August 21, 2015
Click here to watch a video blog from the end of the trip.
August 16, 2015
In the city, people often speak of the need for community. Whether it’s community planning and consultation or efforts focused on community-building, there is a strong desire to create more close-knit relationships between neighbours. Yet urbanites can only vaguely articulate a definition of community based on a longing for something that they have never truly experienced.
As we have paddled across the prairies, we have witnessed the true meaning of community.
First, we were overwhelmed by the support of fellow canoeists in Canmore and Calgary, who volunteered their time and equipment to help us get back on the river after our accident. Within a week, we were able to pull together replacements for all of our missing gear, including a canoe.
In Medicine Hat, we knocked on a stranger’s door with the hope of storing our canoe in their yard for a couple of days. We were surprised and grateful when the lady who owned the house made space in her vehicle and drove us first to the local campground, then to the grocery store. We returned two days later to find that she and her husband had filled our water jugs and left us a greeting card, wishing us well on our journey.
When I could no longer bear the idea of confronting the swells on Lake Diefenbaker, the owner of the marina in Elbow, Saskatchewan loaned us her SUV to drive into town for groceries. Imagine the surprise when her daughter pulled up alongside us on a gravel road, only to find strangers behind the wheel of her mother’s car. This same daughter was later happily recruited by her parents to drive us and the canoe to the other side of the Qu’Appelle Valley dam, where we began the next leg of our journey.
When we arrived in Lumsden, soaking wet and muddy from the escalating storm, a kind, elderly lady welcomed us into the Hummingbird Manor B&B without hesitation. Over the next two days, she handed us the keys to her Santa Fe for our errands, cooked us hearty breakfasts and even volunteered to help us lug our gear back to the canoe to relaunch. The image of a jovial great-grandmother dutifully toting an oversized bag as she disappeared beneath a road bridge is not one that I will soon forget.
We were assisted by another feisty lady in Fort Qu’Appelle, who we suspect was initially concerned for the well-being of our dog, Abby. She cut short her afternoon walk to return home, retrieve her vehicle and shuttle us over to the Broadway bridge. While we loaded up the canoe, she rushed out to pick up lunch for us before we went on our way.
And here in St. Lazare, we have been treated just as family by the owners of the Fort Ellice Hotel. Yesterday, shortly after our arrival, we were given dinner and drinks by a generous fellow whose current situation has led him here for the past three months. We were provided with grilled chicken, cooked on an electric grill in a small storage room and served on paper napkins. He cooked and cooked until we couldn’t eat any more, then we sat outside and enjoyed the evening. And tonight, the woman from the Hotel carried over a home-cooked meal from her kitchen and delivered it to each of our suites.
We have experienced the true meaning of community in many small towns across the prairies. We can only hope that the experience has changed us and that we, ourselves, will become better neighbours.
August 15, 2015
As the end of our trip draws near, it seems that weariness is catching up with us. We are worn out in a way that a good night’s sleep, when possible, just isn’t enough to restore our energy and enthusiasm.
The first sign was growing anxiety that we each experienced in our own way. Harry began waking up occasionally during the night, suffering from claustrophobia. Given that he has crammed his six foot four inch frame into a small, two-person tent nearly every night for ten weeks, the sensation is rather understandable. Our dog, Abby, whose chosen resting place is with her body wedged against his head, has not made the situation any more comfortable for him.
For the first time in my life, I have had panic attacks, triggered by the sight of strong currents and debris in the river. More than once, we’ve had to pull the canoe to shore while I catch my breath and wait for a dizzy spell to pass. Again, somewhat unsurprising given our accident at the beginning of the trip, but the tension has heightened over the past couple of weeks.
Even Abby has become anxious at the sound of fireworks or thunder. She paces, pants and shakes at sounds that never bothered her in the past. High temperatures and humidity this past week, paired with long days on the river, combined to create a near-breaking point yesterday. We had taken advantage of the dry, calm weather to progress toward the Manitoba border, but the heat had left us feeling drained at the end of each day. The river, slow and turbid, offers minimal relief from the grimy feeling of accumulated sweat, sunscreen and bug spray on our skin. The relief I felt at finding increasing tree cover to shield us from the threat of high winds and storms was countered as mosquitoes began to harass us in the wetter, more vegetated landscape.
