Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Red Deer River - update 2013

Last weekend (while flying back from New Brunswick) I looked out the airplane window to see that we were following the South Saskatchewan River east of Diefenbaker Lake. I watched intently and sure enough just as dusk was beginning to settle in, I got a good look at the confluence where the river is joined by the Red Deer. I could see the islands where the two rivers join and the "Cottonwood Bends" where the last portion of the Red Deer winds back and forth many times. I could see the abandoned oxbows and hills of native grassland around the two rivers.  I felt privileged to be able to view this special place from such a lofty vantage point.
The fledgling Red Deer River flows from its source at Oyster Lake

So much has happened in the ten years since I made my journey along the length of the Red Deer River - both along the river and in my life as result of my experience. In 2005 the river flooded, effecting many residents in the "West Country" and around the Drumheller area. I used some of the video footage that I got of the flooding, along with some archival photos that I got from the Glenbow Museum to do a segment about John Ware's struggles with the river.

Bev French at Skoki Lodge
Skoki Lodge (part one) has enjoyed a royal visit. In 2011, the newly-married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed there for a few days. They had to fly in a special biffy for Kate. Mountain Aire Lodge (part three) was taken over by a drug and alcohol rehab organization and subsequently burned to the ground. The last time I was out that way, it was being rebuilt. In 2012 there was an oil spill in the river just downstream of Sundre (part five) which threatened the water supply and property of thousands of Central Albertans. The pristine habitat along the river was contaminated and it remains to be seen what effect this relatively small, but avoidable spill will have on the upper river.
Bev French and Larry Lait at Oyster Lake

RDRNers near the forks with guide Ted Douglas
As part of my research for my journey, I discovered an organization called the Red Deer River Naturalists. I became a member in 2002, became a board member and ultimately (in 2012) I became its president. In 2008, I headed up two field trips for the RDRN (which I called "The Beginning and the End"). The first trip was to the area around the forks near the Saskatchewan border. I have gotten to know this area (which includes the great Sand Hills) very well since I made my journey and it was a pleasure to unleash a group of the RDRN's knowledgeable bird watchers and botanists on one of my favorite natural areas. Then later in July my wife and I (along with RDRNer Larry Lait) returned to the headwaters and the one place that I hadn't visited along the entire river. Oyster Lake is the ultimate source of the Red Deer River and the three of us hiked from Skoki Lodge to this lake buried deep in a barren cirque at the northern end of Banff's Sawback Range.

RDRN President, Tony Blake introduces me at premiere
Courtesy Myrna Pearman
I wrapped up the shooting for my film in the summer of 2005. I added some set shots of Banff National Park and the river along with some aerial footage to the sixteen hours of shaky handheld footage that I had taken along the way.  I spent four years huddled in my computer room - writing, editing and narrating a film about my journeys. The whole experience was a lesson in how NOT to make a documentary, but I learned a great deal. In 2007, I premiered "Red Deer River Journey" for the fall banquet of the RDRN. It was well received and I have since had the pleasure of sharing it with various environmental, cultural, outdoor and educational organizations. My one regret is that it was shot in standard definition rendering it virtually obsolete in today's high definition world.
It hasn't always been an easy journey, but it is one that I have never regretted making. In many ways it has been a strange ride. Going from the solitary experience of traveling along a river and producing the film to presenting my experiences to the public has been challenging transition and I am just now becoming more comfortable speaking in public. It has all been good "character building" though.
So here I am. I have used my blog to draw a line ten years from the beginning of my "Red Deer River Journey".  In my mid-fifties I am poised at the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Conclusion

The Bull’s Forehead

“Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong as its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”- Marcus Aurelius
Looking across the south Saskatchewan and back up the Red Deer River

The next day I climbed a hill above the south bank of the South Saskatchewan river called “The Bull’s Forehead”. It was covered with small tufts of grass and sage brush. Prickly pear cactus, in full bloom, dotted the landscape. The ferryman at Estuary had told me that there was a rattle snake hibernaculam in the area and it wasn’t hard to imagine there being one in this desert-like environment.

