By Trevor Busch
Paddling rivers in southern Alberta can become a passion.
Whether it be close to home on the Oldman River, putting in a few strokes on the South Saskatchewan to the east, plying the waves of the Bow, challenging the rapids of the Milk in the south, or getting a keel in the water on a multitude of reservoirs, lakes and other water bodies, Alberta has a lot to offer the prospective canoeist or kayaker, be they green amateurs or grizzled veterans.
Kayaking seems to have witnessed an explosion in popularity in the province in recent years. When I first started getting into the sport about a decade ago, canoes were more prolific and encountered more often on Alberta’s watersheds. Now you’re far more likely to come across kayakers on many rivers, and the beds of pickups and roof racks of cars that have sprouted these now-familiar forms seem much more common on streets and highways than they once were. There’s a few reasons for this: kayaks are more easily manhandled by a single individual for vehicle travel, are lighter and more maneuverable on the water, and are usually cheaper than a canoe. But they have drawbacks as well, chief among which is gear storage. If you’re planning a protracted trip of several or more days on the water, this problem becomes more pronounced. In many cases it’s simply easier to fall back on the tried and true canoe if the waters you’re planning to traverse aren’t especially challenging.
In early June, my brother and I and two friends decided to take a four-day canoe trip on the Red Deer River north of Brooks. Over the past decade, we have taken a trip or two on most of the rivers within easy driving distance of south central Alberta, but the Red Deer remained an anomalous outlier. With international borders closed and ‘staycation’ likely to be the byword for our summer, we decided 2020 might be a perfect year to rectify that obvious transgression.
The Red Deer River, also known as the “Big Red”, is one of the most underrated rivers in western Canada. A major tributary of the South Saskatchewan River, it is part of the larger Saskatchewan-Nelson system that empties into Hudson Bay after its long journey across the Prairies. It snakes its way 724 km from its headwaters and drains more than 45,000 square kilometers. The river got its name from the translation of Was-ka-soo which means “elk river” in the Cree language. The river originates on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, in the Sawback Range near the Skoki Valley inside Banff National Park, and then flows east through the mountains and foothills region to the prairies.
Starting out at Emerson Bridge on Highway 36 north of Brooks, we planned to travel past the Steveville Campground on Highway 876, through Dinosaur Provincial Park, and take out at the Jenner Bridge on Highway 884. Our compatriots had travelled the route in the past, one more than 30 years ago, and the other more than 10 — so it was really like taking the trip anew for both of us. We had two battered aluminum canoes and a mountain of gear, but the Red Deer’s gentle waters (at least in this stretch) weren’t enough to strike fear about gunwales running low in the water or only having a few inches of clearance after positioning our weighty grubstake. And although many rivers can change character around the next bend, the Red Deer’s sandy riverbed and muddy banks presented few challenges throughout. One has to strain the eyes to even find a boulder or rock to avoid on this stretch, so amateurs take note.
All paddlers should note, however, that the river in early June was at high water and kept us floating along at a significant clip.
If you wait until later in the summer, waters become much more shallow, and you’ll often be forced to drag your boats over sandbars in a number of areas. Although we enjoyed almost perfect weather, others report headwinds can often spring up and become a problem. There’s nothing worse than watching a stiff southern Alberta breeze start driving you back upriver against the current, but it happens more often than not on southern Alberta’s sedentary streams. Time to break out the paddles.
We camped three nights on the river, and one has to take care to avoid private land. Wilderness camping below the high water mark is allowed in most places along the Red Deer River. But when the river is in flood, this becomes difficult, as we soon discovered.
If you want to take advantage of high water, expect ideal campsites to be few and far between. If you want better campsites, go later in the season in July or August, but expect sandbars and lower water. Unfortunately hitting the so-called ‘sweet spot’ on this stretch for water levels and campsites would be next to impossible.
Spectacular badlands scenery can be witnessed throughout this entire stretch of the river, including breathtaking skies and huge stands of cottonwoods that dot the banks. Numerous islands and sandbars, some of which would be ideal for camping (we never did) are also interspersed along the way. One of the real jewels of the trip — and one of the reasons we had always wanted to traverse this stretch — is Dinosaur Provincial Park in the heart of the badlands.
A glacial flood about 18,000 years ago eroded out a portion of this basin, and most of the scenic badlands bearing the dinosaur and other Cretaceous fossils. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is well known for being one of the richest dinosaur fossil locales in the world.
Fifty-eight dinosaur species have been discovered at the park and more than 500 specimens have been removed and exhibited in museums around the globe. Although we weren’t about to do any fossil hunting, we did stop in the park for breakfast and walked to the store to pick up some fresh ice — a helpful pit-stop we didn’t anticipate to stock up on one of the vitals.
For the anglers out there (my brother and I are most certainly not, although we did have one among our cohort), the Red Deer offers great sport fishing opportunities for northern pike, sauger, lake whitefish, yellow perch, burbot, lake sturgeon, mountain whitefish, goldeye, brown trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, and cutthroat trout.
We picked a good window for weather — and ‘window’ is the key term here — as we pulled out at the Jenner Bridge mere hours before the June 13 storm hammered southern Alberta with wind, rain, hail and tornadoes.
I’ve reflected in retrospect what we might have done had we encountered massive hail (or an intense lightning storm in an aluminum canoe) while floating a river and the various scenarios don’t inspire me with confidence we would have come through it unscathed.
A great trip that offers a badlands welcome, this stint of the Red Deer is an amateur paddler’s paradise that should present few challenges for even the greenest seafarer. While this might not be challenging enough for the expert, it is compensated for by arresting scenery, and the slow pace will allow a paddler to soak up their surroundings like few other rivers in Alberta.