by Robert N Pruden
The trip was planned a couple of years ago. As most of you know I failed to succeed with it last year, having plunged over a class 6 rapid thus ending my attempt for that year. Well, I built a new yak and tried again this year. This time the trip went extremely well. I attribute the success of my trip to my own determination to get it done right and also to the most excellent advice endlessly offered to me by the wonderful people at the GBBS. Thank you so much! I took all the advice I could cram into my head. You should know that when I filed a Wilderness Trip report to the Rocky Mountain House RCMP they assumed I was an experienced paddler who had done this sort of thing before. I told them it was my first time and that I just had the best advice a person could ever obtain. They were surprised and very happy with my preparation.
I stopped off at the Tim’s in Rocky Mountain House to get coffee and Tim Bits for my support crew, my wife, Judy, my lil sweetheart daughter, Lydia and my mom (she brought the car). When I told the server whom happened to be the manager what I was up to, he gave me a great big smile and gave us the coffee and doughnuts no charge. That was the first great thing to happen to me this trip. It was a sign of things to come.
We stayed in Jasper, Alberta and drove to the put-in the next morning. The day was gray and dreary with low hung clouds threatening rain. I prepped the yak, loaded her up and launched into what could easily have been oblivion. My luck held and oblivion faded into one wild ride through the Canadian Rocky Mountains into Abraham Lake, a reservoir created by the obstruction of the NS River via the Bighorn Dam.
The first 32 kms ride was a mix of easy straight sections alternating with many very fast and wild curves often containing standing waves as high as 2 1/2 feet. Where there were curves there were also gravel embankments generally 3-4 feet high making landing in case of emergency impossible. I encountered a massive whirlpool that caught the yak and spun her in circles until I figured out how to run through the current, avoid a ledge and go forth towards Preacher’s Point. At the point, I would meet the support crew and assure them that I would make it all the way through. Well, that went well. What I didn’t expect was to leave them and pass round the very next corner only to encounter standing waves that were about 3 feet high and churning furiously. I almost shit myself but held the yak straight and shot through the rapids cleanly. I got a good soaking.
I entered Abraham Lake at the west end while it was a sheet of glass. After all the whitewater, I felt as if I had found heaven. The terrain was bleak with 40-50 foot high/100-200 foot long gravel banks all around the lake. The water levels were way low from previous years so the gravel banks made the scene seem lunar. I paddled along the south shore for a couple of hours till nightfall necessitated a landing. I found one decent site of only two or three on a level sandy area only a little sheltered from the wind that had picked up near the middle of the lake. I set-up camp soaked to the bone, shivering and damned tired from the whitewater experience. I was worried about hypothermia setting in so I changed into dry clothes. I had to strip naked in freezing wind. My God, it was a cold experience, but oh man, the dry clothes were heaven sent articles of comfort and joy.
I was so tired I fell asleep after only an hour of worrying about bears. I awoke to very low temperatures, about 5-7 C, shivering and crazy that I would have to don my wet yak gear after at least being dry for a few hours. I launched at 0600h without breakfast having set aside a Power Bar for later. I just wanted to get going so that the movement would get me warmed up.
Guinness the Golden Nectar of All Kayak Trips
I struggled through dreary gray skies, high winds and some rather annoying chop to make it to the dam where the wind was finally at my back then blocked altogether by high shorelines around a curve. The dam was made of huge chunks of blasted rock over which I had to portage in what became a very hot day once the sun rose and burned away the morning cold. The portage took me 4 hours and cost me a Guinness as I stopped to refresh myself halfway through. It was a worthy price to pay for such hard work. I shortened my portage time by carrying all my gear and the yak up to the top of the dam, loading the yak with the gear then sliding it down the other side through thick grass. Once I got to the bottom of the hill, I had to unload the yak again and manually carry what I could to the put-in point.
The put-in was surrounded by low green-forested mountainous hills set above aqua-hued waters. I was in heaven. I drank deeply of my Gatorade and fresh water and paddled the kilometers above Nordegg with ease and peace of heart. The waters were fast and full of deadly sweepers but flat and easy to manage. As I neared Nordegg, the river’s course narrowed and became either flat on the straight-aways or fast and furious around corners cutting through very steep high hills. I passed through areas called “The Gap” and “Devil’s Elbow” that had me struggling to avoid large standing waves sweeping against high rock faces. The foothills of the mountains kept me guessing as to what was around the next corner. Largely, though, the water was manageable. The scenery was always awesome to behold. That was what I wanted, to see what was around the next corner.
