A PREMIER PADDLE
Put together the ideal conditions of timing, wind, water, weather, and you have my recent paddle on Premier Lake. Situated south of Invermere approximately 1.25 hours drive (the last thirty km on gravel roads with teeth clacking washboard) Premier Lake is in a provincial park. The payoff for driving the rough road came when a momma deer and her fawn modelled their spring coats in the middle of the road, entertaining us for several minutes.
The cozy park had an adequate concrete launch, managing steady traffic when we arrived at 10:00 a.m. The lake formed a typical pattern for this province, curving down a valley between two mountain ranges. With only a 10 kph wind, the surface spread like a mirror, reflecting the greens and purples of the surrounding scenery, while displaying the deep turquoise colour caused by powdered limestone in the water.
The whitish bottom formed a canvas on which nature displayed the skeletal outlines of fallen trees. Although I did see a man fishing, I never saw so much as the shadow of a minnow in our circumnavigation.
The Park and water access is on the west end of the lake. For the first 3/4s of its length there are tiny gravel beaches where you can pullout for a quiet lunch or stretch.
At intervals small creeks run into the lake, marking their entrance with the merry sound of rippling water. As you approach the east end ‘private property’ signs appear on tree trunks, and more cabins peeked out of the stands of fir. Crossing the end of the lake you pass by a developed area of cottages and landscaped lots, with buoys guiding you away from the shore.
However, the long paddle heading south gives you back a sense of being in the wilderness, though the odd dock breaks the waterline. Again, we found fascinating rock formations and little creek mouths feeding their hungry mother.
By early afternoon, the wind gusted 20 kph down the length of the lake on our sterns, giving us an effortless paddle back to the launch.
Within the curve of the shoreline fronted by a small island we swam, off-setting temperatures that had climbed to thirty-five degrees Celsius. Again, we found the small boat launch in demand, and a line-up of vehicles waiting to load. Exceptional circumstances made Premier a near perfect paddle. I would recommend this silver treat in the mountains for those who like scenery, solitude and silence.
FIASCO ON THE FRENCHMAN RIVER
I watched the ripples form ten feet from my kayak and called to my friend, “A large fish just jumped right by my bow,” Before I finished speaking the fish turned and plowed into the starboard side of my kayak with enough force to tilt me to port. I added this unknown behaviour onto the long list of crazy things already making up this paddling trip.
It started at 4:30 a.m. when I rose and dressed in warm clothes. The temp, lower than anticipated, made me cast aside the lighter clothing I had out. Within thirty minutes we were on the road, headed for Swift Current, where we picked up my paddling buddy and her kayak. I’d checked the driving distance from The Landing – 2 hours – and now informed her ½ an hour into our trip that it was a two-hour drive. So, of course we arrived at Eastend a half hour ahead of schedule.
Eastend does not advertise its dam – which I understand is a major tourist attraction for their area – or the access into the boat launch on one side of the reservoir. With directions from a townie, we headed out, only to find the road blocked by SK highway signs. A helpful woman on the nearby farm drove out and explained the road had been closed for the next six months, after the high school students used it to access the dam and paint the traditional graduation graffiti on it. She offered to lead us around to the boat launch a different way. In her yard were three small donkeys. While she fed the horses one of the donkeys came up to the fence and brayed. The cacophony of unexpected sound scared my husband and friend and sent us off into another bout of hilarity.
We would never have found the boat launch on our own. Eastend doesn’t believe in signage. The woman led us back into town and then on a twisting combination of side roads and trails to a concrete launch and small pier in the middle of nowhere. “Be careful,” she called before driving away, “the end of the launch is slippery.” The Frenchman’s River is also called the White Mud by locals, because of the heavy deposits of clay along its banks and bottom. The clay has the consistency of grease.
We unloaded the kayaks onto the steep surface and sorted our gear. “My lunch is back in the fridge at home.” I announced, giving them yet another laugh. After organizing what I had brought, I settled in my kayak and slid myself backward down the launch. As soon as a third of my 14.5-foot Perception floated on water, my bow wobbled dangerously, and my kayak did a slow sideways slide and dumped me upside down in the river. My husband, who usually has the reaction time of a rattler, stood frozen. I emerged from my kayak and tried to stand, but slippery clay on smooth Dawg soles doesn’t compute. I fell, stood, fell, and finally my companions acted. My husband pulled my flooded kayak onto the launch and reached out a hand. Still, I couldn’t walk up the launch and crawled up on my hands and knees, accompanied by their snickers.