I looked over the confluence of the two rivers. This spectacular scene was certainly a site of historical significance. Peter Fidler had built Chesterfield House next to the forks, in 1800, as a trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The outpost was later abandoned as being too costly and dangerous.

Although David Thompson didn’t travel the Red Deer himself, due to injury, four of his men became the first Europeans to travel down the river in 1800. Had they reached this point?

In those days this region was rife with dangerous grizzly bears and even more deadly, warring factions of this land’s original peoples. The area had gained a bad reputation and when, in 1857, John Palliser announced his intention of proceeding up the South Saskatchewan to the this spot, the men of his expedition were so horrified by the idea that he had to abandon it and go north to Fort Carlton instead. He did later visit this region. In July of 1859 he left the main party of his expedition, which was heading south, and diverted to this spot. “From the tongue of high land between the two rivers he studied a huge, beautiful sweep of country. He noted that the Red Deer River was a serpentine stream with broad alluvial promontories crowded with willows and rough-barked poplars, while the South Saskatchewan ran between high, precipitous banks.” Palliser encountered wapiti, buffalo, pronghorn in the area near the forks and many grizzly bears. They had several confrontations with the grizzlies, shooting several and breaking a rifle while fleeing a charge by another. At a large Blood encampment, south of the Saskatchewan an unfortunate woman was carried off by one bear while picking berries. After several braves killed the bear, they found her badly mutilated body nearby. Today only the pronghorn remain on this section of the river.

I sat on top of the hill for quite a long while, surveying the country below. I could see my eagle, flying below me and quarreling with a lone crow. I could see my camp, in its place below the sandstone cliffs and decided it was time to head back.

By the time I had packed up and traveled downstream to the ferry, I only had to wait a couple of minutes before my wife arrived with the truck. It was miserable loading everything up, due to the mud and thick swarm of sand flies. The kind ferryman helped me lift my boat onto the roof rack of my truck before he ferried us back across the South Saskatchewan. Then we were off, driving into the darkness of that warm summer night and towards our home.

At Journey’s End

“On those who step in the same river, different and different waters flow . . .” - Heraclitus

Hanging out in the riparian zone
For me, the Red Deer River isn’t just a stream that cuts through our land. It also marks a time that cuts through the middle of my life. For several years I had worked towards my goal. For a few weeks, I briefly departed from my everyday life to experience an adventure unlike any other. Like some small island in a sea of ice, my Red Deer River journey stands starkly apart from the rest of my life. In the midst of my travels, I was given a chance to reflect on my world at arm's length and get a small glimpse of the spirit of adventure that lies beyond this mundane existence. I hope that, by enabling me to compare it against old experiences and new challenges, time will provide some perspective. My memories are all that remain of those waters, which I journeyed during those two incredible summers. Of course I may still return to the river and probably always will, but it is different now…

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Fourteen

The Confluence

“All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure”- Mark Twain

The next day I had planned to go as far as Empress and finish my trip the following day, but when I got to the last bridge on the Red Deer River it was still early afternoon and there was no reason to stop, except to offer my flesh to the sand flies. After pausing briefly to think things over, I pushed on across the Saskatchewan border and into a stretch known as the Cottonwood Bends.

The channel was deep and easy to follow, once I got into this winding section and I opened up the motor and cruised along. My thoughts were of the moment and all of the places that the river had taken me. I thought of the babbling waters and pristine valley at the head of the river and all the tributaries that contributed to make the Red Deer River that I was floating on at that very moment. My mind took me back to the stream that roared under the natural bridge, the glacial silt of Drummond creek, Bighorn Creek at YaHa Tinda, the Panther River - where we launched our white water raft that July day, the James, Raven, Medicine and Little Red Deer Rivers of the West Country, the Blindman River, Tail Creek, Ghostpine and Three Hills Creeks, the Rosebud River and little Sandhill Creek, all of which contribute their waters into the main river. Now all of their waters were combined together and would flow into the waters of the South Saskatchewan to mingle with waters from the Bow and Oldman River drainages. A great blue heron flew beside me for a way, until it landed in a one of the many cottonwoods that line this final stretch.

