Challenged By The Red Deer River

The Red Deer River flows effortlessly northwest to southeast, creating a narrow valley between ancient hills where dinosaur bones lie bleached by the sun. Deep coulees and high buttes expose the sediment layers of sandstone, coal and shale. In many places erosion has worked its magic forming hoodoos that become pillars and then disappear with time.

Day One: My task is to drag my dehydrated body from my sick bed and drive two kayaks to the meeting point at Morrin Bridge a few kilometres northwest of Drumheller. This is a 600 km trip from my home in Saskatchewan. My two kayak companions, travelling from Calgary, planned an earlier arrival at the Starland campground, just beyond the bridge. We were unaware that a violent storm had hit the campground the night before and so half the sites lay under water as I drove in. My sister, Barbara and her friend, Nadine, had staked out a large piece of open grass and were settling in when I arrived. Water lay around the bole of the only two trees to provide shade, so we were forced to set up our tents under the brilliant sun of an early August weekend. It was 29 degrees centigrade.
This was not an official campsite, but scouting the grounds on a long weekend holiday made it the only feasible place for us to set up our three tents, plus a netted gazebo and park two vehicles carrying kayaks.
We settled in for our first supper. Nadine cooked pork tenderloin wrapped in tinfoil over coals, with couscous filled with chopped vegetables on the side. Delicious. My peach pie followed. Who bakes a pie for a camping trip, you ask? Someone doing a favour for a much loved sister. Our idea of being in nature is to delight all our senses, and good eats on our expeditions are always close to the top of the list of must haves. While enjoying the meal we talked our paddling strategy for the next day. Nadine, who had paddled this area in a canoe many times, described paddling easily downstream with a strong current pushing you along. “The only time it would be hard is if there is an east wind,” she said, “and they are rare here. I’ve never experienced one. I met my sister’s eyes, the same thought poking at our minds. Wind delights in challenging us.
I crawled into my tent at 8:15 p.m. so exhausted I just wanted to sleep. Apparently, this was a signal for the campground to rev their collective engines. A large group started to party, loud music being a necessary part of the fun. Our formation of tents and vehicles created an alley through which I swear every dog owner in the campground decided to parade his dog, so the dog in the camper next to us could bark a lengthy welcome. As the loud music died at 10 pm a lone guitarist decided he had the voice to serenade us, never mind he had only two chords in his repertoire. Finally, the young guys in their diesel trucks had to make several passes at every road in the campground. The sleep I so desperately needed evaded me all night.

Day Two: At sunrise I crawled out of my tent to face the first day of paddling. A 30 km per hour wind was blowing – you guessed it, from the east. We lingered over a breakfast of fruit, yogurt and granola. Nadine packed lunch for us, while I checked on the kayaks and went through my list of supplies. We packed Barb’s 12 foot Carolina between my 12 foot Pongo and my 14.5 foot Expression by Perception and drove north approximately 50 km to Tolman Bridge. A brief discussion about whether to paddle upstream against the current versus downstream against the wind, became moot when we remembered our pick-up vehicle was back at camp and that had to be our destination.
I have never been the weak link in the chain before, but I played the role to perfection, now. I could barely gather the strength to move me, let alone carry kayaks and gear. But with help we all hit the water at the same time and began a grueling paddle against a 30 k wind gusting to 50 k at times. The river is not wide here, and because the wind came straight down it, there was no way to get into quieter water. The vistas of soaring buttes, grassed banks, cattle grazing and the odd shale bench poking out held my attention.
Red River 1In one stretch the paddling became so difficult we decided to turn around and fight the current, by the time we’d paddled upstream through the bad spot we decided the current was worse than the wind and turned downstream again. Great I’d just used my dwindling energy to paddle the toughest piece twice.
Lunch was a welcome reprieve from tremendous effort. We finally found a stony flat pushing out into the water. The stones kept us from most of the mud below. The water still being high on the river most of the banks were mud meeting grass. We stretched out in the sun – 30 degrees, mid day. The mighty wind did act as a cooling agent and Barb swam to cool off. I managed enough energy to get through the tasty Greek treats Nadine had put together and then rested in my kayak, the only comfortable place to get horizontal. We took off into the teeth of the wind again and with most of the distance covered by lunch arrived at our campsite early afternoon. Barb went to get her Ford Escape while Nadine and I pulled the kayaks up onto a stony bench. We decided to gamble on people leaving them alone and unloading our gear made three trips up a steep hill with it. Once loaded, Barb and I set off for the Tolman bridge to recover my truck.
The biggest priority on returning was to cool down. Barb visited the well with a bucket and poured ice water over herself. I sought a camp chair and shade – which ironically was not inside our gazebo but a patch outside thrown by its shadow. I sucked down Gatorade and palpitated in the heat. I had brought dinner for that night and was supposed to make it, but vaguely remember being let off the hook. I managed to stay up longer, through a game of rummy tiles and then literally crawled to my tent. A little help from my medical stash garnered me a better sleep.

