Combine a warm Sunday afternoon, water as clear as a spring fed lake bed, autumn colors blazing along the shore, a winding river and light breeze, and you have paddling perfection. These elements came together on a piece of the South Saskatchewan River from Outlook north about twenty kilometres.
Initially, I planned to cover the stretch between Gardner dam and Outlook, but at 30 kilometres, and with lots of warning that the water was low and riddled with sand bars, I felt we’d go beyond our time constraints. Hoping for a place to launch near Macrorie, we drove into this little town, and the first person we asked, happened to be an experienced paddler, who knew the river in both directions. David advised us to launch at Outlook and told my husband, Den, how to locate a rough take-out spot on the west bank down river. We calculated five hours, with a lunch break to get there. David also warned us to put our egos aside and let the river choose our passage.
The cozy town of Outlook stretches over undulating hills above the South Saskatchewan river, downstream from Gardner Dam. It boasts the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. This impressive structure formed the backdrop for our launch. After some reconnoitering and questioning, we accessed the river from a trail in the town park, and carried our kayaks down a series of sand and mud chutes formed by erosion. As we sorted our gear at the base of the railway bridge, we watched two men in a motorized canoe fighting free of a sandbar mid river. A telling example of David’s warning, “The water is low”.
That same water, so clear you could see the rippling sand art it carved on the river bed, carried us away from the grassy slope of the shore and into a narrow channel. A light breeze patted us gently on our backs, and the sun smiled from a cloudless sky.
Mapping and following a chosen route, being our norm, we struggled with letting the river show us the way. But the abundance of wildlife distracted us, letting the river have its way. Masses of birds honked and cawed, sung and flapped along the shore. Great colonies of cranes, ducks, geese, coots and grebes wheeled and settled, treating the river banks like a five star hotel administering to all their needs. At one point snow geese filled the sky above us, like white feathers hang gliding on a breeze.
We soon found the darkest patches of water, meant the deepest channels. Many times we were guessing till the last second whether to paddle left or right. Often you couldn’t see if there was a passage through the pristine stretches of sand. We’d drift and let the river guide us. Taking advantage of the outer curves, where the current swirled faster and dug deeper into the river bed, we managed to avoid bottoming out, all but three times. When this happened, I split my paddle in two, and used it like ski poles to muscle my kayak along. Barb maneuvered like a gondolier on a Venetian canal. Both tactics worked. One time the distance from stuck to free was about one hundred metres, giving us quite a workout. But suddenly, we thrust our bows over a hidden shelf, and below the water rushed dark and deep, hurtling us forward again.
David had instructed us to watch for a large white house at the top of the hills. We’d see it ahead of us from a long ways away, and once closer would take a right turn, putting it on the left bank. The track Den would take to the water would run alongside the house. We’d gone about a quarter mile past a white house with a track leading to the river, when I worried we might be missing Den. We hadn’t been on the water long enough to make twenty km. BUT? We decided against depending on paddling time and turned, working against the current and a stronger wind. We couldn’t see him, but thought he couldn’t get the truck closer and might have parked on top of the hill. I was on shore, just about to climb what looked like Mt Robson to my tired body, when Barb connected with Den on her cell phone. Sure enough we were in the wrong place. We gave him an estimation of our estimated time of arrival (ETA), not wanting to rush our experience, and headed downstream again.
Believing we’d earned a lunch break and chance to stretch our legs, we butted up against one of the endless sand spits and enjoyed our alfresco meal. Ladybugs in the thousands lined the damp sand where land met water, a phenomena I have never seen before. When we took to the water, I coveted the huge sandpit we were leaving, and wished I could move it up river to my back yard. We paddled another forty minutes and past four more white houses on hills, before we caught the glint of sunlight on a windshield.
A huge peninsula of bleached sand blocked our direct route. Barb reconnoitered, and we decided the easiest way was paddle around the peninsula and come back down on the other side. Otherwise, we’d have to haul our kayaks across about one hundred feet of sand dune to access the road. Once more we bottomed out, and strained to break free. Finally, we made it into a narrow channel along the west edge of the sand and paddled past Den, and turned to come back down along the west bank. Immediately, we knew we’d be hung up again, and chose to walk our kayaks through the shallow water. One minute I had water to my knees, the next to the top of my thighs. I felt like a mule pulling a barge on Lake Erie.
Finally, our kayaks were tied down for the return trip. I stood on a picnic table and donned dry gear, and we started back along country roads, so narrow and buried in long grasses, we couldn’t believe Den had actually found them.
All the physical effort was thoroughly rewarded with the beauty of the day and the varied aspects of the experience – yes, even the unique experience of fighting free of the sand bars’ clutches. The paddle was so perfect I’m leery every one that follows will seem anticlimactic.