From the Bow River to the Red Deer, there’s something for everyone, if you are prepared
I spent my first canoe trip hunched miserably in the hull of our beat-up Clipper after it smashed straight into a rock and catapulted us into the frigid Oldman River during the worst May long weekend of my life. A nervous novice, I’d opted to ride Queen of Sheba and let hubby Ian and friend Dennis take the bow and stern. And so I was freezing, but too stubborn and anxious to try padding.
My second big trip was the Milk River to Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, which my canoeing friends (and husband, amazingly, we are still together) convinced me was a reasonably mellow float. The scenery seemed mind-blowing — hoodoos dotted with cactus, crazy spiders, rattlesnakes and ancient rock carvings. And so, I agreed.
All seemed well until we rounded a tight corner in fast water. I was so terrified of slamming into a rock face that I sobbed and laughed hysterically as I saw the boat ahead of us flip, sending children, coolers, tents and paddles into the air and the river.
Surprisingly, two decades later, I’m still paddling Alberta’s rivers (and some lakes) and loving it. Experience has taught me to be prepared — organizationally, physically and mentally. We carry dry bags for clothes, we rope in the food, water, coolers, bailing buckets and cook stoves.
To up my skills, the husband and I spent months and years plying local rivers to practise manoeuvres such as eddy turns, draws, braces and cross draws.
According to Mark Lund, a longtime paddler and author of the book Mark’s Guide for Alberta Paddlers, too many Albertans hit the river envisioning a lazy float on a hot day, without adequate gear, training or preparation (i.e. drinking water!). Lund says people who want to learn to canoe or kayak should do it right, by taking a course from a local club, having the appropriate equipment such as throw ropes, and researching the trip in advance so they know what obstacles may lay in wait, such as logjams.
“Our canoe clubs are probably the best place to get started,” says Lund, whose highly detailed book with tips and river data on 60-plus reachable Alberta rivers is considered a ‘bible’ in this household and many others.
“We are so lucky in Alberta because we’ve got something for everyone. It is, in many ways, the nicest way to see nature in this province,” Lund adds. “It’s also one of the few ways you can get to some pretty special places — without walking forever — that you otherwise would not get to see.”
Lund and most canoe organizations such as Paddle Alberta recommend the mellow Badlands stretch of the Red Deer River as the best intro for novices. As such, it’s one of my favourites.
Our trips usually take three days, leaving from McKenzie Crossing west of Big Valley down to the Bleriot Ferry just north of Drumheller. Along the way, we sip the obligatory Club Sodas, chomp on Cheese Puffs and plan the next meal before the current one is barely finished.
We use Red Deer River Adventures to shuttle our gear and boats from start to finish. They drop everything at our start and pick us up near the ferry at the end. If you’re interested in canoeing the popular stretch of the Bow River from Calgary to Carseland, consider Bow River Shuttles.
Some tips for either float: Bring loads of bug dope, lots of drinking water, paper towels, hat, sunscreen, toilet paper. As responsible recreationists, we pack out all of our garbage and dig pits in the sand or dirt for a latrine, so a collapsible shovel is highly recommended.
Our favourite time to canoe is now until early October, as the riverbank trees are awash in reds, yellows and orange. After the long, hot summer months, the water is also warmer and the river traffic is reduced.
Novices looking for guidance should note Lund’s book offers a ‘self-assessment’ to rate your own skills, and include profiles of most Alberta rivers and their difficulty level. But whether you’re a rookie or a novice, he urges paddlers to know this: “Like we saw with the floods five years ago, rivers can change. But a river can also change in an instant due to a flash flood or rain storm … people need to keep their guard up. it’s up to you to do the research before you go and be prepared.”
An expert turn:
Who: Edmonton’s Greg Zinter ran river trips commercially for more than a decade in Western Canada under the moniker Tooloose Latreks.
Why paddle Alberta? “To paddle on any river, there is no better way to plug into a whole level of awareness that is rare in our modern times. If one is open to it, every river has a wonderful natural energy that revives and recharges. The river is a Zen experience in that it is here and now. On the river, you hear the bird song, you paddle into the wash of diamonds formed by the sun glinting off the rippled water, and, in the words of that Texas troubadour Rodney Crowell, you can ‘listen to the sun going down.’ ”
Who: Vancouver’s John Geary, a former Calgarian and longtime canoeist and paddling/travel writer, misses our rivers and lakes but continues to paddle around the world. You can see photos of his adventures on his Facebook page.
Why paddle Alberta? “I have to waffle and go with a tie — one lake and one river. Maligne Lake in Jasper was a great trip, we were out four nights, canoed to Spirit Island (arguably one of the most photographed spots in Canada), camped out at both the backcountry campsites. … Coming back, we began early in the morning in a real mist coming off the lake, you couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front, it was quiet except for the dip-swish of our paddles. It was magical!
“The second best Alberta paddle was a three-day trip on the Red Deer River … We paddled and camped along a section through the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park. Our group had obtained permission to be there. Very different than most of my Canadian canoe trips because of the desert-like landscape. We saw hoodoos, fossils, my first rattlesnake (!) and the biggest beaver I’ve ever seen!”
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