Day Three: The heavy dew was partially burned off when we hit the breakfast table. My clever sister had thrown a big tarp over it the night before so benches and supplies were dry. The sun made itself felt and I headed into the wind free day with a better mind set. Today we would drive downstream and reconnoitre a place to take out the kayaks. We set off with both vehicles. I declared I was not up to a long kayak, and offered to put them in and take them out if they wanted one. They opted for staying together on a shorter kayak with more time to play midway. After much searching we found a tolerable spot to get off the water near the Bleirot Ferry crossing. Neither our aging bodies or pleading faces unbent the young ferry operator, who refused to let us use the accessible ferry ramps. I parked the truck and we headed back to Starland in Barb’ vehicle.
We’d inverted the kayaks and left them on the rocky shoreline at one end of the campground. They were safe and ready to float. Loaded we headed out. What a contrast to the day before. Red River
This was the experience Nadine had described. A strong current made mockery of the need to paddle hard, while a light breeze from the north cooled us a little. By the time we pulled over for lunch the temperature had climbed to 31 degrees. Full of feta and dolmades, chicken and cold pork tenderloin, carrots and apples, I went into the water as eagerly as my companions. You had to work hard to stand against the current, but the flowing water cooling our core temperature sure made it worthwhile.
By the time we got to the Bleirot Ferry I was again ready for a rest, and so thankful Barb and Nadine carried the kayaks up the steep bank through heavy vegetation while I walked to get the truck. Loaded we headed back to Starland, wanting only to cool off. This time Nadine and I joined Barb at the well and took the ice bath with only minor shrieking. We’d picked up ice at Three Hills the day before and still had enough to cool our beverages. In the comfort of our screened gazebo, we sat and enjoyed the clink of ice on plastic, the cold rush of liquid down our throats. “If it wasn’t such a long drive and you weren’t so tired,” my sister commented to me, “I’d almost suggest you go home tonight. We won’t need the kayaks tomorrow.” Slowly the idea sank in, as Nadine checked the weather and announced thunderstorms for later in the evening, the thought of driving in an air conditioned truck and sleeping in my own bed easily beat out the idea of a night huddling in my tent and breaking a wet camp.
“I think I will go,” I interrupted Barb midsentence, as she planned a wiener roast for the evening. I didn’t even let them roll up my sleeping bag. We threw everything into the backseat of the truck. Barb had already reloaded her kayak on her vehicle, so I was free to say thank you and drive away. Six and a half hours later I pulled up in our drive-way, walked through the door, stripping clothes as I went. With a cursory hello to my husband I fell on the bed, and was out.

Day Three: A phone call from Barb informed me they too had debunked the previous evening, as a nasty storm approached the campground, which hit halfway to Calgary. Stopping for gas in Airdrie they were caught in a deluge and soaked through, but had arrived safely home with all their belongings. So my task day three was to express my gratitude to both Barb and Nadine for carrying me on that trip. I hope to never be the weak link again, asking someone else to work harder to get me through. I am so grateful to Barb and Nadine for cheerfully and naturally helping me out. At a time I should have been home in bed recovering, I bit off a new adventure. I challenged the Red Deer River and won.

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