Our excitement at reaching the border lifted our spirits briefly, but we had trouble sleeping again that night. A coyote happened across our campsite and spent half an hour sounding the alarm to its kin. An early morning thunderstorm shook us awake at sunrise. We mustered the energy to get back on the river, buoyed by the idea of reaching the nearby town of St. Lazare and the possibility of a good meal and a shower. Our relief was short-lived: the current had slowed and by early afternoon, we still hadn’t reached the train bridge that marked the halfway point from our previous night’s campsite.
There is no easy way to describe the irrational feeling of helplessness and despair that I experienced in that moment. Awareness that my exhaustion and discomfort would pass offered no consolation until I accepted the possibility that we may not make it to our desired destination for another day. But we did make it. It took us until dinnertime, but eventually we paddled under the highway bridge and the road to St. Lazare and dragged our canoe ashore through the sucking, knee-deep clay of the river bank. We unloaded and overturned the boat out of sight, collected our dry bags and walked the few kilometers into town, willing to take the chance that there may not be any accommodations available when we arrived.
We spotted a hotel sign atop a plain-looking white building as we neared the town centre and a woman emerged to greet us. As rapidly as our spirits had fallen, they were lifted again: we found a comfortable room, had a hot shower and made the acquaintance of a friendly fellow who offered us a dinner of grilled chicken and cold drinks. We sat outside together for hours, chatting and listening to stories about his life, his family members and the people who worked on the railroad and built this town. He told us about his own canoeing adventures and congratulated us on making it this far.
Time and again, we have found ourselves feeling exhausted and hopeless, only have our faith in this journey restored by the kindness of total strangers. It has given us both a true appreciation for the power of small acts of kindness and generosity. A little boost from a helpful stranger can make a transformational difference in another person’s pursuit of their dream. The people we have met as we have paddled across the prairies all seem to understand the power of their actions. It’s a lesson that we hope to be able to carry with us when we return home: that we can make a tremendous difference in another person’s pursuit of their dream.
August 14, 2015
Click here to watch a video blog where we leave the Qu’Appelle River and move onto the Assiniboine River.
August 9, 2015
Click here to watch a video blog about our experience in the Qu’Appelle River Valley.
July 28, 2015
Over the past week, I have begun to wonder if we are being haunted by some kind of mischievous genie of the Qu’Appelle River.
We’ve all heard the story of a magical genie who grants wishes. There are variations on the plot but typically, it goes something like this: the genie appears, friendly-looking and amiable, and offers to grant some poor, naive soul three wishes. Each wish the genie grants is twisted into some unfortunate and barely-recognizable version of the utopia that the wisher had envisioned. After the first two wishes have gone terribly wrong, the wisher grows wise to the genie’s tricks and uses their third wish to turn everything back the way it originally was. The genie obliges and everyone lives happily ever after.
The Qu’Appelle River Genie, as I’ll call it, made its first appearance shortly after we put our canoe back into the water of the Qu’Appelle, just south of the Buffalo Pound Dam.
“I can’t wait to get back onto a river, with a current,” I remember Harry wishing as we paddled the still waters of Buffalo Pound Lake.
But back on the River, we found that there was far less water below the Dam, resulting in a much slower current that hardly moved us along at all. Harry was noticeably disappointed and frustrated.
There had also been occasions upstream of the Lake when I had wished for trees to give us shade and shelter from the threat of severe thunderstorms. Instead, we were lucky if we could find a small clump of thorny buffaloberry bushes to provide a windbreak in the middle of a cattle pasture.
Downstream of the Dam, the river banks were lined with tall ash and maple trees that provided ample shade and protection. Unfortunately, the river bed was similarly endowed with their fallen brethren: we spent much of our first day back on the river dragging our canoe over beaver dams and through debris.
Despite enjoying many incredible wildlife sightings beneath the canopy of the trees, we both looked forward to following the River back into cultivated lands and pastures. Once out of the wetlands, however, we found that the River became wider and shallower, barely deep enough for us to manoeuvre through in our canoe. Cursing and bickering, we zig-zagged back and forth trying to find the deepest parts of the channel, our paddles jamming into the soft sediment with each stroke.
“This would be so much easier if there was even just an inch more water,” Harry muttered. I agreed.
