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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

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.

1 comment:

  1. The Red Deer is a great river....the country changes dramatically from the start in the mountains the join up east of Empress with the South Saskatchewan. The photo you mentioned on my blogpost is looking east from the Jenner Bridge.....we ranch on the north side just east of the Dinosaur Pr. Park just down river from Happy Jack's cabin.