its present course and forming the majestic Canyon area.
The stretch through the Canyon is pretty and it is easy to forget that you are within close vicinity of an urban area. There are a series of bends and mild rapids that help to make it interesting. We spotted a cow moose and two calves, lots of deer, many pelicans, ospreys and a huge eagle's nest. Near the end of the day, a heavy rain storm soaked me before I had the sense to throw on my rain gear. Just as suddenly as it had arrived, it was over and the sun peered out through the thunderheads once more.
The canyon was an interesting area and a nice outing for my friends, but a bit frustrating for me. There are so many bends in this stretch of the river that it took all day to arrive at the Joffre Bridge on Highway 11, which by car was only a few minutes and kilometres from where we began our day. It is one of those stretches of the river that makes you shake your head, as you look at it on the map, after a long day’s paddling.
My day-long traveling companions said their good-byes at the Joffre Bridge and I paddled for another hour downstream to a spot where I made camp on the river bank.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Five

The West Country


“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.” - David Grayson

The river above Dickson dam - on high water (shows some of the hazards)

The next morning two of my friends made me a sumptuous breakfast while I prepared my video camera and other gear. They had brought with them the provisions and equipment that I needed for the next section of my journey. The most important of these was a sixteen foot long “Prospector” canoe. As he describes in his book “Dangerous River”, Raymond Patterson used just such a canoe to explore the wilderness of the Nahanni River in the 1920’s. It was a classic canoe which could accommodate either one or two canoeists, depending which way it was facing in the water. I planned to go most of the rest of the way by myself, but I did have quite a bit of camping gear, food and video equipment to take with me, necessitating the sixteen foot canoe.

My friends dropped me off in Sundre and headed off to their golf game, which they had booked at the local course. There was no boat launch in Sundre, so I finally settled on putting my canoe into a small side stream next to Greenwood Park. I carried my provisions, a piece at a time, down to the canoe and loaded everything up, while onlookers watched and questioned me about what I was up to. At this point I was beginning to tire and I was in a bit of a foul mood as it was beginning to get late in the day. I did manage to keep a civil tongue in my head while I attempted to describe what I was doing. Several of the onlookers wished me good luck on my trip and that certainly helped my mood. After what seemed like hours of struggling, I was ready, though I still wasn’t sure if the small side stream was deep enough to convey my fully loaded canoe into the Red Deer River.

It was already five o’clock when I pushed and struggled to get my canoe out into the river. Once I did hit the waters of the river my canoe took off carrying all my equipment and me beneath the Highway 27 Bridge and out of town. Suddenly my whole demeanor changed. I was in a wonderful mood and I could hardly keep the grin off of my face. It was a lovely evening. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the whole world seemed alive and full of possibilities. I was once again on my way.

It had been fifteen years since I had last been in a canoe and I had some doubt about whether I still knew how to maneuver one. I had never tried solo canoeing before and it was different from the usual tandem method. There was also the river. On this stretch it divided into many braided channels and sometimes it was difficult to pick which one to take. I only had an instant to decide sometimes, because I was moving along at quite a clip. If I selected the wrong channel, I could land in trouble. Sometimes the canoe would end up on a gravel bar which required me to get out and push my load over it and hop quickly back in when the canoe was clear. Worse yet there were sweepers and trees that blocked the river creating hazards for the unwary. Once I had to squat right down as I hurtled under an unavoidable sweeper that touched the gunnels of my canoe.
The thing I feared the most was these fast waters carrying me into a log jam on a sharp bend. If I was dragged into one of these it would be “game over”. The canoe would surely flip, dumping all of my gear and me into the waters, to become enmeshed in a tangle of logs. All of my equipment; my video camera, possibly my canoe and even my life could be lost in an instant. This did almost happen at a sharp ninety-degree elbow where the swift current ended up in a huge log jam. My first instinct was to freeze in panic, but then I thought “paddle!” I paddled as fast as I could on the outside of my turn and the canoe responded, gliding across the current. Then I switched sides and dug in my paddle, pushing backwards against the water, causing the canoe to turn sharply and hug the slower inside of the bend. I looked back briefly at the log jam and shuddered. After that moment, I put more faith in the trusty “Prospector”. With a flatter bottom and no keel, it certainly handled better than my old seventeen foot Coleman.

Now, instead of being afraid, I began to feel elated. This was why I was making this journey. The golden rays of the evening sun bathed the landscape of this Southern outlier of the Boreal Forest. This was part of, what Albertans call, the “West Country”. There were beavers in the water going about their chores. Great blue herons would take flight when I surprised them on a bend in the river. The canoe handled very well once I adjusted the load properly and it seemed like my canoeing skills returned to me. In fact it felt like some hand was guiding me through the hazards. It was as though the spirits of the great men who had explored this land before me steadied my nervous grip on the paddle.
Still from the title segment of my film
Traveling at the river’s level, one could fancy that they were surrounded by a total wilderness with almost nobody else to be seen. I could imagine that I was canoeing down one of our great northern rivers - thousands of miles from anywhere. I might have been in the midst of the great boreal forest, totally alone. This illusion was only broken a couple of times. Once when I surprised two teenage girls doing something covert at the river’s edge and again when one of those abominable jet boats flew by while I was (luckily) pulled-over on a gravel bar. It seems like even our rivers are no sanctuary from the noisy, destructive machines of the affluent and bored. They can access the wild places and yet pay no dues. They are separated from nature by their powerful vehicles and the noise of their engine’s roar. Like tourists, they pass through, but are never touched by the places they visit. They can never understand the damage that they do.

I paddled beyond the Highway 587 Bridge and after some searching, setup camp on an island near Schrader Creek.

