Paddling South Saskatchewan Lancer Ferry to Cabris Park
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.