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Monday, 15 July 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Seven

The Great Bend

“Art is man's nature: Nature is God's art.” - Philip James Bailey

Metis flag at Tail Creek - the oldest flag to originate in Canada
I woke up amongst a flock of pelicans, who were fishing the stretch of river near my camp. I watched a small cattle roundup across the river, while I had breakfast and took down my tent. This was a stretch of the river that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. It wasn’t because it was a difficult stretch, but it didn’t seem like a very interesting prospect when I was planning my trip. I thought of it merely as a necessary prelude to the badlands portion of the journey. I was pleasantly surprised.

This stretch of the river heads nearly straight east and away from Red Deer before it jogs north briefly, then east again to the Content Bridge. It also travels through some fine parkland country. I tackled a small rapid below a sandstone cliff where some falcons made their home. I was later told that these were transplanted peregrines as part of a project to reintroduce them into this area. Further on, I watched a coyote stalk through some high grass near the river’s edge, hoping for a snack of killdeer chicks. The passing of my canoe ruined his morning hunt.

I approached a bend in the river and some unique cliffs with some historic significance. Palliser Expedition geologist, James Hector mentions these burning bands of coal in his journals. They are evident because of the layers of shale which have become a pink color due to the heat of the burning coal. His Cree guides told Hector that this coal had been burning for as long as they could remember. I have heard that trees in the area have been known to catch fire from the roots up.

Above the cliff containing the coal seams (their wings a telltale “V”) a couple of turkey vultures soared -- riding the thermals up into the sky. Two red tailed hawks joined them. Turkey vultures are a fairly common sight in the badlands of the Red Deer River, but they would have been here in the thousands when James Hector ventured into this region. At that time, huge flocks of these scavengers grew fat consuming the carcasses of the buffalo that existed in their millions. What a different world it was in those days. Perhaps, in the Red Deer River Valley one can just catch a glimpse of what that world might have been like.

As I drifted around the beginning of the “Great Bend”, a massive nest perched in a large cottonwood tree came into view. I pulled the canoe onto the bank and got out to investigate. Sure enough, there were a couple of unfledged bald eagles in the nest. I scanned the surrounding trees and sky and I spotted the parents of the two homely looking juveniles. They swooped down and called at me, threatening me with their outstretched talons, but I was never really in any danger. It was all for show and the eagles never got close enough to be a problem. They were nothing like the Swainson’s hawk of the previous summer, who tried to dive down onto me when I got too close to her nest. I had to fend her off with a camera tripod held above my head like a three pronged crown. Pleased at having confirmed an active bald eagle nest along the river, I got back into my canoe and paddled on to the Content Bridge and the campground, where I spent that night.

One of the few signs of the Metis
settlement near the Content bridge
I woke up in a noisy campground (due to its location adjacent to a gas plant). It wasn’t the most beautiful spot in the world, but the campground operator was friendly and helpful. I managed to get all my video batteries charged and get some ice for my cooler. I even had a tasty ice cream cone -- such luxury! After the usual routine of breakfast, tearing down camp and loading the canoe I was ready for another day on the river.

I continued under the Content Bridge and on my way around the “Great Bend”- a point at which the river changes its heading from eastward to a southerly direction. Almost immediately the scenery began to change. There were still plenty of white spruce, aspen and poplars along the river, but the clay that one associates with the badlands became visible along the walls and embankments of the valley. The river was flowing southward now into a transition area between the parkland and prairie regions. I came to a rapid of some note. It is, in my opinion, the last real rapid on the river. The water pours over a small dyke of harder rock, which creates a bit of a ledge. It was an easy enough ride and afterwards I turned my canoe around to look at “The Backbone”.

Depiction of Henday meeting Blackfoot chief near Pine Lake
courtesy Alberta Museum
The Backbone certainly has some possible historic significance. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Anthony Henday, along with his two Cree guides, is said to have crossed the Red Deer River at this point. It was in October 1754 and the river would have been a lot lower than on this July day. He used the Backbone to ford the river and presumably keep his feet dry. Working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was on a mission to establish trading with the local Indian tribes and to encourage them to bring their furs to York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay. The mission was a failure. The Nitsitapii people weren’t at all interested in making the long journey to the Hudson’s Bay. They didn’t travel by canoe and probably felt they had everything they needed, but they were gracious hosts and politely received Henday at a large encampment at nearby Pine Lake. Nevertheless, this smuggler from the Isle of Wight and net mender for the Hudson’s Bay Company became the first European to visit this land and see the Rocky Mountains. That is one version of the story anyway. Henday’s original journals have disappeared to be replaced by four somewhat contradictory and highly edited versions of his journeys. I prefer the version in which he came this way and (for me) seeing the Backbone gave life to his amazing story.

Pileated woodpeckers
I was near my home now and I pulled my canoe into the familiar Trenville Park Campground. It is a very pleasant spot and is a favorite destination during the summer months. I checked out the bird boxes along the fence line and found mountain bluebirds bringing various grubs to their progeny along with one containing a purple martin. There was a family of ruffed grouse, some cottontail rabbits, as well as sapsuckers and pileated woodpeckers in the campground. I lowered a shotgun mike into a beaver lodge to listen through my headphones, to that year’s young make plaintive noises while their parents splashed in and out. It was a warm evening and human children played, splashed and cooled themselves in the waters of the river. I retired early to my tent for a sound sleep.

At Tail Creek Cemetery. One of the only pictures I have of me shooting the video for "Red Deer River Journey"


  1. I often try to imagine what Henday saw. Thompson's journals tell of over wintering in the foot hills. So some great scenery and a little history.
    As an aside, I've seen kids wade across at the Normandeau crossing.

  2. In the fall, one can wade across the river at Dry Island at the boat launch. I have never visited the backbone in the fall, but I would like to one day.