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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Eight

From Parkland to Prairie

“Nature is not human hearted.” - Lao-Tzu

Blooming prickly pear cactus in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
The next morning, I was off down the river as usual. It was a Saturday, so plenty of people were out canoeing this popular stretch of the river. From Trenville, the next major stop is the MacKenzie Crossing, which was busy with canoeists, campers and fishermen out to catch some goldeye or possibly a pike or walleye. Some of the walleye in this section of the Red Deer can get very large. The largest one I’ve encountered was twenty-nine inches long. Goldeye are more common. They arrive from downstream in late May and can be voracious through June and into July. They were a favorite meal for the members of the Palliser Expedition.

“Burnham, intent on the search for gold, wanted to see if there was any to be found in the Red Deer River. Palliser told him that he feared the geology of the country would not admit of there being any, but went along with him and Paul. They washed and panned for a considerable time, they found no gold, but they did get a couple of gold-eyes as well as a beaver for dinner.” 1

As I continued heading southward, the valley began to deepen and to look more like the badlands that most Albertans are familiar with. I was approaching a place with which I was very familiar.
I parked my canoe at the boat launch of one of my favorite parks. Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is both biologically and geologically diverse and is situated on the transition zone between parkland and prairie regions. The valley at this point is two hundred metres deep and contains several distinct levels.

Western wood lily in badland coulee within the park
The north side of the park is fairly typical of a badlands environment, but with some surprises. There is the riparian zone at the lowest level, containing tall grass and willow. On the edge of the riparian zone are some cottonwoods. The next level is a mixture of grassland, bentonite clay and stands of balsam poplar and aspen. Greasewood and cactus dot the harshest parts of the landscape. In June/July there are a multitude of flowers in bloom - including the cactus. More sheltered spots have the beautiful wood lily on display. The typical badlands clays, layered in lighter and darker bands, rise up from this level to that of the surrounding prairie. Also on the north side of the park is the “Dry Island” - a plateau that rises above the surrounding badlands. At its flat summit is a sample of the natural fescues that dominated the surrounding prairie before cultivation. The isolation of the Dry Island serves to preserve these unspoiled natural grasses.
On the north facing slopes and in the many coulees that intersect the badlands there are stands of white spruce. On many a hot afternoon, I have found myself seeking out the cooler shelter of one of the coulees, while I take a break for lunch or simply to get out of the overpowering heat that builds up in this valley. When one looks around themselves in these coulees, they could almost believe that they were in the rocky mountain foothills. This provincial park certainly is a place of contrasts.

On the south side of the park the landscape is different again. It still contains some of the badland’s characteristics, but less so. The land rises more suddenly from the river to a “step” about a hundred metres above the valley bottom. On this level there are aspen, white spruce, willow and dogwood. There is also a stand of paper birch, which is at the southern limit of its range in this province. This is a favored spot for porcupine. There are many mule deer in this area and their trails are every where. There are also some surprises in this knob and kettle terrain. Many hidden ponds and marshes dot this section of the park. They contain boreal chorus and wood frogs. They also provide an attraction for the moose. Of course, the park’s many coyotes can be heard, especially near dusk. Their lonely cries echoing across the valley usually draw a chorus of responses from their kindred animals.

The western edge of this level is contained by sheer sandstone cliffs that rise up to the grade of the surrounding prairie. Prairie falcons nest on these cliffs and can be viewed as they hunt and defend their territory. One section of the escarpment was used as a buffalo jump by aboriginal peoples intermittently over a ten thousand year period. The bones of the bison can be found in the soils below the jump. The view from the top of the escarpment is superb. Many times in the spring, I have stood atop these cliffs and watched groups of bald eagles coming from the south, following along the valley on to their northern destinations. I have watched a bull moose in rut during an early winter snow storm, laboring under the heavy weight of its huge antlers. I have seen flocks of turkey vultures flying next to and falcons soaring below this vantage point. Richardson’s ground squirrels (“gophers” to most of us) and badgers live in these uplands and once I came upon a porcupine whose only way to protect itself in this exposed position was to place its head out over the cliffs while it showed me its spiny backside. One spring, in defense of its territory, a mountain bluebird attacked the side mirror of my truck. I returned to the cliff top parking lot to find my driver’s side door covered with droppings and the angry bird still crashing repeatedly into its own reflection.

I had lunch near the boat launch (sandwiches again!) and set off downstream. This time I had a lot of company on the river. Several groups of canoeists were traveling alongside me. A small group made up of two young men and their bikini clad girlfriends, floating along in a motley collection of tubes and dinghies, braved the stretch from the buffalo jump to Tolman Bridge. I’m sure that this stretch of the river was longer than they expected and it was made even more difficult to traverse due to a particularly strong headwind. The scantily clad tubers had few supplies or alternate clothing, but they did have plenty of beer. I was a bit concerned about their safety, but my worries seemed to be for nothing, because I saw them much later in the day, laughing and frolicking in the river.

At one point I got fed up and pulled my canoe up onto the bank to rest and curse the raging headwind. After a little nap, the wind died down a bit and I set off again. As I passed under the Tolman Bridge, I waved at some of the folks that I had chatted with at the buffalo jump and continued on for another hour or two into a more opened bottomed section of the valley. I found a site along the bank, near the opening to a narrow coulee and set up a makeshift camp.
A sudden storm during supper almost spells disaster
I was considering sleeping under the stars and not bothering with setting up the tent, but when I looked northward, toward Tolman Bridge, there were black clouds forming and moving eastward across the sky. I was famished so I quickly set up my tent, threw everything inside except my stove and cooking utensils and began cooking supper. The angry looking clouds were moving closer and I realized that my dinner preparations had become a race against time. Supper was almost ready and it looked like I would have enough time. A bit of rain wouldn’t be that much of a problem after all, on such a hot day. Suddenly a huge gust of north wind blew my tent and its contents right on top of me. It was a miracle that my stove didn’t catch the whole works on fire. In my haste to set up camp, I had neglected to peg my tent down. I instinctively grabbed the tent and threw it down. I unzipped the doorway and jumped inside, hoping my weight would hold everything down. I reached outside and shut off my trusty Coleman stove, grabbed my (now ready) pasta supper and sat on the edge of my air mattress, watching the rain and the lightning bolts. After five minutes, the storm moved on and the sun reappeared. It was once again, a still, warm summer evening as I reflected on this typical prairie weather.

I was in the prairies now. I had left the parkland region that morning, somewhere near the buffalo jump. There was not really a clear demarcation, but this was definitely prairie. The rest of my journey would be through some version of this vast region and I wasn’t even half way through my trip. I was feeling a little tired and lonely as I retired to my sleeping bag that night.

1 comment:

  1. Great description. I felt as if I was really there with all the sights and sounds of the river.