Paddling solo always takes more contemplation and courage. There is no one to share their tent if you forgot yours, or lend you that piece of equipment you left at the last campsite or lost in the river. But, promised an optimum window of good weather and high water on the South Saskatchewan River between Estuary and Lancer ferries, I was determined this trip would happen. I would bite off another piece of the river I hope to paddle in its entirety.
After a day of prep — yes it takes me that long — I ticked the last item off my equipment and supply lists. It would take an hour and forty minutes to get to the Estuary Ferry, my starting point. I wanted an early morning start. Because of the special rack my husband designed to extend the truck bed, my kayak rides safe and still. I can load as much as three kayaks on their sides and all the supplies for three kayakers in the back. It is a godsend.
We found a fairly solid piece of land on the south side of the river and downstream of the Estuary ferry by a few feet. The ferry master was accommodating. Sometimes they have safety concerns and don’t want you near their ramp. I was on the water by 9:25 hours and moving at a fast rate downstream, with a current and southwesterly wind pushing my back.
After the first surprise of the speed at which I was travelling, I received my next revelation. I had anticipated a landscape similar to that I’d paddled from Lancer to Cabris – a lot of sand spits and scrub willow along low cut-offs. Instead I soaked in the grandeur of towering hills, cut into lacy patterns, and long stretches of verdant grass with mature poplars marching in line. There were also a lot more turns in the river than it appeared there would be from the map.
The Saskatchewan Water Authority reported this would be the three highest days of water on the river through this stretch, and they delivered. While a few times I found my paddle hitting sand, for the most part I floated over any obstacles. There was an occasional stretch of current, and what seemed like confused water charging me from all sides, like a classroom of school kids let loose for recess. I also paddled a few long stretches where the wind became a hindrance rather than a help. As I have chosen not to put a rudder on my kayak, this meant a plethora of portside strokes. I discovered if I charged at the lowest sand spit I could get my bow up far enough to allow me to exit before being swept downstream. A few times a pointing finger of rocks served me well. Lunch was an ideal of laziness in the shade of murmuring poplars. Two hours later I paddled under the bridge at highway 21.
At 17:00 hours I pulled out to make camp on a clay pan dented by the ancient hoof prints of cattle molded into its hard surface. I set up camp in the shade and enjoyed the serenity of birdsong and wind rustling leaves while I cooked dinner. My night was uneventful, except that I got cold (another lesson learned).
I broke camp and was on the water by 08:10 hours the next morning. As I stood on the bank, making a drowsy sounding video on waking, I could see a great difference in the speed of the water. Now the surface was covered with small bits of detritus and floating foam bobbles. The temperature was supposed to be in the mid-twenties again, and the wind remained south southwest from what I could determine.
The big excitement today was a good learning lesson. Hot from a half hour stretch of paddling with a wind quartering my bow, I decided to float in under an overhanging poplar, protruding from a muddy cut bank. I usually seek out cut banks because they indicate the fastest water and most help. As I came on the branch, I reached up to hold myself in place – I would just rest in the shade for a few minutes, as I do when paddling a lake or slow river. But folks don’t try this at home! The current was having none of this stop and stay approach. I found my head smothered by a wreath of leaves and branches, while my kayak continued downstream, leaving me hanging onto the branches, and tilting sideways. Water streamed into the cockpit before I fought free and the kayak turned over. I extracted myself instinctively, and even managed to catch my hat and thermos as they floated by. My big concern was staying with the kayak and not being marooned on this isolated piece of river. The water had carved a series of steps into the cutback, and I managed to find footing in the muck and heft the bow of my kayak up onto the first shallow step. From there I pushed it higher, a feat of strength only possible because of the huge shot of adrenaline in my bloodstream. My pump worked like a charm, I sponged out the remaining water, and straddling my vessel was back in my seat and rushing downstream backward. I had lost nothing but my sunglasses (I always wear inexpensive ones because of just this happenstance). By the time I turned Joy (my kayak) downstream and sorted out the gear in my cockpit, I looked up and saw the Lemford Ferry across the river and only about five minutes downstream. I floated past midriver, seeing no sign of a ferry master.
I hadn’t expected to see the ferry until late afternoon, so I needed to re-calculate my time. Why set up camp for a second night if I was that close? I sent a text off to Den telling him I’d be at Lancer between 18:00 and 20:00 hundred that evening. It joined the cue of texts informing him of my progress. I had no satellite service at any time on this trip; neither could I get a GPS reading.
Twenty minutes downstream from the ferry I saw coming up on the north bank the most beautiful tree, stripped of bark, its shining surface beckoned me. Here was nature’s clothesline, a scenic spot to dry out. Because of the speed of the water, the only way I could land that second day was to paddle past a spit of rock or sand spit, turn against the current and paddle back up into an eddy, getting my nose on the shore in the protection the quieter water provided. Dressed in the spare clothes from my dry bag, my belongings stretched across the tree and drying in the sun, I ate lunch and rested.
Two hours later I was back on the water. I paddled my usual two hours before pulling in on the south side to rest in the deep and inviting shade laid down by a row of trees. As I contemplated paddling for another four hours, little did I know I was almost done. Back on the water, I followed the south shore in the fast water of a cut bank. I had been fighting wind for quite some time, this point in the river curving north east so the wind was quartering on my bow again. Twenty minutes later, I looked up and saw the Lancer Ferry. Unable to believe I was there already I scoped it, then dropped the binoculars and paddled with the strength of a madwoman, aiming directly into the north shore and fighting for speed over distance. I did not want to sweep by the ferry mid river. The wind slapped the side of my kayak, but my trajectory to the Northshore shortened, and became doable. As I approached, wondering if the ferry master would see me, he suddenly started across to the other side. I was so thankful, because I couldn’t land upriver of the ramp, without hitting my bow hard on reinforcing rocks. He told me later that he just wanted to get out of my way and make it easier for me not to hit the cable. I floated past the ramp, turned up river and paddled into an eddy. There was enough sand/mud shoreline for me to get my bow established and hop out. It was 15:40 hours and I was nine hours ahead of my calculated schedule. The river had risen five inches overnight, because of heavy rains in the Calgary area, and almost doubled my paddling speed. What a whoop!