And once again, our wish was granted: I awoke at 5 am one morning to the sound of thunder rolling in the distance. I lay there quietly for a while, listening intently to be sure that the storm was coming our way before waking Harry to help me move the tent to a more sheltered location. When we awoke again at 9 am and the storm still hadn’t passed, we began to worry. A morning thunderstorm is unusual on the Prairies and a parade of storm cells that lasts several hours is a particularly inauspicious sign. We checked the forecast on my phone, discovered a rainfall warning in effect for the area and decided to make a break for nearby Lumsden to wait out the bad weather.
We’re glad that we did. Over the past 48 hours, we’ve been under rainfall, thunderstorm, wind, hail and tornado warnings, with winds gusting up to 100 kilometers per hour and more than 12 centimeters of precipitation. We’ve watched most of this weather from the comfort of a suite in a cute little bed and breakfast located near the centre of town. Several times, we’ve discussed how lucky we were to be so close to a town when the weather changed; had we been somewhere else along the river, we would not likely have been able to find a safe and comfortable place to wait out the storms.
The genie story always bears a clear warning: be grateful for what you have. Now that we’ve stopped wishing, it seems that our luck has changed. We’ll be back on the River tomorrow with a forecast for sunny skies, and we’ll do our best to enjoy whatever the river brings our way.
July 16, 2015
Spending time along the rivers and lakes of Saskatchewan has given us a very different perspective on the province. Far below the cultivated fields, dotting the banks and shores of waterways, lay Saskatchewan’s Regional Parks: a series of isolated little gems where locals and vacationers from across the country gather during summertime.
Saskatchewanians love their parks like no other Canadians we’ve seen; this love is reflected in the care and dedication that local communities invest in Regional Parks. Unlike National or Provincial Parks, Regional Parks are planned, funded, developed, managed and maintained primarily by Boards of volunteers from local communities. As a result, each one has its own unique character.
We encountered our first Regional Park entirely by chance. Curious at the discovery of a group of recreational vehicles (RVs), and hungry for ice cream, we paddled up to find Eston Riverside Park on the bank of the South Saskatchewan River. Under the shade of big, old cottonwood trees, we found a bustling facility that hosts a campground, public swimming pool, golf course and adorable concession stand that offers food and drinks at prices not seen in Vancouver since the 1970s. Even mid-week, the place was full up with kids and their parents.
Several days later, near the end of another balmy afternoon, we spied another cottonwood grove. Harry, having become attuned to the signs of a forthcoming slushie, was convinced that if we paddled over, we would find another park. And so it was that we located Cabri Regional Park on Lake Diefenbaker. Lorraine Harrington, a manager, explained how even she had not heard of the park before the job posting became available, despite growing up only an hour away by car. Like Eston Riverside, Cabri Regional Park boasts a concession booth where hungry paddlers can find cold and hot snacks, including a local delicacy called “Taco-In-A-Bag.” Once again, the park was filled with young families enjoying the beach and camping facilities.
Once we had become more familiar with what Lake Diefenbaker has to offer, we were keen to check out Prairie Lake and Palliser Regional Parks. At Prairie Lake, we found a friendly little community with great pride in its recreational fishing opportunities. Jocelyn and Brian Keith, a retired farming couple with a long history in the area, described how the demography of their park has changed from primarily male retirees toward a mix of younger families and grandparents who enjoy the peace, quiet and excellent walleye fishing that their part of the lake has to offer. They shared fresh veggies, cold drinks and some of their caught walleye with us to enjoy that evening.
And yesterday, we arrived at Palliser Regional Park, near the east end of Lake Diefenbaker. Once again, Palliser offers a completely different experience, with a larger, more established campground, golf course, public pool and marina as well at the tasteful Mainstay Inn, with its restaurant and cabins. Geraldine Silvester, Chair of the Palliser Regional Park Board, described to us how each park operates a little bit differently. Palliser, for example, is overseen by a Board of representatives from each of the communities and municipalities that founded the park back in 1962. The park’s approximately $1 million operating budget is generated primarily through camping fees. With the number of weekend visitors regularly reaching 4,000 people, filling up the campground is no problem; the bigger issue is growing their infrastructure to meet increasing demand. While some Regional Parks are content to remain at their current size, the Board of Directors for Palliser would like to continue to expand in order to welcome more visitors in future years.
