Filled with confidence by my successful trip from Riverhurst to Elbow on June 22, I decided to bite off another stretch of the river and paddle Eston Riverside Park to Cabris Regional Park (a calculated this distance as 54 kms). So early Monday morning Den drove me to Eston Riverside Park. When we arrived and asked directions to the launch, we found ourselves mired in mud, and looking at two narrow tracks leading toward the river, with a six foot drop at the bottom. It would make for an extremely difficult launch, and so I decided to go further upstream to the Lancer Ferry and use the cement pad there.
My kayak hit water at Lancer Ferry 07:40 hours, and with a final wave at my husband, I took off downstream. Here the river is narrow and with a fairly good current. There was no wind, and so paddling was easy. But because of the extremely low water levels, I ran into problems right away. A warning to all paddlers interested in doing this stretch. I strongly advise you to wait till the water levels are back to normal. This year with no run off from the mountains, the water is approximately fifteen feet lower than usual. I would never have chosen to do this if I knew then, what I know now. To date, after fighting Crohns disease, this is the hardest physical and mental challenge I have mastered. On one side of the river low cut banks indicated the route of the old river and a faster current, on the other huge sand beaches stretched far into the middle, with mud along both shorelines. Stopping on either side met fighting mud, often sticking in clay up to mid-calf and struggling to keep your footwear on.
I quickly discovered if I got within forty feet of the sandy side I would bottom out on a sandbar, so I had to find and stay in the narrow original river channel. And because it is a very old river, that path winds back and forth in loops, sometimes almost doubling back on itself, and always going to the furthest shoreline – the cut banks. With no wind, I could follow the original channel by tracking the whirlpools breaking the surface. But I would paddle approximately 3 kilometres east to west to make 1 kilometre south or downstream. Between the current and the extended amount of paddling, I had no way of keeping track of my distances, once I passed the Eston Riverside Park (twelve kilometres downstream). I now figured I had to paddle 66 kilometres southeast in two days. Still doable at 5 km/hr paddling rate, but when I added in the extra distance I had to paddle back and forth across the river, I grew concerned about whether I could get to Cabris Park in two days, and whether my arms would stand up to what I calculated would now be 6.5 hours of paddling per day (which with breaks adds up to 8 plus hours on the water). But I accepted I had no other alternative than to make it, as there are no roads touching the water between Eston and Cabris, and I settled into my 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off routine and took note of what was around me. Again, a large, healthy coyote drank from the river bank. I sighted several deer tucked into the scrub willows along the low shoreline, and three families of geese with goslings big enough to run but not fly, scooted ahead of me on the water. Why don’t they ever think to go behind? Instead they make me feel like I’m chasing them down the river, agitating geese and paddler alike. Sandpipers also peeped happily as they ran along the wide expanses of exposed riverbed.
Early afternoon of the first day out, I found myself once more stranded on a sandbank, in about six inches of water. I shoved my way along with my hands, hoping to hit the main channel again, (most often it would be about 3 feet one side or the other). I decided I’d have to get out and walk my kayak into deep water. This had already happened early that morning. Now I experienced the most frightening and wonderful moment of the trip. I looked over my left shoulder before stepping out, and a bull moose was crossing the river not forty feet away from me. Shock! You bet. I ascertained it was young, not full grown, (but from the bottom of a kayak, looking up, it was one big animal). I sat very still, waiting to see if it would take exception to my presence. Seemed it didn’t mind sharing the river with a moron stuck on a sandbar, and proceeded to stroll to the other side, appearing to be walking on water. I watched it climb up the far bank before I moved, and boy did I paddle when I got back into the right channel.
For what I would calculate was the first twenty-five linear miles of the river, I travelled in landscape quite different than the high hills that rim the South Saskatchewan further down. Here the land was much flatter, and the river bank covered with scrub. There were little choices for camping spots, and so when 16:00 hours came, and hot and tired I decided it was time to make camp, I chose a sandbank that had shrub along the far edge, which provided a bit of shelter from the southwest, as thundershowers were a possibility. Clouds had been building all day, frothing upward into the cobalt sky. The big plus of this spot, was I could land and unpack without being in mud. A closer inspection reinforced my thinking it was a good spot. The high point was flat, a mix of sand and gravel, perfect to set up my tent, and the back dropped off into a narrow ravine, filled with water, that almost turned the sand spit into an island. I wouldn’t have to worry about animals coming at me from the back.
