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.

Hoodoos emerge from sandstone hills.

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.

Embattled but still standing.

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.

Low level rapids appear more frequently.

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


The Columbia Wetlands for Dessert

June 6, Columbia River

We wrapped up our trip with a satisfyingly, sweet experience. Our launch site was the public marina, under the bridge, at the bottom of the hill coming into Invermere. The sun was bright, the sky a cloudless, cobalt blue. No wind! The Columbia River looked like an endless strip of butterscotch, silky smooth and glistening. I couldn’t wait to search out its many layers of flavour.

However, my eagerness was tempered with some hesitance. Paddling the piece from Invermere to Radium would add a notch to our belt, but I hesitated for several reasons. We had reconnoitred the take out at Radium the evening before. It meant squeezing under a low bridge, in fast running water, and landing on a muddy slope approximate three kilometres west of Radium. The water was high, and we’d been warned we might have trouble fitting under the bridge. From a vantage point, above Radium, we viewed the swollen river. It spread out forming many subsidiary channels, between rows of trees, and looked like a complicated maze. Sitting low in the water, it would be difficult to identify the main channel; which promised a lot of dead ends and paddling upstream against a strong current, if you picked the wrong route. Finally, we had talked with both the owners of the public marina, and Pete’s Kayaking, who had mentioned both these problems, and shared that a woman had overturned the day before.

The Columbia River stretched north.

They informed us that the first stretch of the river from the bridge at Invermere, north was quiet, with little current. Several kilometres downstream Toby Creek joins the river. Here the Columbia narrows and increases in speed and power. As we drifted, deciding what to do, a young woman on a paddleboard, informed us we could easily paddle back against the minimal current.

I know Barb wanted the adventure of making our way to Radium, but due to my trepidation, and the fact we had only a half day before heading back to Calgary, we settled on exploring the wetlands up to the Toby. We would finish off the trip with a serene float.

Vertical shoreline.

Although the main migration of birds was over, the high sandstone cliffs, soaring osprey, blue cranes and hidden songsters made this a true melding with nature – a melt in your mouth sensation that left me mellow.

Lush borders of reeds enclosed small lakes, throughout the wetlands. We wove amongst them on the way back, reluctant to leave the water.

Throughout the day, a sundog framed the sun; a portent of the pleasure ahead.

Sundog courtesy of B.L. Thrasher.

As we paddled past the rotting supports of an old railroad bridge, and pulled out at the marina, I felt the way one wants to feel after ingesting a gourmet meal – replete.

The Entre

Lake Windermere, June 5

A tumbling row of cumulonimbus cloud paralleled the lake on the east and west sides, leaving a blue canopy above us, as we hit the water on the third day of our trip. Appetites sharp, we couldn’t wait to taste a new stretch of water. We launched from the public picnic area at the north end of the lake. Again my goal (Barb just enjoys, she doesn’t need a goal) was to circumnavigate the lake, and we had all day to do it. We paddled south along the west shore, point to point, avoiding the large bay, where the public swimming beach is situated. We wove between wake boats, fishing boats and sailboats, tied to buoys off shore.

The water held a light chop, as we set out, the wind at our back. Within minutes we were working against a cross-wind. It died completely ten minutes later, enveloping us in sun heated air. Each time we reached a point and rounded it, we discovered another long stretch of water and another point. I began questioning my plan to paddle to the end before turning back, especially when the wind rose against us.

Windermere is visited by the most contrary wind. From one minute to the next it alters direction and changes velocity. How is that possible? It must have something to do with the fact it is actually just a wider part of the Columbia river, with the wind channeled between the Purcell range on the west side and sandstone cliffs on the east. I was surprised to learn it is never deeper than fifteen feet (4.6 metres).

Water lilies worship the sun.

A railroad line runs along the west side, so there are fewer developed properties, and more of nature’s gifts. She offered several delightful moments along the way, like a crane camouflaged against a boathouse. Osprey dived for fish, and birds sang out as we passed. We paddled through a cove of lily pads, their yellow faces, above succulent leaves, following the sun. As we passed by a camp, set up for the railroad workers, a radio, wafted music from the ‘60s; and an old favourite followed us down the lake, setting a rhythm for our strokes.