My next night’s camp was somewhere past Nordegg and saw me quickly setting up before it rained. I found a spot on a clearing made by an oil pipeline thoroughfare. I had my first hot meal and just got comfortable in the tent as it began to pour cats and dogs. It rained like that all night. I was very comfy that night as the drumming of the rain on the tent fly lulled me into a deep yet short sleep.
I broke camp quickly in the morning. My usual procedure was to prepare for the next morning launch just before turning in for the night by filtering water, prepping my Gatorade, filling all water bottles, getting my food stowed into the storage compartment in the cockpit and sponging out the whole yak of water and mud. I was paddling within a half-hour of waking.
The next two days were a blur of bad weather including more rain, cool temperatures, high winds and spume in my face, photographing wildlife and enjoying the scenery as the speedy currents whipped me past it all. I phoned home from Rocky Mountain House to let my wife know that I was cold, wet and brimming full or stories about how I got cold and wet. Before I left Rocky, unceremoniously, I bought a package of Skittles and reveled in the flavor.
I did find another large whirlpool beyond Rocky Mountain House. It spanned the river at a very tight turn. This one spun in very lazy circles and was a piece of cake to run through. I encountered crazier tilting landscapes and sweeping curves washing against very high cliff faces. There was much wildlife that I managed to photograph with postcard perfection despite having great difficulties keeping my lens clean and dry. I didn’t have a dry day until the last day before Edmonton when the weather changed to become very hot. I was burned so badly my lips were covered in sores and my face was a deep red color. I was so happy to have good weather on that last day I paddled for 12 hours doing 120 kms until I was finally home.
At this point in the trip I was used to seeing beaver, bald eagle, red tailed hawks, elk, white tailed, mule and red deer, coyotes, river swallows, sand pipers, various warbling birds and many others. Eventually cattle and beaver would become my animal mainstays.
Pit Stop in Edmonton
I stayed in Edmonton to celebrate my wife’s 39th birthday and get my shades repaired. I was back on the water within six days. I will say that I seriously considered stopping because the mountain run and bad weather had exhausted me. I had much encouragement at home to persevere, so persevere I did. I started my paddle at 10:00 a.m. and stopped 8 hours later. The next day was when I found the “body”. It was bobbing against the shore roughly 2 hours after my put-in the next morning. I eventually decided that with life comes death and so I shouldn’t let whatever it was I found bother me much. If I ever find out it was indeed human I will rethink how much I should let it bother me.
From Edmonton and on for the next 8 hours is a study in the petro-chemical industry. The river is lined with oil refineries and assorted types of chemical manufacturing plants. The oil and gas industry plays an important role in what you see along the river from Rocky Mountain House to North Battleford, dotting the landscape here and there with small recovery plants, refineries, storage tanks and pump jacks. That was one aspect of civilization I was used to so it never really bothered me. If anything, I was comforted by the fact that if I ever had a problem, I could go to one of the structures, shut off a pump and just wait until someone came to see why the pump failed. Nothing like a little security. Of course, all along the river farms border the shores so there was always access to quick help.
The next few days carried me through scenery that can only be found on the prairies. Willow thickets brimming with many species of bird and animals including elk, deer, beaver, black bear, wild dogs once domesticated, coyote and others whose ID I am not sure of. Of large birds of prey, I saw many many bald eagles, red tailed and other hawks, turkey vultures and possibly a few falcons. Of waterfowl, I saw many species of duck, cormorants, blue herons, pelicans, terns and Canada geese.
By far, the beaver kept me the most company. They hate it when someone such as a kayaker takes over their territory for a night. To get even they engage in a policy of sleep deprivation by which they slap their tails on the waters surface all night. Those beavers had me waking up every hour on the hour and had me damned joyful to be outta there.
The mallard ducks kept me entertained by faking lameness to lure me away from their babes. The cowardly male would high tail it outta town while the mother flopped around on her wings to risk becoming dinner for the safety of her children. The Canada geese would escort me for a kilometer or so, honking all the way, until they were satisfied I was no longer a threat. The blue herons would avoid me simply by flying to the other side of the river. Turkey vultures, I’m sure, were waiting, hovering in thermals as they peered down at me until I fell over from exhaustion and stopped moving before they would decide to check me out. I kept moving!