After setting up my campsite, I had a refreshing swim, cooked dinner in the shade of my tent, and stretched out on my sleeping bag to catch a cooling breeze. Ah! Satisfaction. Suddenly a loud noise behind me sent me jerking upward. The moose was back! Thank goodness when I looked out my tent flat, I caught the head of a beaver swimming away, and identified the sound as him slapping his tail in warning. He must have felt threatened each time he swam by, because he startled me with four more times. I did wait to absorb a breathtaking sunset before falling into sleep’s arms.
The sun tiptoed over the horizon and dressed in bright yellow, before I woke at 05:40 hours. The sky was cloudless, the day already hinting at the heat ahead. I had a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, and began the laborious process of breaking camp. With everything cleaned and stowed away, I coincidentally hit the water at 07:40 hours again. I felt some pressure, in that I didn’t think I was nearly as far down the river as I had expected to be, end of day one, and so I had a super long day of paddling ahead of me.
Again, back and forth from one shoreline to the other, but now I had a light wind came at me from the south, and it raised enough wave on the water to obliterate the current, forcing me to guess at the location of the original channel. Around 10:00 hours, I found myself facing two wide openings of water, with a possible third to the far right bank. When I glassed all three, it was impossible to identify the main channel. I chose the widest on the right, paddled in over 1.5 km, and came to a dead end. I was trapped in a small lake, surrounded by sand banks. I could see where the higher hills began on the south bank, seemingly just feet away, and felt certain the river was on the other side. I now had to choose between going back down the piece of water I’d just paddled, or choosing another to the north, that might go back into the main channel. I got out in the mud and climbed to the top of the sand dune. It was too low and flat to give me enough perspective. Everywhere I looked was sand, divided by the two channels of water. Total silence bathed the area, and I felt frighteningly alone. There was no way to get help. I wondered if there was even a way through to the main river. Had the sandbanks cut off the flow at this point? No. It had to be getting past somewhere. So I paddled back the way I’d come, choosing the devil I knew over another I didn’t. And I made a calculated guess that the cut banks I could barely see on the north edge, meant the river swung around a curve there. I lost 2.5 hours with all the extra paddling, but found my way out, and of course was directed back across the river, where I swear I was only twenty feet from the spot I’d ended up in taking the wrong channel. I probably could have unloaded my kayak and dragged it across a sand dune, and been in the same place. I’ll never know for sure.
I do know I was glad to see the first of the high hills, and water sitting at a slightly higher level, because the dam backed the water up this far. The river was wider, and slower, and I paddled into the wind, point to point now, but across 5 km stretches that seemed to go on forever, before you turned around another point. The sun blazed down, so I was almost thankful for the headwind that cooled me slightly.
All along the north shore, there were peculiar looking tank and pipe configurations. I think maybe natural gas stations. Here a crew is installing another. They riddled the hillside, and added an alien look, detracting from the beauty of ancient hills. On the south side of the river, as the cut banks increased in height, beautiful sculptures caused by erosion stood out like reliefs carved into their sides. A striking contrast between what nature and man create.
At the first sighting of a tower, I pulled out my cell and got a signal, leaving a message for Den, who was at work, that I had no idea where I was, but figured I was far short of Cabris Park. About two hours later, I found another tower, and left a new message that I’d go into the launch at Dyrland’s. This is a small gravel/clay launch with an outhouse stationed on the north bank, set up by the Provincial government. So this became my single goal, spying that outhouse sitting on the hill, and knowing I’d hit Dyrland’s land and could quit. Another hour, then two went by. I figured I’d lost so much time the first day, I was much further up river than I assessed. And as I’d lost the 2.5 hours that morning, I could be barely half way there. I knew it was still an hour and a half paddle from Dyrlands to Cabris. Another five mile stretch taunted me, while a big thunderstorm chasing me from behind. I was now contemplating having to come off the water if the thunderstorm hit. I rounded the tip at the far point, and saw a white trailer on the south bank. As I’d seen several trailers pulled down near the shoreline by farmers and ranchers, I just thought it was another. Then I saw the white railing of a fence above, and recognized Cabris’s holding area for the boat trailers. I never had seen the outhouse at Dyrlands. What a surprise! I was elated. I’d be off the water before the storm unleashed its violence.