The confluence of the two rivers - the Red Deer coming from the left-hand side.
There was an island ahead of me and I slowed my motor to take my bearings. Then I cut the motor completely and began to come to a realization in this convoluted and somewhat confusing spot. I looked over my shoulder and spied a bald eagle flying low over the water towards me. The eagle passed right over my head as if to greet me and landed on a tree on the island in front of my boat, which was now floating in the waters of the South Saskatchewan River. I had done it. I had completed my Red Deer River journey. It was July 1st - Canada Day. I have enjoyed many great Canada Days over the years, but this one will surely be the most memorable one of all for me.

I floated there for a while, enjoying the moment. Then I restarted the motor and dodged sandbars and small islands full of pelicans to a spot near the south bank of the South Saskatchewan, where I found the main channel. I then headed east to the ferry at Estuary. The broader and deeper waters of the South Saskatchewan carry less silt than those of the Red Deer, due to the many dams along the length of the Bow and Oldman Rivers which allow the silt to settle out of the water. The Red Deer only has the one dam, at Dickson. Once I was away from the confluence of two rivers I found that the going was easy for my small outboard motor.

When I arrived at the ferry, I got out of my boat and called my wife by cellular phone to arrange for her to meet me on the following evening. I could see thunderheads approaching from the west and the ferryman told me that there was a severe storm watch for the area. The sand flies were thick on the muddy banks near the ferry, so I risked heading back upstream to find a camping spot. The thunderheads were growing in size and bolts of lightning descended from them. I could hear the loud thunder echoing across the plains. Luckily I managed to be in a spot between the storms. It only rained lightly on me while I enjoyed the spectacle. At one point it appeared that a funnel descended from one particularly threatening thunderhead. I was starting to worry that I had made a bad choice. I was a sitting duck in the middle of the river, but the funnel abated and this massive storm also skirted the river to my north, much to my relief.

Sunset on the South Saskatchewan River
I found a nice campsite on a dry bank under a sandstone cliff across from the mouth of the Red Deer River. There were few insects in this pleasant spot and I made supper and watched the sun set, under clearing skies, while crickets serenaded me. A prairie falcon made occasional forays from the cliffs above my camp as darkness slowly drew the curtain on one of the best days of my life.

Red Deer River Journey - Part Thirteen

Undiscovered Country

“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” - Confucius
A herd of pronghorn near Buffalo, Alberta

After the park, the terrain opened up into flatter prairie grassland and right on cue, I saw a pronghorn making its way down to the river for a drink. Pronghorn are true prairie animals. They can see for miles with their large eyes and can run like the wind at the first sign of danger. Besides humans, they have no natural predators. I have heard it said that they have evolved to evade bigger faster predators than exist today. They certainly are prehistoric looking and, unlike deer and other ungulates, they evolved here in the New World along with horses. Horses mysteriously died out in the Americas and only survived in Asia and Europe. It wasn’t until the Spanish reintroduced them back to North America in the 1500’s, that these two fleet footed species were reunited. Up until then, the people of this land were forced to use dogs as beasts of burden. The Nitsitapii or Blackfoot people welcomed the use of horses for transport, pack animals, hunting and warfare and they were reportedly superb riders. The return of the horse allowed their people to dominate this region for hundreds of years.

 I was traveling through an ever changing landscape which changed briefly back to a steep-walled badlands canyon once again before opening out into more open and beautiful, green rolling hills. This scenic area, after the Jenner Bridge, was a surprise to me. I was entering the section of the river that I knew the least about. Things were about to get less scenic and more difficult to travel.