We lunched on a dock in front of an empty cottage; and swam in water so clear and clean I felt purified when I climbed out. Our kayaks tapped a tempo against the wooden steps, as we sunbathed. Back on the water, we headed for the next point – and yes – you guessed it, found another long stretch of water on the other side. As it was past the halfway mark, in time, I note for every trip, and we still hadn’t reached a narrowing in the lake, where it became river again, we decided to cross, and return along the heavily populated east side. I calculated we’d paddled about eleven kilometres. I learned later Lake Windermere is 17.7 km long.

For a while, we were caught up in viewing the many summer retreats, and toys, along the shoreline. Beautiful homes, with extensive docks stretching into the water, forced us further out. We’d hoped for another swim, as the sun was still blazing, keeping the cloudbanks on either side from covering the lake. But, with the Village of Windermere holding sway on the side of the water, every bit of shoreline was taken up with private property, or by community developments posted, PRIVATE. We were not welcome anywhere. Finally, we invaded a sandy point, and took possession of a small piece of a beautifully manicured green oasis. We satisfied our need for a swim and stretch, loitered for a snack and rest – all the while expecting someone would ask us to leave.

The wind was against us, and had strengthened considerably, as we resumed our course. I paddled in and out of the docks, seeking shelter in the protected water, while Barb took a straight course further out. We were happy when we reached the north end of the lake and could ease our strokes in quiet water along the treeline. Returning to our launch site, we enjoyed another swim, loaded the kayaks, and headed for the condo.

What made this trip especially filling was staying in a luxury condo, overlooking the lake. Knowing we would soon be enjoying a glass of wine and another sunset on the covered balcony made Lake Windermere an entre I relished.

Sandstone cliffs east side of lake.

Cloud banks on either side.

A few moments with no wind.

The Fish Course

Whiteswan Lake, B.C. June 4

Succulent as scallops served on pea puree, Whiteswan Lake held my interest with its unique flavour. Everything I’d read about the lake promised a pleasing experience. Whiteswan proved an exceptional one.

The drive in, on a logging road off Highway 95, south of Canal Flats, heightened my determination to see the lake. We climbed steadily on a winding road, surfaced with crushed rock. Often, from the passenger window, I looked a hundred feet straight down, into a treed gorge, where water dancing over rock, played peek-a-boo with me.

After driving approximately fifteen kilometres, we came upon a tiny picnic site at the side of a small lake. Disappointing – you bet. Though it was pretty as a bluebell in a patch of scrub grass, it would take all of ten minutes to circumnavigate. Den, who did all the ferrying, suggested we drive further. This can’t be it, we decided with more hope than fact.  The rain, till now, just spitting damp spots into the dusty road, took an interest in wetting everything. Go on or turn back? The consensus was we were paddling this lake, no matter what.

Our reward for perseverance soon appeared – a long stretch of water flanked by mountain vistas on all sides. As we drove down the south side of the lake, we passed several small picnic areas, and even a small marina and cement ramp. However, we continued around the east end of the lake to Whiteswan Provincial Park, a quarter of the way down on the north side. With the ceiling hanging low and gray over the lake, we kitted up in our wet weather gear and launched into a light crosswind coming down the length.

Barb against a mountain backdrop.

We decided to cross into the shelter of the south shore, and in our usual inexplicable style picked the widest part of the lake, then paddled on a diagonal, to make our route even longer. Ten minutes out, the rain stopped and I was boiling in my cold weather gear. Taking off clothing in a kayak is always a challenge. I managed fine until the leg zipper on my dry pants stuck, and I was forced to shore. Stripped down and paddling strongly I joined Barb, already intent on lining up a shot of me against the awesome mountain range to the west.

While I cruised the inlets along the shoreline, searching for magic in the smaller details, Barb took the direct route down the middle of the lake, scoping out the larger picture. She explained it allowed her to keep up with me, as her Tsunami was heavier and flatter than my Perception.

At the west end of the lake we found shallow water, the surface smooth as a shaving mirror, surrounded by the prickling growth of reeds. Fallen leaves formed intricate patterns on the sand bottom. Here the various bird songs coming from the fir locked shores, formed a playlist of nature’s best. We met up with Den, and ate lunch at the small marina we’d passed earlier. Unwilling to end the glorious experience, we decided to circumnavigate the lake, and Den, as patient and affable as ever, agreed to drive back over the rough road to the Provincial park again.