Cabris Regional Park is hard hit this year. The low water level left its marina high and dry, the lovely sand beach is bordered by fifty feet of mud, with only six inches of waters stretching past that. I landed on the north side, next to a small speedboat and a dingy, the only two water craft visible. Of course I was in mud, and scrabbled about twenty feet before hitting drying clay and then sand. I pulled out my phone and called Den on his cell, as he was now off work. I caught him just south of Stewart Valley and he said he was on his way. The large thunderstorm veered off to the south, and I escaped both the river and a deluge. Unloading the kayak and getting it on the truck was a muddy business, and I had a big clean-up job to do when I got home. But altogether, this was a true adventure, and challenged me in the way I like most. Man against nature – my favourite scenario. Bring it on.
A little overview: In 2013 I decided paddling to Elbow from Sask Landing was a worthwhile accomplishment, and set it as a goal. I managed two legs that year: Sask Landing to Beaver Flats; and Beaver Flats to Prairie View. In 2014 I paddled the stretch from Prairie View Park (Beachy Yacht Club) to Riverhurst. In 2015 health issues kept me from completing the trip, so I was quite anxious to get in that last lap from Prairie View to Elbow.
It was with double determination I made the long drive back to Riverhurst on June 22 to paddle to Elbow, because I’d already made my first attempt and aborted. The forecast was for light winds from the north west swinging around by noon to southwest. As ever, when we arrived at the ferry launch the winds were gusting 25 and coming from the northeast I launched at 07:20 hours, paddling into a crosswind for the first five kilometres. I paddled point to ¾ point, using the calmer water from ¾ to the end of the point as a little break from the pushing wind. The call of a loon startled me, as these are a rare sighting on Diefenbaker. Either he flew ahead of me several times, or they were migrating through, because a lone loon laughed as I entered three more bays.
A coyote cub drank from the river, and gave me plenty of time to glass him through my binoculars before scooting up the bank to join his mother and another cub. They still had the fuzzy fur of the young. Around 09:30 hours I drew even with the fish farm on the north side of the river. I hadn’t realized it still existed, and the noise an industry surprised me. As I had to go mid river to get around some of their markers and buoys, I decided to cross to the south side at this time, and paddled a long diagonal that took forty-five minutes, getting me into some big waves mid river. A male and female coyote trotted across the shoreline of the south bank, as I drew near. We eyed each other suspiciously, both preserving our space. Their footprints marred the sandy beach downstream, where I landed at 10:20 hours for my first break. I found a shady spot protected from the sun by a high cut bank and leafy branches. This area of the river/Diefenbakeer Lake is much more treed than the western end. A family of mud hens entertained me.
Back on the water again, I paddled into a light cross wind for another two hours. At 12:10 I took my lunch break in another shady spot. I was quite hot, and feeling slightly nauseated by this time, so I dunked in the cold river water. It lowered my body temp enough, that a rest in the shade, and a peanut butter sandwich killed the nausea. I realized I was dehydrated and began pushing more liquids.
At this point I checked my GPS reading, established I was down river further than I expected and called Den. He was already in Riverhurst waiting for me. I cut my lunch break short and got back on the water. Now I was on a wide point in the lake, and the wind had gone down, leaving me paddling still water, with no help from a southwest wind, as had been forecast for this time of day. The monotony was broken by the amazing sight of over fifty pelicans riding the thermals in a huge circle above me. The sun caught their wings, flashing a brilliant whirling pattern.
The South Saskatchewan river is so low this year, huge stretches of sand alternate with rocky shorelines. Billowing cumulus stratus formed against the deep blue sky, laying shadows over my position intermittently. I enjoyed these brief reliefs from the sun. When I’d paddled another two hours, I kept going, instead of taking a break, having calculated I only had a few kilometres left. I’d be at Riverhurst at 16:00 hours. Ahead I could see the white elevator overlooking the town. It seemed so close. I paddled, and paddled as it lured me on. One hour, two, three, then four. I hit the marina launch at 17:55 hours.
All the way across the arm of the lake to Elbow I had a wind from the southeast, and rode big swells, coming from all directions because of the boat traffic. I’d paddled every inch of that water, with no help from wind or current. Did I pay? Yes, I was dehydrated despite sucking on my water bladder more often (down six pounds when I weighed in), my arms and shoulder muscles burned, I had several hot spots on my hands, and my left leg was cramping. Four hours without a break is something I will avoid another time. But as I reached the launch, saw Den and yelled, “we did it,” I felt nothing but jubilation. With his support, in reading the weather for two weeks, rallying me when he saw a clear spot, providing transportation and shuttling me twice, it was a dual victory. It felt great to sit beside him on the drive home and hear him say, “You’re my hero.”