I had already encountered a couple of sandbars earlier on. Only one was really a nuisance. Before Dinosaur Provincial Park I got away from the main channel at a convoluted bend in the river and had some difficulty getting back into the current. I had to cut the engine and lift my motor out of the water, then push and paddle my way off of the sand. This could be quite exhausting and more than a little frustrating. Anyone watching would have certainly heard me cursing.

The section of the river that I was upon contained many small islands that split the slowing waters of the river into two or more branches. If you went the wrong way around an island you could land in trouble or on wider spots you could easily lose the main channel, which would wind back and forth across the river. I was learning to read the slow muddy water, but it was more difficult to do if the wind picked up at all. Several times I was fooled by a breeze which would obscure a section of the water. Sandbars certainly slowed me down for the rest of my trip. A lot of the time I would slow the motor right down while I poled my way downstream or across the weak current looking for the main channel. If it got too shallow I would have to lift the motor up to the shallow water position. If it got worse, I would have to shut down and lift the propeller right out. Once in a while I would get hung up in the mud.

Even with the obstacles, the traveling was still quite pleasant on the water, but life along the bank was getting to be considerably less pleasant, due to my introduction to a previously unimagined denizen of this sandy region - the “Sand Fly”. Mosquitoes could be wicked enough, but if one wore enough clothing and covered themselves with deet, they were tolerable. Apparently sand flies have never heard about deet. In fact they sometimes seemed to relish it. They would get in my face, in my ears and up my nose and bite, too. On the open water it was fine and the wind easily kept them in check, but if you got too close to the banks and gods forbid if you got stuck there in the sand, they could be completely miserable. For this reason I kept moving along this stretch, unless I absolutely needed to stop. There weren’t as many places to stop as were available earlier on, because the banks were usually three to five feet high and sloped steeply into the water. This was due to the soft and sandy nature of the soil. The only spots that appeared flat and easy to beach upon were often found to be quicksand.

 In some places there were bushes overhanging the banks. At one point a thunderstorm (the first of this year’s trip) threatened and I pulled my boat under some of these bushes, tied up and ate my lunch and waited for the rain to pass. Most of the property in this region is grazing land for herds of cattle, but I also began to see pumps for irrigation and I could see some bright yellow fields of Canola.

It was sunset when I reached the Buffalo Bridge. My map indicated that there were boat launches on the north and south banks near the bridge, as well as a campground on the north side of the river. I went over to the north bank, but it was steep with no way to drag the boat out of the river. I tied the boat up and determined that the campsites were on the other side of the road, some distance from my boat. I decided to check out the boat launch on the south side of the river. I hopped into the boat, fired up the motor and about half way across the river I beached on a sand bar. I was really stuck. I pushed and pushed (and swore!) until I finally got clear of the sand. I was just getting to the boat launch when a big water truck pulled up. Its operator hooked up its hose and started filling the tank. There was no way I wanted to camp next to that racket all night, so I headed downstream looking for a place to pull out. I wasn’t finding anything and it was starting to really get dark - I was in trouble now. I had to make a quick decision so I swung the boat around and headed back to the boat launch - water trucks be damned!

By the time I got back it was almost totally dark. I beached the boat and quickly setup my tent, air mattress and sleeping gear. I ate one of the least delicious meals of the trip. I was too tired to cook. Another water truck pulled up and I checked with the operator to make sure my boat wasn’t in his way. He warned me that he and another truck would be going all night long. They were hauling water for a drilling rig and those things run twenty-four hours a day. At that point I was too tired to care. I had been on the river for over fourteen hours and I slept like a baby until morning. 
 I woke up the next morning to the sound of water trucks coming and going. I had breakfast and tore down camp. I couldn’t wait to get back on the river and away from this less than ideal camping spot. If it wasn’t water trucks, it was a noisy generator or pump across the river going constantly. The driver of the truck did wish me luck on my trip, however.

