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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Red Deer River Journey

It's hard for me to believe that it has been ten years since I began my journey down Alberta's Red Deer River, but on June 27, 2003 two friends of mine dropped me at the trailhead near the Lake Louise ski hill. I have told the story of my preparations and that first day many times as a prelude to presenting my film "Red Deer River Journey' to various groups. Let's just say things didn't begin as planned. Between an injured back, forgetting my hiking boots and an overweight backpack there were challenges right from the start and it almost didn't happen at all.

A lot has happened since that time. In 2005, the river flooded changing its character and its course for ever. In the spring and summers since, the river has run higher than it did in the preceding years. The June goldeye fishing (that I traditionally did every year) isn't possible most years. I doubt that a journey like the one I took ten years ago would be possible at all (on many of the years since). Even as I write this, the river has flooded its banks again. The Bow and Elbow Rivers have flooded my hometown of Calgary and created an almost unimaginable disaster for the people of Southern Alberta. My beloved Highwood River has overflowed its banks yet again. This time the Town of High River has been totally engulfed and its residents have been evacuated.

In June of 2012, a pipeline burst just downstream of Sundre - dumping 3000 barrels of sour crude oil into an otherwise pristine section of the Red Deer River, threatening Glennifer Lake reservoir and the water supply for the City of Red Deer. Perhaps this year's flooding will help to wash the remaining oil from the banks and side channels.

With all of these reminders of how powerful the forces of rivers can be and how they affect all of our lives, I thought I might revisit a story that I wrote about my adventures on the Red Deer River. It's a long story, but I will post each section one-at-a-time with some italicized updates. I hope you will enjoy it.
Iconic view of the Red Deer River at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
 Red Deer River Journey
“To hear is to forget. To see is to remember. To do is to understand” - Chinese proverb
I have lived in Alberta for most of my life and the Red Deer River has always fascinated me. As a boy, I dreamed about canoe trips along its waters. Its badlands captured my imagination and viewing the fossils found along its banks inspired visions of becoming a paleontologist. As an adult I visited the Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Midland and Dinosaur Provincial Parks. I explored the Hand Hills and YaHaTinda. I fished the “West Country” for trout and whitefish and the river’s middle section for goldeye and walleye. I found myself living near the Red Deer River and working in the city that bears its name. I have seen the river valley in its many different states and in every season of the year. I have learned even more about the river’s nature by my association with the Red Deer River Naturalists.
I’m not sure where the idea of traveling the Red Deer River’s entire length came from, or when I first thought of making the journey. I became inspired to finally make the trip when I was in the Wells Gray area of central British Columbia. I discussed the idea with a member of the Kamloops Hiking Club, while I was visiting the Trophy’s Lodge. He urged me to make the journey “before it was too late”. I am middle aged and the days of my being able to complete a voyage like traveling the entire Red Deer River, were certainly numbered (as I was to find out when I attempted the trek).
Much planning and research were needed before I would be ready. The decision to record the entire trip and perhaps make it into a film made things even more difficult, but by the end of June 2003 I was ready to begin my journey.
The Mountains
Skoki Lodge
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” - Chinese proverb
It was June 27, 2003. After work, two of my friends drove me up to Lake Louise, where we stayed for the night. After planning everything for months and organizing my equipment into groups for the different legs of my trip, I realized that I had left my hiking boots at home. I was a little apprehensive at this point and this caused me to worry out of all proportion to the size of problem. What else had I neglected to do?
We got up early the next morning, had breakfast and waited for the local sporting goods store to open. Luckily they had some very decent light weight boots for sale. In the old days, new boots would have been a problem on a long backpack trip, but modern methods and materials used in the manufacturing process create boots that require very little breaking in.
We met up with the Skoki Lodge/ Lake Louise Ski Hill bus at the Fish Creek parking lot. I lifted my heavy backpack up to the young and athletic young driver atop of the van and my friends wished me luck before I climbed aboard for the drive up the access road to Temple lodge. We passed a grizzly sow and her two cubs along the way and picked up two frightened hikers. I hoped that I wouldn’t be encountering any more bears once I was on foot.
The bus left me and several other hikers at the end of the access road and I began a slow ascent, through subalpine forest to aptly named Boulder Pass. At the summit of the pass I found myself on the western shore of Ptarmigan Lake( where I stopped for lunch). I gazed back across the Bow Valley toward Mount Temple. I could hear the “eeeeeeep” of the Pikas who scrambled about the scree slopes of the pass area. They were busy going about their daily routine of gathering vegetation for their various stashes, hidden among the rocks. As I prepared to continue on, I noticed a Clark’s Nutcracker gliding down to the pass from the summit of Ptarmigan Peak to my left. These gray and white birds with black wings like the high alpine environs and are usually associated with the white barked pines that grow at high altitudes. They are named for the famous American explorer, William Clark.
I continued hiking around the north shore of Ptarmigan Lake and through a thoroughly alpine landscape. There were still patches of snow to be negotiated at this time of year. At one point, while crossing a patch, I put my foot through the crusty surface and found myself with one leg in wet snow up to my crotch. This was made more difficult by my heavy backpack and video camera and I was afraid that I had hyper-extended my knee. I managed to struggle out of this awkward position and continue on with no injury.
In this part of the mountains, it was early in the hiking season and there was a possibility that your way could be blocked by snow at the high passes. I was happy that this was not the case on this occasion, as I veered northward and began my ascent to Deception Pass. I threw down my heavy burden when I reached the summit and looked back down the Ptarmigan Valley, past Boulder Pass and towards the Main Range summits near Lake Louise. The view ranked high with some of the best that I had experienced in the Canadian Rockies, and I paused for a while to rest and take it all in. There is plenty of room for further exploration and I plan on revisiting this region again one day, with a lighter pack and more time.
View from Deception Pass
The summit of Deception Pass is at an altitude of 2485 metres. This was the highest point of my trip and I joked to myself that it was all downhill from there. One of the inhabitants of this high mountain pass was a hoary marmot, who appeared briefly to have a look at me while I rested. His whistle rang out, echoing off of the surrounding peaks and he disappeared from view. I began a gradual descent into the Skoki Valley and soon I was back among the trees and drawing close to the day’s final destination.
Hoary marmot
While I was planning out my trip, I noticed Skoki Lodge on the backcountry maps. One of the proprietors of my local outdoor shops suggested, that( if I stayed at the lodge)  I would be eligible for the bus ride up the initial access road to Temple Lodge. This alone sold me. I found Skoki Lodge to be a pretty good deal. Factoring in the comfortable surroundings and a soft bed, along with breakfast, supper and a bag lunch, this little bit of luxury at the beginning of my journey was well worth the extra expense and I was glad that I had booked myself a room. It was the best night’s sleep that I would have for a few days…
next time Red Deer Lakes

1 comment:

  1. I never realized until I read this post how descriptive your writing is. Good to see you post again.