Thank goodness for dry bags. While they pumped out my kayak and dropped all my soaked gear into the truck bed, I changed. My extra set of clothes were dry but not proof against the chilly 35 kph wind the weatherman assured would be 20 kph. I put on my damp PFD set my dry butt in my wet seat and with my husband holding my bow launched again. What makes my dunking especially ludicrous is that on my last paddle with this newbie kayaker I had tipped on a rock and gone through the same dry out routine. She had three months of paddling to my twenty-three years, and yet again I looked like the beginner.
We headed across the reservoir in a south westerly direction skirting huge islands of plants. We couldn’t tell if we were over six inches of water or six feet, because the plants always grew to the surface.
Within thirty minutes we were caught in a large swampy area with no visible exit. We paddled from one end to the other, back and forth across, into high reeds on waterways only as wide as our kayak and backed out again. We were lost. My friend used Google maps to try to locate the main channel, and half the time they told her she was on land. I phoned my husband and said we couldn’t get up river to the spot he had suggested for take out. He was already sitting there, having reconnoitred and received permission from the farmer who owned the land. He drove back to the main launch. I put my phone away and minutes later paddled out into a clear, deep stretch of water – heading for the bridge my husband had just left. Twice more we got into dead end backwaters and found our way onto the main river. The 35 kph wind made some stretches hard work, and cold. Finally, my jacket draped across my deck under my deck lines dried and I pulled it over my life jacket and felt a little warmth.
For all the comedy of playing hide-and-seek with the main river channel, we had some wonderful experiences. Red-wing Blackbirds, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds flitted alongside us through the high rushes. A variety of plants filled the surface of the water, so we floated over an ever-changing palette of colours. A bald eagle rode the wind currents, circling above us like one of nature’s drones (which by the way we decided would have been enormous help in navigating this maze). In one of the back channels, we flushed out a deer, who bounced along beside us like a toy on springs.
Finally, after three hours on the water, we pulled over for a stretch break on the only piece of rock-strewn shoreline that allowed for a decent landing. We walked about, loosening our hips and feeling elated we were on the main channel heading north into the current and the wind, but toward our LZ at the bridge. I phoned D and told him we were on the right track to get to him. Where was he. “Back at the original boat launch having a nap.” Apologizing for making him relocate once again, I started paddling. “I bet we’ll see the bridge around this next turn,” I called to my buddy. I turned the curve and gasped, then started laughing. She drew even with me and shared the joke. We were back at the main launch where we’d started.
We had planned on four hours of paddling time, and had only been on the water for three, but a quick discussion determined neither of us had faith we’d find our way back if we retraced our steps. Figuring my husband would already be driving back to the bridge I phoned him, found out he was still at the launch and could see us. He promised he’d get me onto the concrete without tipping, so we paddled across the reservoir to the launch, while he backed the truck into position. When my hull hit the cement, he dragged me forward so fast my kayak didn’t have a chance to wobble.
We enjoyed lunch at Jack’s Café established in 1920 and still putting out good food, then started the drive home, now two hours ahead of schedule. On the way, urged by my husband, I regaled my friend with other ludicrous things that happened with my younger sister. I wondered if this paddling buddy, like my sister would bring out the crazy, whenever we paddled together – a symbiotic screw-up every time we went out. We laughed so hard we had an excess of happy hormones to carry us through the next week. With my new moniker, Side-slip Smid, I anticipate my next adventure – or dunking.
PS My friend sent me the Google Map tracing of distance travelled and it looked like we’d been knitting a patch on the water with a complicated stitch. We’d gone everywhere and reached nowhere, but fun.
A DUCK IN THE CREEK
No, I’m not a winged critter, though I saw plenty of happy fowl on my kayak down Swift Current Creek, April 9, 2021. Clouds floated across a pale blue sky, the thermometer sat around 11 degrees Celsius, and the wind was 22 mph from the southwest – a tail wind for the most part, I concluded.