I spotted a threatened leopard frog as I got into the boat and cast off. Leopard frog populations have greatly diminished in the last few decades. I remember them as being common, in my youth. As I walked along the bank of Calgary’s Fish Creek, (in the early 70’s before it became a provincial park) dozens of leopard frogs would jump into the creek. I’ve heard speculation about their decline being due to everything from pollution, disease or climate change. Apparently amphibians are in decline in most of the world today.

Something caught my eye shortly after I set off that morning. A stick ...or no, a rattlesnake was winding across the river. It appeared to be coming towards me, but changed course and instead swam behind my boat. I expected him to slither up onto the bank, but the snake turned and began to head downstream parallel to shore, perhaps looking for a juicy leopard frog. I have vague recollections of seeing rattlesnakes crossing the South Saskatchewan River, when I was still a very young English boy and my family was suddenly transplanted to the flat prairie lands of Western Saskatchewan. This was the first one I had seen since that time. After that, I certainly looked a little closer at any floating sticks along the river.

There were plenty of sandbars to be avoided that day, but my eyes were growing accustomed to finding the winding, deep channel and discerning the current of the river. I wasn’t accustomed to reading the water on a larger and slow flowing river. My experience was in fishing, canoeing and fording the faster streams of the mountains and foothills. Even the waters near my parkland home are many times faster than the river was at this point in my voyage, and its character was totally foreign to me.

The going was slower, but I didn’t mind. I passed by farms and ranches, waterfowl and deer. Traveling the river was becoming second nature to me now. I had my doubts about having to listen to my noisy Mercury outboard for hours at a time, but I was growing accustomed to the comforting sound of my trusty motor propelling me slowly toward my destination and the completion of my long journey. I figured about three more days would just about do it.

I captured some video of an owl that took shelter under the Bindloss Bridge, as I drifted beneath its steel trestles. I stopped at the camping area just east of the bridge. It was another not so beautiful spot, but it was as far as I wanted to travel that day. I set up my tent on what little grass I could find, in an area which vehicle use had stripped away most of the ground cover. Next to a dilapidated looking picnic table was a large can marked “transmission fluid” along with some empty oil containers and other junk. My beloved sand flies were fairly thick, but not overwhelming while I made my supper.

I walked around the campsite and picnic area. Except for the spot where I had beached my boat, it wasn’t too bad. There were bushes and low poplars providing cover for deer. Every once in a while I could hear a rattlesnake going off in the undergrowth. I watched the ground carefully as I walked to the bridge to check for a cell phone signal.

I looked at the landscape around the bridge and it struck me that this place was like the "end of the Earth". Scrubby looking sage bushes protruded from the sandy soil, which was also dotted by cactus - who’s only saving grace was their pretty yellow and pink blossoms. Even this wasteland had a quiet beauty of its own. I found that I was beginning to appreciate prairie landscapes more than I had at one time in my life. Perhaps the love of the prairie environs is an acquired taste. It is certainly a peaceful place and to my surprise, it is filled with a great diversity of life and a variety of landscapes. One just has to open their eyes and take the time to really experience this vast region.

As I retired to bed that night I could hear the sound of rain on my tent. I have always found that sound somehow comforting and I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Red Deer River Journey - Part Twelve

Dinosaur Park

I had been on the river for twelve hours when I reached the boat launch and I was annoyed to find that the campsites were a bit of a haul up a road and across a footbridge. I proceeded to relay most of my gear from the boat over to my camp. A lady, who was waiting for her friends to arrive from their evening paddle, warned me about the rattlesnakes that had come out onto the manicured grass near the boat launch to soak up the warmth of the setting sun. By the time I finished setting up camp and had dinner, it was dark and I retired to the comfort of my inflatable bed.

