The West Country
“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.” - David Grayson
|The river above Dickson dam - on high water (shows some of the hazards)|
The next morning two of my friends made me a sumptuous breakfast while I prepared my video camera and other gear. They had brought with them the provisions and equipment that I needed for the next section of my journey. The most important of these was a sixteen foot long “Prospector” canoe. As he describes in his book “Dangerous River”, Raymond Patterson used just such a canoe to explore the wilderness of the Nahanni River in the 1920’s. It was a classic canoe which could accommodate either one or two canoeists, depending which way it was facing in the water. I planned to go most of the rest of the way by myself, but I did have quite a bit of camping gear, food and video equipment to take with me, necessitating the sixteen foot canoe.
My friends dropped me off in Sundre and headed off to their golf game, which they had booked at the local course. There was no boat launch in Sundre, so I finally settled on putting my canoe into a small side stream next to Greenwood Park. I carried my provisions, a piece at a time, down to the canoe and loaded everything up, while onlookers watched and questioned me about what I was up to. At this point I was beginning to tire and I was in a bit of a foul mood as it was beginning to get late in the day. I did manage to keep a civil tongue in my head while I attempted to describe what I was doing. Several of the onlookers wished me good luck on my trip and that certainly helped my mood. After what seemed like hours of struggling, I was ready, though I still wasn’t sure if the small side stream was deep enough to convey my fully loaded canoe into the Red Deer River.
It was already five o’clock when I pushed and struggled to get my canoe out into the river. Once I did hit the waters of the river my canoe took off carrying all my equipment and me beneath the Highway 27 Bridge and out of town. Suddenly my whole demeanor changed. I was in a wonderful mood and I could hardly keep the grin off of my face. It was a lovely evening. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the whole world seemed alive and full of possibilities. I was once again on my way.
It had been fifteen years since I had last been in a canoe and I had some doubt about whether I still knew how to maneuver one. I had never tried solo canoeing before and it was different from the usual tandem method. There was also the river. On this stretch it divided into many braided channels and sometimes it was difficult to pick which one to take. I only had an instant to decide sometimes, because I was moving along at quite a clip. If I selected the wrong channel, I could land in trouble. Sometimes the canoe would end up on a gravel bar which required me to get out and push my load over it and hop quickly back in when the canoe was clear. Worse yet there were sweepers and trees that blocked the river creating hazards for the unwary. Once I had to squat right down as I hurtled under an unavoidable sweeper that touched the gunnels of my canoe.
The thing I feared the most was these fast waters carrying me into a log jam on a sharp bend. If I was dragged into one of these it would be “game over”. The canoe would surely flip, dumping all of my gear and me into the waters, to become enmeshed in a tangle of logs. All of my equipment; my video camera, possibly my canoe and even my life could be lost in an instant. This did almost happen at a sharp ninety-degree elbow where the swift current ended up in a huge log jam. My first instinct was to freeze in panic, but then I thought “paddle!” I paddled as fast as I could on the outside of my turn and the canoe responded, gliding across the current. Then I switched sides and dug in my paddle, pushing backwards against the water, causing the canoe to turn sharply and hug the slower inside of the bend. I looked back briefly at the log jam and shuddered. After that moment, I put more faith in the trusty “Prospector”. With a flatter bottom and no keel, it certainly handled better than my old seventeen foot Coleman.
Now, instead of being afraid, I began to feel elated. This was why I was making this journey. The golden rays of the evening sun bathed the landscape of this Southern outlier of the Boreal Forest. This was part of, what Albertans call, the “West Country”. There were beavers in the water going about their chores. Great blue herons would take flight when I surprised them on a bend in the river. The canoe handled very well once I adjusted the load properly and it seemed like my canoeing skills returned to me. In fact it felt like some hand was guiding me through the hazards. It was as though the spirits of the great men who had explored this land before me steadied my nervous grip on the paddle.