Off we went, paddling up the north side of the lake. There were few people on the water. I spotted only two fishermen, and a family of three in a canoe the many hours we paddled. At times, the silence and beauty created moments of rapture that stilled my breath, or shocked out an explanation of delight.

Lightening strike.

Tumbling streams join the lake.

Raw material for nature’s chisel.

Loitering, we continued our tour of nature’s art gallery. A tree trunk split by lightning became a dramatic sculpture. Mountain streams formed gushing waterfalls as they leapt across the rocky edge to join the lake. Rocky abutments loomed like unfinished works.



Spawning trout, photo courtesy of B.L. Thrasher.

Then long shadows floated beneath us, again and again. They were large fish, eight to ten pounds, swarming along the north shore. Clusters of five, three, seven were clearly visible against the pale sand bottom. In ignorance, I called to a nearby fisherman, “Here’s the spot. There are fish everywhere.” “They’re spawning,” he called back. “What kind are they?” I asked. “Trout.”

Indeed Whiteswan lake offered magic and miracles. When we arrived back in Invermere after a blissful day on the water, I felt certain our sublime fish course would lead into a delightful entre.

Little Lake Lillian

Paddling in B.C.

Driving west of Invermere on the way to Panorama Ski Resort, you come across the sweetest little lake. It won’t give you paddling for a day, but a few tranquil hours are there for the taking. There’s clear signage on the highway, announcing a public park, which offers a small boat launch and parking lot for easy access.

We found this piece of water in a serendipitous moment. Driving into Invermere, late morning of June 3rd, we had every intention of paddling Windermere in the afternoon. We found white caps bounding down the length of the lake, racing before a wind gusting 40 kph wind. Concluding we wouldn’t get a warm-up paddle (first of the year for my companion), but rather a hard pull, we looked for something less demanding. Checking our maps, we discovered Lake Lillian.

Lake Lillian

Nestled at the base a mountain, where the Purcell Range meets up with the Rockies, the little lake is well protected from the wind. A few cabins dot its shoreline, but a great deal of the edge is swamp. The water appears brackish; but, I was surprised by the stretches of sandy bottom, clearly visible. Big schools of good-size minnows swam among the reeds at the north end, explaining why the locals brag about the fishing.

Nature reserve.

Along the east side there is a protected nesting site, extending back into the woods. We circled the lake several times, enjoying the clean pine-scented air and glassy water.

Nature’s sculpture.



Some unique fungus growing from downed trees caught our attention, as did a soaring eagle.



For the first of our four day, four lake B.C. paddle, Lake Lillian proved a stimulating amuse-bouche, sharpening our appetites for the next course in the meal.

Wind off the Water

We’ve had almost a week of wind, some gusting as high as eighty kilometres an hour in the past few days. This mighty force has kept me off the water. I don’t mind riding waves, but when I can’t turn my kayak around, I know I shouldn’t be out there. So what do you do when the season has started and you’re not on the water?

I put time into cleaning up and checking my equipment. I just vacuumed the accumulated sand out of my kayak, and cleaned the hatches in preparation for loading them. My next overnight camp is some weeks away, but I do like to carry spare parts. You never know when a tarp, rope or bungee cords will come in handy.

I also like to use a de-oxidiser to polish it up after a good wash. I’m fortunate in that I can store my kayaks inside, so I don’t have to worry about excessive weathering; but sun damage is a given after long days on the water.

Another thing I check is the smooth running of my skeg. Often pebbles and sand build up in the track, when I haul it onto a beach. If you don’t have it cleared before you’re on the water, you’re stuck with two choices, do without, or return to land and clean it out.

In an ideal world, all this clean-up would have taken place in the fall, but I have long since stopped berating myself for things that don’t get done for good reasons. It’s enough to know I’m ready now.

With everything tightened, cleaned and set to go, it’s just a matter of waiting. The wind will blow itself out. The whitecaps will lose their sharp edges, softening into ripples, and I’ll be on the water again.

My kayaks below. Top to bottom: Joy, Bubba, Balance, Serenity.