Joined by a friend, I looked forward to this first paddle of the year. I had reconnoitred the creek a few days earlier, and though there were several rocky passages, I decided we could get through with a few short portages. We drove down the back alley behind my friend’s house around noon, loaded her kayak in the back of the truck alongside mine and headed for the southside of the city.
While she and my husband unloaded the kayaks, I danced about on one foot then the other changing my shopping shoes for booties and Dawgs, grabbing gear that hadn’t been loaded in my kayak – and in general looked like a newbie without a clue. For someone who double-checks gear, insists on precise timing and lives on the premise “a place for everything and everything it its place” this was an awkward start.
My humiliation increased as my husband launched me into the creek just after my friend floated away. As the current caught my kayak and whirled me backward down the creek, I realized the water flowed much higher and faster than three days earlier, and I hadn’t freed my rudder and could not put it down. I yelled at my friend and I managed to get myself turned around and up beside her so she could release the strap. Back in control, I promised myself a deep breathe. Not a chance! I rounded a corner right into a stretch of rapids that required picking a route through a boneyard of rocks.
From one side of the city to the other we would go through seven sets of rapids, some so narrow, maneuvering through the rocks at speed injected adrenaline into our systems, like junkies getting a fix. The high carried us down longer stretches of quiet water, protected from the chill wind by steep banks of dried grasses. Pairs of Mallard ducks came out of hiding and led us down the creek for some distance away from their nests. I enjoyed these restful moments, when chatting with my friend about the last set of rapids or what appeared ahead, prepared us for the next wild ride.
We passed under eight narrow bridges and found we had plenty of head room – until we didn’t! Coming up fast on the last walking bridge, I suddenly realized the higher water made necessary easement iffy. In the lead, I yelled at my friend, and as the creek swept me under the bridge I slid down as low as I could in my cockpit. With my hands raised, protecting my head, I felt the steal girder tickle my finger. On the other side, I looked back and saw my friend slide free. No decapitation today!
Now, I split my attention between the water course and my phone, so my husband could locate us for the take-out. As we yelled out recognizable landmarks along the bank, we approached another rapid. I dropped the waterproof case holding my phone, which I’d tied onto my kayak, and calculated the best route through the rapid. A jungle of rock showed on the left, metres ahead of two big rocks that rose out of the white water on the right. I steered right, heading for what looked like the deepest water between the two biggest rocks. My kayak should just fit. With my rudder up, the current caught my bow. I paddled hard aiming for a grassy strip on the right, but the big rock caught me, tipped me on my side and flung me over.
My paddling buddy passed between the two rocks as I came up for air. “What should I do she called?” “Stay in your kayak,” I returned, knowing we’d have even more trouble if she got out in the fast-flowing water. Gasping from the shock of the cold water, I slid out of my overturned kayak, and found I could easily stand. Now I faced a new quandary. The current pressed my kayak against the large rock, with such force I couldn’t slide it free. I had a steep bank on my right, and a 14.5 long kayak with only 4.5 feet of water between rock and bank. It took ever bit of muscle I had to pull it off the rock and angle it downstream, until I could slide it onto a low spot on the bank. I pumped my kayak out, while my friend backpaddled and picked up a few tips on what to do when you capsize. DON’T CAPTZIZE IN THE FIRST PLACE is my best advice. An inch of water sloshed around me as I continued downstream, located my husband on the west bank and began the yelling discussion of the best take-out spot. He jumped back in his truck and we met up on the far side of the #4 highway. I paddled downstream, did a quick upstream turn around my paddle into an eddy, where the quiet water helped me maneuver my bow onto a grassy bank and get out safely. My friend joined me. We dumped the remaining water out of my kayak, loaded, and I took advantage of the drybag I always carry with a spare set of clothes, and changed. Although all my gear was soaked, I didn’t lose anything but a plastic water bottle. At least, my professional packing and preparation paid off.
We both agreed it was a wonderful adventure – a prime start to the paddling season. I got the advantage of practice, and she received a lesson in what not to do, and what to do, when the ‘not to’ part throws you a curve. I’ll quack along with the happy ducks for a while.