I encountered a black bear swimming crosscurrent two days out of Edmonton. At first, I thought it was a log but it didn’t move with the current. I then thought it was a dog but it was too big and in an isolate area. When it looked at me, I knew it was a black bear so what did I do? I paddled hard to catch up to it. It was in deep so I knew it couldn’t do anything to me. I wanted a picture. It saw me and picked up its pace. The only way I was going to get a good picture before it landed was to zoom in and shoot it as quickly as I could. I made quick moves to ready the camera and got off one good shot of it just before it landed. I was very happy at that point. The picture turned out very nicely.
The landscape changed from rocky in the mountains to silt and gravel in the foothills to brown silt at the start of the prairies to fine black sucking mud in the middle of the prairies. Geological formations changed from mountainous to foothill (rocks, gravel and silt) to rolling hill (gravel and silt) to just plain flat dirt. Interestingly enough, as I saw it along the river valley, coal seams were visible largely in Alberta after the foothills below the mountains and almost rarely on the prairies as they appeared in Saskatchewan. The river was curvey-swervy until past the foothills where it began to straighten out into stretches that lasted for tens of kilometers on the flat prairies. The water went from narrow, wild and rapid to a wide sheet of glass on the flat prairies.
Something To Tell
Of the people I met along the way, each person had something to tell that added an historical aspect to my trip. Up in the mountains I met Remmie, a park ranger who had heard the tale of the sea kayaker who ran the class 6 rapid on the North Saskatchewan River last year. He was thrilled to hear that I was that very guy. He wouldn’t be there for the launch because he was due to begin a two-week survival course the next day in Banff. He wished me good luck and safe journey on my adventure.
I met a teacher near Rocky Mountain House who was setting up white water canoes for his students. They were going to run the easier rapids above Rocky in prep for trying the Briarlies next year. The Briarlies are a nasty set of rapids used by the Canadian WW Championship guys for trials and competitions. The teacher let me in on the fact that the Briarlies were on river right, not river left as I had been informed of by my friends who just may have been in on a bet to see if I could run them with a full kayak. He he! Little did they know I’d be asking questions along the way.
I met the retired nuclear research man, Dennis Hardy, a couple of days past Edmonton. He is a spry 73-year-old prostate cancer survivor who was out to paddle from the Victoria Settlement to the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. That stretch of river is laden with many historical sites and boasts many opportunities to view wildlife. Dennis and I camped together for a night and shared supper and stories about our adventures. It turns out that we both worked in laboratories had run marathons, especially the Vancouver International and had a taste for the wilderness. We were both kept awake by the slam-dunking tail of a beaver that we annoyed by rudely moving in on his territory. When we awoke the next morning the beaver was still there but had stopped his bloody tail slamming.
Later on that day, I met John, his son and friend up at the tavern in Duvernay, Alberta. I had gone up there to use the bathroom and buy a package of Skittles. All I found was a very small and dark tavern that served buffalo burgers and beer. I indulged after using the facilities. Once I mentioned that I was paddling the river I had a place to sit with John at his table. We traded stories about my trip and local history. John left me with a mighty big handful of assorted candies that he has a penchant for munching on. Duvernay and its north bank counterpart, Brosseau, at one time shared the only ferry across the river between Edmonton and North Battleford. That made it a major transportation hub sporting a large livery, creamery, large hotels in each town, a smithy and a Northwest Mounted Police Post with one Officer, one horse and a dog. John’s son left me with a large piece of green 4 ” foam to insulate my sore ass from the closed-cell foam on my seat that had gone perfectly flat. I left Duvernay feeling sated and welcome to return any time I wanted. John even offered me the use of his snowmobile cabin further downstream if I wanted to stay for the night. As it was only an hour downstream I told him thanks but I’d probably be paddling for another 6-7 hours. In hindsight, maybe I should have called it a day, the cabin did look inviting.