Dalton, the Lancer ferry master, demonstrated all the best of human beings, offering me his truck to drive up the hill for a satellite signal, then his landline on the ferry so I could reach Den, a chair in his a/c office and a ride up the hill to it. As I waited the two hours for my shuttle in total comfort, I could barely believe my adventure was over. Never have I encapsulated so much into such a small window of time – action, lessons learned, innovation, beauty, solitude, gratitude, adventure. This exploit will go into my journals as one of the best. Life delivered everything in plenty, helping me rise above health issues and prove again I can do anything I choose.
Arrival at the summit leading down into Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, left me breathless, and that wasn’t because I climbed it on foot! I was looking over forty-seven square kilometres of sculptures carved out by glacier melt. Table top rocks balanced on slender columns, hoodoos formed fascinating castles. Curves melded, caves beckoned and chasms promised untold treasures. And I would paddle through this timeless terrain.
My paddling mates Barbara and Nadine arrived at our booked campsites ahead of my husband (who had volunteered to shuttle us) and me. They had their tents erected, and we all pitched in and got a tarp up and the table beneath, just as the skies opened and rain poured down through supper and most of the night. It didn’t stop us from enjoying a chicken stir fry cooked up by Nadine, and the fresh baked apple pie I’d made. We also enjoyed a rousing game of cards. I took the easy route and stayed with Den in a hotel in Brooks, a thirty minute drive from the park.
Early morning found us at the gravel and dirt boat launch in the park. The water wasn’t high and there was a steep bank formed by several sand and mud shelves. Packing kayaks is a slow and steady job, and three male kayakers arrived at the launch from upstream as we finished. They were most helpful in pushing us off our precarious perches.
The river was quiet, with little sign of surface current. We headed downstream to the northeast. Scenery was splendiferous, from trees made skeletal by the last flood, to sandstone carvings and mudstone flats.
We found the water level low, and many times over the two-day paddle found our kayaks in six inches of water, as we raced for more depth before getting hung up on a sandbar. Progress was side-to-side, as much as forward in places, as we aimed for the cut banks and the deeper, faster water.
A handy sandbar provided a place for lunch and a stretch. Then we paddled until looming clouds and the growl of thunder in the west warned us to get off the water. We settled for a sandbar stretching out from a sheltering bluff with enough Russian Willow trees to provide purchase for our tarp. Nadine, who is a tarp guru, had it up in minutes. We stashed our kitchen gear on a tarp under the shelter. Our tents provided bright splashes of color as the sky darkened and rain blasted us for several hours. I had a nice nap and woke to the smell of food cooking. Called to dinner under the tarp, we feasted on ham steak, new potatoes and squash.
By 9:30 pm the storm had moved off and a brilliant evening followed. While I enjoyed a quiet walk along the shoreline, Nadine and Barbara reported they took in the sunset bathing the monuments in gold and scarlet as late as 11:30 pm.
Barbara cooked a full breakfast of pancakes, ham, eggs and fruit. We don’t suffer for food on our trips – they’re all about the eating! We were packed and back on the water at 9:15 am and paddled for two hours. We were just about to land for a lunch break when another cloudburst set us scrabbling for the protection of a high bluff. Pulling up against it, we waited out the short spate of rain, not wanting the bother of putting on our spray skirts. At this point Nadine checked her maps and discovered we were just a few kilometres from the Jenner Bridge, where we would meet Den and pull out.
We arrived only to find our transport missing. This was not like my husband, who would normally be there hours earlier, parked and looking down the river for his first glimpse of us. When I questioned his absence, I learned Nadine and he had spoken of a small campground a kilometre further down river, where it would be much easier to take out. But—and here is the big mistake no experienced adventurer should make—not one of us locked in the final destination, or a plan B.
We decided to eat lunch under the bridge in hopes he was just late and would show up. While the cement embankment made for a comfortable picnic spot, the steep incline would make taking out almost impossible. We guessed Den had gone on to the campsite, but couldn’t move out in case he hadn’t. Our quandary was solved short minutes later, when the three male kayakers we’d met the day before, at the launch, paddled by. They agreed to tell Den we were at the bridge, and say we would wait there for him. In short order he appeared, and we locked in take out at the campground and paddled away.
Unloading three kayaks and loading them and all our equipment into the back of the truck was a good workout. We were happy to sit in air conditioned comfort as Den shuttled Barbara and Nadine back to their vehicle. At Dinosaur Park we decompressed, before we separated, by enjoying the parks famous ice cream. We had a lot to celebrate. Though black clouds brooded above us both days, we were sheltered from heavy rains, had quiet water, minimal wind, no bugs and mid twenty temperatures. Toasting our successful paddle with our favourite flavour mounded onto a crunchy cone was definitely a good choice.
How you cope with the conditions and changes determines the success of your adventure. Experiencing the inner workings of your paddling companions adds a deeper element to any trip. I am most fortunate to have two innovative, strong and courageous paddling companions, one bringing calm logic, the other eternal optimism to the mix.