Come Hell or High Water
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.
A Prehistoric Paddle
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.
A Place of Beauty – Bow Island to Medicine Hat
My first interest in this stretch of water came from reading several blogs. The photos promised some glorious scenery, unlike the usual rolling hills and cut banks I see along my piece of the South Saskatchewan River. I took a year to ponder, then, with two friends eager to go along I started on a kayak trip which far exceeded my expectations.
Day One we met in Medicine Hat on July 21. The 6:00 a.m. start allowed us to load the third kayak and equipment into our truck. It came with my paddling buddies from Calgary, while I transported two kayaks. We made the forty-five kilometre drive from Medicine Hat to Hwy 879, a few km north of Bow Island. I had been told there was easy access on either side of the bridge that crossed the river there. This was incorrect. On the north side there was a padlocked gate on one side of the highway and a deep ditch on the other, preventing access. On the south side we could get in only by opening a ranchers gate, marked no trespassing (it wasn’t locked) and taking a curving trail to the river. Prepping kayaks usually takes about thirty minutes. In this case we had a two hour wait, while my husband, Den, who’d volunteered to ferry us, drove back to retrieve a forgotten tent. It was 9:20 when we lifted our paddles in a goodbye wave and launched ourselves into quiet water. The temperature was 28 degrees Celsius, but with a good breeze blowing, and a wet hat, I found it fairly comfortable on the water.
In a fortunate moment, a friend in Medicine Hat loaned me a book I found an excellent resource. Prairie River written in 1996 by two local men, Donn Dickinson and Dennis Baresco, covers stretches of river from Grand Forks to Estuary. We began on what they called stretch two, Cherry Coulee. Pastureland stretched along the south bank, for the most part, while on the north we saw our first hoodoos carved from the limestone by wind and rain. We began nineteen kilometres downstream from Grand Forks, so I calculated we had a seventy-five kilometre paddle ahead of us. I wanted to make at least twenty-five kilometres on the first day. Fluffy clouds gamboled over the hills in the west as we paddled, and grew in size, causing sporatic gusts of high wind. By 3:30 p.m. I guestimated we’d already paddled that or more, assisted by a two-to-three km/hr current and the strong wind out of the southwest. We were now quartering into it, and the next turn in the river would make it a head wind. We decided to get off the water.
Our campsite was not ideal, but we could find no other protected from the wind. Setting up our tents became a three person job, with the wind flipping ground tarps, flapping corners away from pegs, and tearing the fly from my hands. When all three were up, I crawled inside mine and had a nap. The wind increased to forty, gusting fifty over the next hours. Because of the heat wave and no rain there was a no fire ban posted throughout Alberta. The wind was so fierce we couldn’t keep our propane stove lit. We finally gave up on cooking dinner and ate it cold. It was delicious, and satisfied hunger made sharp by a long day of travelling.
It seemed 9:20 a.m. would be the standard time we hit the water, because that’s exactly when I took my first stroke Day Two. Prairie River called this stretch 3, Petrified Coulee, and I looked forward to more of the amazing scenery we’d had glimpses of the day before. The land along the river is mostly government owned and leased by ranchers. It seemed wherever there was a great spot to stop, the cows had dibs. There were many bucolic scenes of green grass, shady poplar and willows, and grazing cattle. These contrasted dramatically with the towering sandstone and limestone edifices that became more frequent. Their rocky silhouettes formed exciting patterns against the endless blue sky and Mother Nature had carved intricate patterns on their wide surfaces.
In this stretch we ran into an increasing number of rapids. The river was low, but not at its lowest, so often we were cruising six to twelve inches above its rocky bed. Level one to two rapids stretched across its width, lifting us from the monotony of stroke, stroke, to steer our way through large boulders jutting above the surface, as we raced past. Yes, I admit I scraped over several, with no harm done.
Again we stopped at 3:30 pm. Making camp was easy, with the air still and quiet. We found a good location on the south shore and set up. Again the unexpected happened, dinner over, a few hands of cards enjoyed, and tucked in my tent, I listened to the wind rise. By 10:00 pm it was gusting fifty km/hr and I was filling sand bags to reinforce my ground wires. Throughout the night I woke at one hour intervals, worrying about tents lifting. A big bonus was taking in the night sky, with stars so close and brilliant they left me wordless with awe. All the worry and lack of sleep was a waste, for we woke to the reflection of towering cliffs and clumps of trees reflected on the glassy surface of the river.