Abort is plane speak for pulling a flight, and as my husband and I flew together for many years, this is the way I see pulling out of a kayaking trip last minute. I’ve had to do it three times already this spring. In late May three of us were set to paddle on the Columbia, when the temps in the mountains dropped to freezing and rain was forecast for all three days on the water. Last weekend, I cancelled a trip with another paddler, because of the heat, mosquitoes and rain, and not being able to pin down the stretch of water we would hit. So yesterday, aborting yet another long-time planned mission hit me hard.
I’ve been trying to do the last stage of Sask Landing to Elbow for a year. It seems you need the perfect equation consisting of your desire to paddle, health, an available person to ferry you, a free time frame and having all those things come together, the weather suddenly decides not to cooperate. I thought I had my equation just right, yesterday, and at 7:15 am headed for Riverhurst, with my husband, Den, willing to drop me in.
Experience has taught me that the biggest obstacle to a committed paddler is the weather. I’d planned to take my time, paddling a leisurely two days to complete this 35 kilometre strip, because of the big water I would be paddling on this area of Diefenbaker Lake. But yesterday my window closed to a single day as the changing forecast warned the wind would swing around sooner, and thundershowers hit within twelve hours. For that day, though, it looked like I’d have the weather I wanted, winds 15 to 20 k/h from the southwest, temp around 24 degrees. So, I changed my intention, dumped a load of gear, and determined to paddle the distance in one day. I figured with breaks to rest my arms, I’d need about five hours of paddling, plus two of down time. With the sun riding high in the sky as summer swells into longer days, this seemed quite doable.
Driving north, then east through Beachy, SK we arrived at the ferry launch at Riverhurst only to find rough water, really rough water. It seemed the weatherman once again got it wrong. Winds were 35 k/h gusting to fifty. I decided if we took the ferry across to the south side, I could paddle in the lee of the hills and get quieter water. On the ferry we went. We were parked next to a cattle liner, filled with very excitable cows. One of them shat her feces all over the side and top of my kayak, so my pale blues Perception looked like a sky filled with crows. Ugh.
Refusing to take that as a sign this trip was in the toilet, I asked the ferry master his take on the water to the east. He strongly suggested I reconsider kayaking it that day, and further advised we drive to Elbow and see how much wind there was on the big opening where the river splits, an arm leading right to the Qu’appelle dam, and another, left to the Outlook dam. Straight ahead across a usually intimidating stretch is the small town of Elbow.
We made the 45 minute drive down the south side of the river, past Central Butte. When we arrived, the expanse of water, in question, wasn’t nearly as daunting as I remembered from other trips by car, to this area, or from how it appeared on the map. With the water level so low, it would be easy to see across the lake to the Elbow Clubhouse and marina; and from Elbow, I could see an electrical line that marked when I emerged from the mouth of the river into the damned end of the lake. Love those landmarks. We had a tasty breakfast in the clubhouse (to appease my driver) and then headed back to Riverhurst. Even as we stopped at Douglas Park to take another look at the water, it seemed the 20 k/h winds, indicated while at Elbow, were increasing. By the time we got back to the south ramp of the Riverhurst ferry flags were snapping hard and flying straight out. The wind was fifty k/h gusting higher. The ferry was also out of order, due to a mechanical breakdown, closing down our north line of retreat.
What can a paddler do, when her husband’s anxiety level is now topping the gauge? While I didn’t fear the rough water, as he did, I was concerned that I would have to correct to port for over five kilometres of really pushy waves. My kayak has a skeg, so I couldn’t count on my legs and a rudder to make it easier. Though my arm strength is up there, this early in the year, I’m not in top condition. I figured I’d blow my arms for sure, and then be out there with no access roads to allow for a pick-up. I made the decision to abort and wait for a better day. I was extremely disappointed, as we drove home by the back roads. This was just more proof that the magic equation is difficult to work out.
However, I conclude it’s great to have the option to abort. I’d had a lovely day driving around with my husband, as the scenery of green rolling hills and many sloughs reflecting the clear blue sky was entrancing, his company relaxing. Best of all, I have reconnoitred and now have a clear visual of the Elbow end of the trip, which immediately reduced my stress level. Another day is out there, and I’m staying loose, so I can grab it.