It was another lovely prairie morning when I awoke the next day. Despite my annoyance at the distance from the boat launch, I found that my campsite was a good one. The golden rays of the sun peered through the shade of the many large poplars and into my camp, which backed onto little Sandhill Creek. The poplar grove and its small creek are perfect habitat for birds such as cedar waxwings, robins, yellow warblers and goldfinch. The call of the many mourning doves could be heard throughout the long hot day. Mule deer and their fawns were everywhere, as were the cottontail rabbits.

Old cottonwood poplar near the river
I had only visited the park a couple of times previously (both times during the autumn months). Even in October I had found that it was an interesting place and now (in late June) the badland park was surprisingly full of life. I spent much of the day shooting video of the flora and fauna as well as the stark landscape of the area. Many cacti were beginning to bloom and they added color and beauty to the landscape of gray bentonite clays, sandstone and ironstone. Most of the wildflowers were in bloom. Brown thrashers flitted in and out of the thick brush along the Cottonwood Trail with its several hundred year old trees. The mosquitoes were fairly thick so I made sure that I had plenty of deet. Near the end of the day I found myself worn out from the mosquitoes and the intense heat, but I had a really enjoyable time. The available showers were definitely a bonus for sweaty, deet-covered campers.

Dinosaur Provincial Park has been designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations due to it having one of the highest densities of dinosaur fossils in the world. For this reason most of the park is off limits to visitors except for tours which run daily into the restricted areas. The field office of the Royal Tyrrell Museum is located in the park and there are many active digs going on every summer. What long hot work that must be!
I also made a pilgrimage to one of the (perhaps) lesser known attractions. I visited the cabin of one our early pioneers and perhaps one of the greatest cowboys ever to ride a horse. John Ware began his life as a slave in South Carolina. After emancipation he went to Texas where he learned to rope and ride. He arrived in Alberta with the first herds of cattle and went on to become his own man, respected by his fellow cowhands and dudes alike. He homesteaded his first ranch in the Sheep River area of the foothills country, with which I am well acquainted. Later he moved to this part of Alberta with his wife and children and built a cabin next to the Red Deer River. After a flood destroyed his home he built this second cabin a couple of miles away from the river. There is a picture of him removing logs for this home from the Red Deer River, with a team of horses, in the archives of the Glenbow Museum. The cabin was later moved to its current location in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Ware was well known for his horsemanship. My favorite story is the one about him riding a bronco over a cliff and landing in a river still mounted firmly on the horse’s back. Ironically he was killed when his horse tripped and rolled on him while he was out riding with his son, near this area. His funeral was one of the largest ever held in nearby Calgary and was an indication of the respect he commanded in the Southern Alberta community. He is buried in Calgary’s Union Cemetery.

His famous “four 9’s” brand marked the gateway leading to the cabin and I was able to go inside and view some of the displays and talk to a woman (who was a volunteer interpreter) while she worked her spinning wheel. We talked about John Ware and when I told her how I thought his death was both sad and ironic, she pointed out that he was doing what he loved the most that day - riding his favorite horse with his beloved son and that perhaps it wasn’t such a sad end after all. Obviously she had thought about this before. I bought a copy of Grant MacEwan’s book, “John Ware’s Cow Country” from her and thanked her for her wisdom.

I had a cunning plan for the next morning. I dismantled my camp, shuttled all my belongings down to the boat launch and drained out and loaded up my boat. Only then did I have a shower and buy some ice for my cooler before I set out. By the time I got back in the boat I was already hot and the ice was beginning to melt, but this procedure did help a little bit. It would be a long while before I could have my next shower.

It was great to be back on the river again. Midstream did seem to be a lot cooler than onshore and the mosquitoes didn’t bother me nearly as much. The first stretch of the river was quite scenic and passed through the remainder of the Provincial Park and Deadlodge Canyon. The canyon is said to be named for the many deadlodges of Blackfoot people that died in a smallpox epidemic in this area in 1796.