Day 3 back on the water 9:35. Surprise Bluff reach. My husband and a pilot friend of his indicated they might take the plane up and come looking for us that day. Just before we finished breakfast a plane came down the river, and as we were loading another single-engine plane circled and flew away. Neither dipped their wing, indicating they had seen us, even though we were standing on the shore waving. Our three bright coloured kayaks were strung out along the white pebbled beach, and our tents on a ridge shaded by, but not under, the trees. I decided they couldn’t be our guys. We learned later they had flown down the river on both sides and failed to see us; and concluded we won’t use them on a search and rescue team. There is room for a serious note, here, in that they have both been on multi search and rescues, and say you can fly over the downed plane, or tents and kayaks, many times without seeing them. So don’t count on being a visual aid for searchers if you get in trouble – go big with smoke, or reflective light.
By my calculations we had paddled sixty kilometres and only had a short three hour paddle ahead. The scenery was still stunning, with one monument after another carved from the rocks. The river seemed lower here and often we floated only inches above the rocky bed. At my first sighting of a tower, I tried my phone, got a signal, and my husband at the other end. He was on a high point downstream and could see us through binoculars. We were moving fast – only an hour out of the take out point I’d chosen – Echo Dale park on the west end of Medicine Hat. Low water, big rocks and turbulence held my attention for the rest of the way in. We had to go around one large island just before the park. Calling out to a man on the shore we were told the south side was the only way. Here the waters rushed into noisy thrusting waves, bouncing us from crest to crest. Adrenaline sang through my body, as I paddled hard to avoid rearing rocks. It was a fun rush and good practice for bigger rapids on my next adventures.
Ahead, Den stood on a point, capturing our arrival on his phone. The launch was fifty feet beyond him, paved and in good condition, with a pier alongside. My friend got hung up on a gravel bar just short of the launch. Several kayaks and a boat were just going into the water, so I made a wider circle and wove my way between them through deeper water. I recommend you take time to enjoy the park. Medicine Hat has done a splendid job of creating a multi purpose venue; constructing both a manmade fishing lake, and swimming lake, along with spacious lawns, a bath house, restrooms, walking and biking paths, all nestle beneath mature trees. There are no overnight sites, so don’t plan on leaving your vehicle in the parking lot while you’re upstream.
I give this paddling adventure a four and a half star rating. It is definitely best once the high water has receded, and before the end of July, when it becomes so low you must portage. Finding good campsites was challenging, as there was a lot of wet clay/sand mix along the shoreline. Rocky points, and gravel benches where numerous, but there were few with level land for tents behind them. There are several islands, but here again, ideal spots were missing.
Prairie River also pointed out the danger of rattlesnakes and black widow spiders along the river. While I anticipated an encounter with the former – in fact found one in the middle of the intersection as we approached the park, I never saw the latter. Having lived on the prairies my entire life, I was astonished to hear Black Widows existed here. We did see a bald eagle, deer, a falcon and lots of pelicans. The area is noted for its fossil bearing rock. Often rust red towers would spire upward, reminding me of the badlands in Arizona. At other times the banks looked so cool and green, so verdant I felt I was paddling through an English countryside.
The one regret we had, was not taking a moment to stop and acknowledge our achievement. In the scramble to get loaded and off the ramp, we left out celebrating the most valuable part of the trip – accomplishing it.
Kayaking, skiing, hiking, camping, are all activities I love because you live fully in the moment. One needs discipline to paddle the long hours, resilience to deal with the surprises and courage to meet the dangers head on. These are the same traits I build into the female protagonists in my books. If you like action suspense, check out my Daring Heights series. Climbing High shows you the world of rock climbing, while High Seas takes you kayaking off the west coast. Sky High, the sixth and last book in the series, launches worldwide this fall, giving you a look into the mystery and danger of international trade in Hong Kong. Check them out on my website www.madelonasmid.com Five star ratings and available through amazon.com