Kayaking St. Mary’s Reservoir, AB

The weather was iffy, rains showers for the next three days. I had a torn hamstring. My paddling partner was recovering from a back injury. To go or not to go? Based on past experiences of trusting you’d get the best conditions, if you took the risk, we decided we’d meet at St. Mary’s reservoir, 2 pm on Monday, August 8, 2016.

The sky was clear when Den and I headed out in our truck with two kayaks (Joy my 14.5 Perception and Bubba (14.5 Tsunami) plus my camping supplies. I indulged myself by throwing in a canvas chair, as we were setting up a permanent camp.

At Lethbridge, I went on alone, driving southwest on the #5 highway to Spring Coulee (approximately 65 km) and then taking #505 west to St. Mary’s reservoir (about 12 km). We had chosen to camp in the Upper campground, so that we were close to the boat launch, and could leave our kayaks on the beach in front of our camping spot.

015Barb, my long, time paddling partner was already there, had picked a terrific spot and set up a four star camp, with a tarp providing shelter from rain, a huge moveable umbrella to hide us from the wind, and two protected, flat sites on grass for our tents. Trees provided shade, and bushes privacy from the other sites.

We soon had our kayaks unloaded at the launch and headed down the eastern shore of what was a big body of water. The sun was out, the wind was down, and we had a good paddle for several kilometres along the beach, before we returned to our campsite for a long swim, in cool, clear water (slightly muddy bottom) and then dinner. The weather held, allowing us a peaceful evening in front of a crackling fire. NOTE: we brought our own wood, because reviews of the campground stated the only maintenance man didn’t get around to sell you the wood often. And we didn’t see him till day 2).

Morning heralded in blue skies, with little wind, and we were on the water by 10:00 am, planning to head southwest and round the tip of the peninsula separating the reservoir into two arms. 001As we paddled we could see the purple silhouette of the mountains clearly in the distance. We stopped along a sandy beach on the west side, for a break and swim, and then paddled around the point. Here we were treated to a lovely surprise, as a herd of horses sought the shade of old poplars along the shore. 008We dawdled, getting several photos and then continued down that arm of the lake till we reached the end. It was not as long as I suspected, and we reversed direction and headed for the main channel, aiming for the east shore.

Clouds massed around the horizon by 1:00 pm, and the mountains were obliterated by low lying ghostly clouds, that crept toward us. The eastern skies turned black, and as we came back into the main body of the lake, and headed for our chosen lunch site, at Wally’s day beach, we knew we were in for a storm. 012Barb was all for heading home, but as the waves and wind quickly increased in volume, I hesitated, not wanting to be caught on the water in an electrical storm. That hesitation made the difference between my being able to paddle against the wind, to round a peninsula that thrust out between us and our campsite further down. I didn’t have the power, with only a skeg and my arms. Barb was further out, and had a rudder and could have made it, but turned back when I headed for shore. We pulled our kayaks out of the reach of the greedy waves and ran for shelter, as the clouds opened and torrential rains descended. Another young couple who’d barely arrived for a swim and play with their two big dogs, headed for their car and drove away. We huddled under a huge, old poplar, using its exposed roots as park benches, on which to wait.

A short while earlier, we’d passed Wally’s campground, and had a shouting conversation with a young women, across the water. Now, her husband drove along the headland in a truck, waving us to come and get a ride. Our attempt to access him from the beach, was foiled by a five foot cut bank that didn’t allow us access, so we threaded our way across the long grass punching through sandy hillocks, and thankfully reached him and were driven back to our camp. He warned us not to leave our kayaks on the open beach overnight, because he’d just lost one, either to thieves, or high water.

We rested in our tents, and I was well into a lovely afternoon nap, regardless of the snapping of my canvas, when Barb announced the wind had gone down and she felt we should return and paddle our kayaks, then shuttle back for the truck. So off we went, but of course, the waves in this big stretch of water where still wild, the wind still gusting 50 km, and we ended up carrying the kayaks, and loading them on the truck.

Thinking we would drive to the lower campground the next morning and paddle along the St, Mary river, below the dam, we left them loaded. The weather cleared, and we had another delightful evening with swim, steak dinner and bonfire. I crawled into my sleeping bag around 10:30 pm but found I couldn’t sleep. By 1:30 am the wind was up, and a storm prowled closer. I could hear the long rumbles of thunder, then see the bright flashes of lightning through the nylon of the tent. When it started striking right overhead, I ran for my truck, wanting good rubber tires under me. I spent the rest of the night in the truck, while it rained steadily, and I dozed fitfully. Early morning the rain stopped, and I started sorting through the wreckage inside my truck, and packing. The clouds were down to the ground, and I could tell the system had settled in for the day. As I had planned to leave at noon anyway, I decided I might as well get on the road, after helping Barb pack up all her gear. This was probably a poor choice, as she would have been better to stay snug and warm in her tent and pack at her leisure. My insistence in helping meant we both packed in another heavy rainfall, and drove away from St. Mary’s with good memories from the first two days, but little closure. And the rain pounded down.016

I would certainly recommend this area for other paddlers, who want a fixed camp (you can’t set up except in the designated areas) and a lot of good water. We had the campground almost to ourselves, with only two other families stopping on two different nights.014 There was more activity around the boat launch and pier, as families came over from the upper campground to enjoy various boating activities. The prairie stretches for miles around the reservoir, but there are enough rolling hills, rocky beaches, cut banks, and trees and bushes to provide shelter and breaks in the scenery. The river below the dam winds through a steep canyon, and would have been an interesting day paddle, I believe. Hopefully, we’ll meet up there again, and fit in the rest of the water we didn’t cover this time.

The trip provided just what most paddlers want: a few surprises, a little drama, the feeling of being fully alive and involved, and the satisfaction of overcoming those obstacles tossed down in front of you.