I also met Gina Hewitt and her family on their farm. I was very tired at the end of the day and wanted badly to land on her nice cow pasture, which swept down from the farm to the banks of the river. I landed, went up to the house and was met there by Gina, a spry looking woman who eyed me confidently as she exclaimed before I could say a word that I was from the river, wasn’t I? I laughed and from that point on, we got along famously. She invited me to camp on her pasture and called me up for coffee once camp was set. Her son Don followed me down, asked a zillion questions, helped me pitch the tent and told me zillions of things while we worked. Inside the house, I met Gina’s two beautiful daughters who enjoyed listening to my stories and traded a few of their own. The coffee was heaven sent. I decided not to bring coffee on this trip because I didn’t want the irritated bladder. Gina and I traded information so we could keep in touch later on. When I broke camp the next morning I left my Coglhan’s Whistle/Magnifying Glass/Thermometer/Compass device for Don. I tied it to the fence gate using a miniature biner and tiny bungie cord with a note of thanks to the family for their hospitality.
In North Battleford, I met Ernie, a locksmith of 25 years who was in the R.C.M.P. building plying his trade. Ernie was a godsend. I learned that there was no real car rental place in North Battleford since Budget pulled out a year ago. There was a small, private concern that wanted $ 500 in addition to the car rental fee so someone could recover the car from Edmonton. So much for getting home! Ernie helped me through a confusing bout of indecision as to what to do next. There I was, effectively stranded in North Battleford, no car and no place to stay. I ended up renting a car for a day just to hold the kayak in a secure place while I drove around finding a motel and food. Incidentally, the first food stop I made was Tim’s. I got an x-large coffee with a triple cream and a snap pack of Timbits. The first sip of a Tim’s brought me to a place where everything was going to be all right. Ernie let me use his cell phone to call home. I explained my ordeal to Judy whom, in short order, arranged a ride to pick me up from Edmonton. Cool! All I had to do now was go for supper at a fine restaurant with Ernie. We ate well and traded many stories about the river and our families. When we parted, we traded information to keep in touch. Now I could go back to my motel, the Super-8 and write, watch a movie and then go to sleep on a real mattress. Awesome!
Unfortunately, the coffee kept me awake at night. By 0100h I was dressing to go to the R.C.M.P. detachment to report the “body” I had found earlier. It had been in the back of my mind and was nagging at me off and on. The coffee exacerbated the nagging so I gave in to the force and went in to report it. The R.C’s were intrigued by my story and decided to take it seriously because my descriptions of the body matched what they knew about corpses exposed to the elements. Was it human or animal? I strongly suspect it was human. Ultimately, that was why the R.C.M.P. decided to do the helicopter search for the body and that’s why I got to do something I always wanted to do but never thought I would.
Psychologically, the trip did many things for me. Last year, I learned that when in a tough spot, I am a survivor with very high confidence for finding a way out. This year I learned other aspects of myself. I now know that I love paddling solo, very long distances at an easy pace. I also do not like camping solo, although I did have some nights where I was very content. Ideally, I would love to have a campfire each night and be able to lounge around within the aura of yellow flame, red coals, wood smoke and idle chitchat. I did not find my center for writing poetry while I was out there. For me, it would seem that writing poetry is something I must do while secluded in a room alone with either a coffee or some form of alcohol. Out there in the wilderness, my thoughts take on the characteristics of the landscape. For some reason words fail me as I absorb my surroundings. I am certain I will write beautiful words a month from now about the trip. The poetry will seem as if I was writing it as I was experiencing it. Perhaps that’s what happened out there: I was experiencing poetry so it was redundant to write about it, I was there, within its true spirit and so was unable to use mere words to express. I imagine that with time, my senses of what I experienced will dull a little, and then I will be able to find the right words to try to reproduce it on paper.
I also learned that I am very comfortable with wildlife. I talked to the animals as if they were my friends and sometimes I wonder if they tried to respond. I didn’t mind them creeping around the tent at night but I did get pretty annoyed at all the impatient slam-dunking the beaver did while I camped in their territories. The bird song often caused me to stop paddling, close my eyes and meditate on their sounds. More than a few times I opened my eyes to find the kayaks bow aimed at the banks and only seconds away from impact. The song of the Robin kept the familiar sense of home in my heart no matter where I was. Robins link me with my home, with my growing past, the warm sunshine and hope for another day of a good life filled with awe and discovery.
I can’t wait to rejoin my voyage next year when I start in North Battleford and head off to either Churchill or Winnipeg. I’ll know more what I am going to do during my planning over the winter months.