|Still from the title segment of my film|
Traveling at the river’s level, one could fancy that they were surrounded by a total wilderness with almost nobody else to be seen. I could imagine that I was canoeing down one of our great northern rivers - thousands of miles from anywhere. I might have been in the midst of the great boreal forest, totally alone. This illusion was only broken a couple of times. Once when I surprised two teenage girls doing something covert at the river’s edge and again when one of those abominable jet boats flew by while I was (luckily) pulled-over on a gravel bar. It seems like even our rivers are no sanctuary from the noisy, destructive machines of the affluent and bored. They can access the wild places and yet pay no dues. They are separated from nature by their powerful vehicles and the noise of their engine’s roar. Like tourists, they pass through, but are never touched by the places they visit. They can never understand the damage that they do.
I paddled beyond the Highway 587 Bridge and after some searching, setup camp on an island near Schrader Creek.
The next morning, after breakfast, I broke camp, loaded up the canoe and set off again. I floated by two mule deer bucks who stared at me like they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Then it finally registered, that this was a man drifting towards them and they took off like two proverbial bats out of hell. I was enjoying myself until I reached the waters of Glennifer Lake. This is a reservoir created by the Dickson Dam. Thankfully this is the only substantial impediment created by man on the Red Deer River.
A nasty headwind blew from the East that caused whitecaps to roll over the surface of the lake. I scarcely had a chance to enjoy the sight of the first pelicans that I encountered. I paddled by them as they sat on a small delta created by the river, as its waters issued into the lake. I was forced to pit my strength against the wind and waves for more than an hour while I worked my way around the lake’s northern shore to the first boat launch. There I took refuge, unpacked the canoe and carried it up the launch and out of the way of any other boaters. I began my wait for two friends, who were going to shuttle me around the dam that evening.
I cooked myself a nice pasta lunch, washed the dishes and read some magazines for a while. Glennifer Lake is not the most scenic of places. Every view is cluttered with power lines and the lake itself is a typical reservoir. Every natural or interesting thing in the area has been mowed down by earth movers in the name of progress. I’m sure that the Dickson dam serves its purpose, but this area was certainly the dreariest place on the whole voyage. I began to get bored so I laid on a piece of manicured lawn, near where I had lunch and fell asleep for a while. I woke up covered in small red ants that were biting me all over. Now I was really beginning to get grumpy. I read for awhile and my friends finally arrived, bearing a cup of my favorite coffee. It’s really amazing how a little thing like a good cup of coffee can change one’s spirits. Feeling rejuvenated we loaded up the truck and shuttled everything around Dickson Dam to a location where I could set up my tent. I was alone once again as my friends headed back to Red Deer and I settled down for the night.
My camp was at the confluence of the Red Deer and the Little Red Deer Rivers. This was a spot where I like to angle for mountain whitefish in autumn. It was another beautiful summer day and I loaded up the canoe after a quick breakfast and headed out. Shortly, I found myself at the mouth of the Medicine River. Both cliff and bank swallows flew in and out of their homes on an embankment of clay exposed by the river. The bank swallow nests are made in cavities excavated in the bank, while the cliff swallows attach their mud and spittle enclosed nests on the surface of the bank. The cliff swallows fly in and out of an access hole in the bottom of their adobe homes.
In 1858, this was to be a rendezvous point for the main party of the Palliser Expedition and Thomas Blakiston, who had split off from the others to do some magnetic observations. After waiting for some time, John Palliser sent his geologist James Hector to the forks of the Medicine and Red Deer Rivers to bury a letter and a cache for Blakiston, before they headed off to hunt buffalo near present day Calgary.
I paddled down stream on a river that was now slower and far less hazardous than it had been above the dam. It was less exciting, but it gave me more time to enjoy the summer day and my surroundings. On the bends, brown trout sipped mayflies off of the water’s surface while black terns swooped overhead, taking their share of the hatch. I passed beneath the Innisfail, and then the Penhold Bridges. I was making good time, even on the slow stretches, where I found I had the strength to paddle steadily for hours.
next time - The City