Return to the River
“The journey is the reward.” - Chinese proverb
|The Li'l Titanic|
There was a lot less planning for the second half of my journey than there was for the first half and a lot less time to get ready, but the logistics were much simpler. I would put in at East Coulee and I didn’t plan on taking my boat out until Estuary, Saskatchewan. It took a little bit of work to load up the boat at the start of the trip, but the weather was good and the water high. Soon I was off again. This time I had the sound of my small Mercury outboard to endure, but I soon got used to its reassuring drone. I stopped to talk with my wife at the boat launch in Dorothy. Everything seemed all right. I originally wasn’t sure how well my little boat would fare on the river, but it was going along very well. I talked to a couple of gentlemen who were pulling their large raft out of the river after traveling for a couple of days. One of them was eighty years old and he looked fit and tanned. I hope that I am still able to have little adventures of my own when I reach my golden years. Then it was off again as I waved good-bye to my wife. She was heading back home and would be returning to her job while I attempted to complete my journey.
I traveled downstream for a few hours through the familiar looking badlands. It was feeling very much like that first evening of canoeing near Sundre. I had a big stupid grin on my face and found it exhilarating to be back on the river again. There were many beaver on the river that day, along with ducks and their progeny. I passed a rookery of great blue herons and saw some common terns. At certain points I would cut my motor and just let the current pull me slowly downstream. It was getting near sunset so I pulled over to the side of the river to a perfect bench, on which I made camp.
I made supper on my little Coleman Peak1 stove and watched the gorgeous prairie sunset before I retired to my tent. All was right in my world except for a beaver that(every time he surfaced during the night) saw my tent and whacked the water with his tail in the customary manner and caused me to awaken. Just as I was dozing off again, the beaver would slap its tail and startle me back from the edge of sleep. This was repeated ad nauseam. Apparently my ideal camping spot was also a preferred spot for a certain beaver to sit and chew on his favorite food - tender willow sprouts. After an hour or so the annoying rodent moved on and I fell into a sound sleep.
The next morning I reviewed my maps and realized that I was just upstream from Finnegan Ferry. I packed up my gear and headed downstream and past the ferry to a section of the river that I was completely unfamiliar with.
Gradually the river emerged from an enclosed badlands valley to an open landscape of rolling hills followed by flat grassland. Most of this area looked to be uncultivated and probably appears today much as it has for hundreds if not thousands of years. You may think that this isn’t unusual, but very little of the prairie environment has survived the last hundred and fifty years.
When the first Europeans arrived in this part of North America, the irreversible natural decline of this vast area began and it has continued to devolve ever since. There are only a few small isolated pockets that even resemble the original landscape. Fortunately for me, many of these spots are along the Red Deer River valley. I have always liked to imagine what this vast ecosystem would have been like before my people arrived in this land and this journey was affording me a small glimpse of that ancient place. Even if the reality of a wild Red Deer River valley has disappeared with the passing of time, the river still cuts a ribbon of unspoiled territory (which holds the aura of a true wilderness) through a sea of progress and cultivation. As I traveled these waters, my line of sight revealed the forgotten soul of a land that hasn’t existed since the passing of the buffalo and the displacement of its aboriginal peoples.
The sun was beating down again on that day and I had learned from my first attempt at traveling the river to cover up my skin with sunscreen and clothing. There was very little insect activity and mosquitoes were conspicuously absent. I was having another great day out and enjoying every minute of it. There seemed to be little activity by the inhabitants of the river valley -- probably due to the heat. How does the old saying go? “Mad dogs and Englishmen....”
In the early afternoon I passed under the Highway 36 Bridge and began to see the layers of clay and steeper walls of the badlands valley reappearing ahead of me. After a bend in the river which turned it due south, I saw an unexpected sight. Downstream from my boat, three large figures appeared from the brush and dived noisily into the cool waters just upstream from Three Owl Island. The moose appeared to be having a wonderful time as they frolicked about, totally oblivious to my looming presence. I positioned myself in the water so that I was directly upstream from them and cut my motor and drifted slowly toward them. I began to shoot video as I drew closer. There appeared to be a bull, a cow and a yearling calf. Soon I was getting too close for their comfort and they emerged from the river -- first the calf, then the bull and finally the cow. They ran back into the brush and left no sign of their presence, but for trails of wet clay near the bank. I felt slightly guilty for my intrusion into what was an obviously enjoyable interlude, on a hot afternoon.
This isn’t the type of environment that most people envision when they think of these largest members of the deer family. I remember once, when I was talking to a visitor (an avid outdoorsman) from New Brunswick about the local moose population. He gave me an incredulous look and asked pointedly, “Where would a moose go around here?” His experience was one of hunting them in thick boreal forest and that was a paradigm that he imagined was true everywhere. Moose do live, and thrive in open prairie environments and these three were a perfect example of that.
I started up the motor and continued downstream into the deepening valley which swung east again and continued to get more spectacular at every turn. When I passed Steveville Bridge, I noticed a couple of families were putting their canoes into the river for an evening paddle to my day’s destination - Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was confident that the channel was deep as it curved around the right hand side of Coyote Island so I opened up my small outboard motor and cruised toward the Sandhill Creek boat launch. I planned to stay an entire day at Dinosaur Provincial Park and then to set off again on the next morning.