The next morning, after breakfast, I broke camp, loaded up the canoe and set off again. I floated by two mule deer bucks who stared at me like they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Then it finally registered, that this was a man drifting towards them and they took off like two proverbial bats out of hell. I was enjoying myself until I reached the waters of Glennifer Lake. This is a reservoir created by the Dickson Dam. Thankfully this is the only substantial impediment created by man on the Red Deer River.

 A nasty headwind blew from the East that caused whitecaps to roll over the surface of the lake. I scarcely had a chance to enjoy the sight of the first pelicans that I encountered. I paddled by them as they sat on a small delta created by the river, as its waters issued into the lake. I was forced to pit my strength against the wind and waves for more than an hour while I worked my way around the lake’s northern shore to the first boat launch. There I took refuge, unpacked the canoe and carried it up the launch and out of the way of any other boaters. I began my wait for two friends, who were going to shuttle me around the dam that evening.

I cooked myself a nice pasta lunch, washed the dishes and read some magazines for a while. Glennifer Lake is not the most scenic of places. Every view is cluttered with power lines and the lake itself is a typical reservoir. Every natural or interesting thing in the area has been mowed down by earth movers in the name of progress. I’m sure that the Dickson dam serves its purpose, but this area was certainly the dreariest place on the whole voyage. I began to get bored so I laid on a piece of manicured lawn, near where I had lunch and fell asleep for a while. I woke up covered in small red ants that were biting me all over. Now I was really beginning to get grumpy. I read for awhile and my friends finally arrived, bearing a cup of my favorite coffee. It’s really amazing how a little thing like a good cup of coffee can change one’s spirits. Feeling rejuvenated we loaded up the truck and shuttled everything around Dickson Dam to a location where I could set up my tent. I was alone once again as my friends headed back to Red Deer and I settled down for the night.

My camp was at the confluence of the Red Deer and the Little Red Deer Rivers. This was a spot where I like to angle for mountain whitefish in autumn. It was another beautiful summer day and I loaded up the canoe after a quick breakfast and headed out. Shortly, I found myself at the mouth of the Medicine River. Both cliff and bank swallows flew in and out of their homes on an embankment of clay exposed by the river. The bank swallow nests are made in cavities excavated in the bank, while the cliff swallows attach their mud and spittle enclosed nests on the surface of the bank. The cliff swallows fly in and out of an access hole in the bottom of their adobe homes.

 In 1858, this was to be a rendezvous point for the main party of the Palliser Expedition and Thomas Blakiston, who had split off from the others to do some magnetic observations. After waiting for some time, John Palliser sent his geologist James Hector to the forks of the Medicine and Red Deer Rivers to bury a letter and a cache for Blakiston, before they headed off to hunt buffalo near present day Calgary.

I paddled down stream on a river that was now slower and far less hazardous than it had been above the dam. It was less exciting, but it gave me more time to enjoy the summer day and my surroundings. On the bends, brown trout sipped mayflies off of the water’s surface while black terns swooped overhead, taking their share of the hatch. I passed beneath the Innisfail, and then the Penhold Bridges. I was making good time, even on the slow stretches, where I found I had the strength to paddle steadily for hours.

next time - The City

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Four

Foothills Whitewater

“Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious.” - St. Thomas Aquinas

The hamburger and fries that I had at the restaurant were delicious and seemed all the more so compared to the freeze dried meals I had been eating for days. My room wasn’t fancy, but it was comfortable and I slept soundly that night knowing that the first leg of my journey was complete.

I had a day to relax while I waited for my friends to join me. I spent the day cleaning my camera gear, charging batteries and sorting through my clothes and other gear. The next leg of the journey was to be a white water rafting trip through the foothills. This section of the river is known for its ledges and the rapids that have previously hosted kayaking competitions. Only experienced rafters should attempt this part of the river, so we hired an outfitter to guide us through these dangerous waters.

My friends began arriving at the Mukwah Tours base camp, next to the Panther River (a tributary of the Red Deer River) on that Friday evening. They set up camp and we sat by the fire drinking and talking about the next day's adventure. It was a pleasant contrast to the solitude of the previous week. I also had a chance to speak with our guides. They were all the type of young men who were drawn to outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Most of them had managed to find jobs that allowed them to maintain this lifestyle. In the winter it was snowboarding and in the summer it was rafting, kayaking and whitewater canoeing for them. One of them, who was from South Africa, also loved surfing. We found common ground when the conversation turned to preserving the river, conservation and ecology.
The next day turned out to be rainy and cool, perhaps the coldest day of my entire trip. After an early lunch, we prepared for the day’s rafting. We put on wetsuits, special jackets, lifejackets, neoprene gloves and helmets. After instruction in safety and paddling, we launched our raft into the swift waters of the Panther River. Shortly we found ourselves at the conjunction of the Panther and the larger Red Deer River. We were shadowed by another raft filled with neophyte paddlers and two of Mukwah’s guides. We had a single guide who drilled us briefly on rafting techniques and we were off and over our first ledge. There was excitement and nervous laughter as the water dropped out from under our raft. We watched as the other raft followed us and listened to their screams and laughter. After playing briefly in the backwaters created by the ledge, our group was on its way to the next challenging portion.
Our guide yelled instructions and steered from the back of our raft as we maneuvered our way down river through a series of ledges and rapids. Probably the most impressive of these was called “Nationals” after the National Kayaking Championship that had been held there years before. Between rapids, the other raft would challenge us to races and the South African guide would taunt us with cries of “lily dippers” and other insults whenever they managed to overtake us. We stopped for a rest and hot drinks near a twenty-five foot high cliff, from which most of us felt compelled to jump into the icy waters of the river. At the end of the day’s rafting, a van waited to shuttle us back to base camp for an evening of steaks, drinking and music.
Photos courtesy Donna Pinder