An intensive search of Google Maps may not reveal the locations of Saskatchewan’s Regional Parks; you have to know where to look for them. But these local vacation hotspots are worth checking out. From weekly pancake breakfasts to farm fresh produce stands, the atmosphere of community is palpable and the entertainment affordable. It’s no wonder that residents of towns across the Prairies are filling up waitlists for seasonal or annual campsite and cabin leases. They’re a great escape from life in bigger towns and cities.
July 11, 2015
The most challenging part of canoeing is not the physical endurance, but the patience that is required. Each day’s progress is determined by three things — current, wind and weather — all of which are entirely beyond our control.
I thought I had learned this well enough during our first month on the river. In that first month, there were days when, determined to cover more ground, I resolved paddle hard all day long.
“I’m going to paddle moderately hard today,” I announced to Harry that first day of tireless ambition. I had hoped that this annoucement would incent a similar paddling ethic from him. After all, I didn’t want to be breaking my back all day while he cruised along behind me, enjoying the fruits of my labour.
“OK,” he agreed.
“Are you going to paddle similarly hard?” I prodded, unsatisfied with his response.
“Yep,” he said. “I’m paddling hard.”
Now satisfied that we were in this effort together, I continued on, checking back occasionally to make sure that he was keeping his promise.
“Are you still paddling hard?” I asked sweetly, craning my neck to cast a watchful eye in his direction.
“Yep, still paddling hard,” he assured me.
By the end of the day, we had achieved a meager four kilometers more distance than our previous day’s effort.
“How could we only have gone 35 kilometers?” I groaned in disbelief.
“Well, think about it,” he reasoned. “The boat, with us and all our gear, weighs at least 750 pounds. If we paddle hard we gain an extra, what, one or two kilometers per hour?”
He had a point: whether we push hard all day or take our time, our progress remains influenced mainly by factors that are beyond our control. On a good day, with favourable conditions, the best we can do is spend longer on the water if we want to paddle further. On a bad day, when we find ourselves battling a weak current, headwind or inclement weather, we are lucky if we make any progress at all.
We thought we understood this, but the river never misses a chance to teach us a lesson. Yesterday, as we set out to paddle our first stretch of Lake Diefenbaker, from Cabri Regional Park to Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, we felt patient and ready for the challenge of a long paddle into a moderate headwind. We would get there at some point, we figured; we might as well enjoy the day.
But around dinnertime, as the park finally came into view, the waves picked up and we were forced to pull the canoe to shore. What meager progress we had the patience to accept suddenly ground to a halt.
We decided to portage along the shore, through a muddy cattle pasture, to a more protected area, and carry on from there. The whole process took an hour and a half and gained us less than a kilometer toward our final destination. To be close enough to see the park, but unable to reach it, tested our patience more than we were prepared for. To make matters worse, upon arriving at the area of the park that we could see from a distance, we learned that the park office lay several kilometers further down the lake.
We did reach our destination that day, pulling up to the shore just short of the park entrance as night fell. And with the help of some friendly Conservation Officers, we were able to transport our canoe and all of our gear to one of the only remaining campsites, located on far side of the park. But experience reinforced our appreciation of our lack of control and the importance of patience in any situation.
July 2, 2015
As we paddle along the South Saskatchewan River, we can’t help but think of the indigenous peoples and explorers who lived and travelled through this area many years before us.
The South Saskatchewan River Basin was inhabited for more than 10,500 years by people who, like us, camped along the river valley. They migrated seasonally between the valley and the Plains above and hunted bison and other large mammals.
Peter Fidler, who ventured here in search of beaver pelts in 1800, described painful encounters with the local prickly pear and pincushion cactus, which we have also come to know all too well. The Palliser Expedition conducted the first scientific exploration of the
area in 1859, followed by the arrival of the Northwest Mounted Police in 1873. A member of the Canadian Pacific Railway party that travelled here in the fall of 1881 reported that their horses had become trapped in the same deep clay and mud through which we have sloppily dragged our canoe ashore. These things have changed little since the time of their writings.
Some things, however, are markedly different. For example, the Northwest Mounted Police described herds of bison thundering through the valley and swimming the river. These bison have long since been hunted to extinction since European settlement. Dr. Hector, of the Palliser expedition, described startling several grizzly bears as they travelled and camped throughout the valley. Aside from old bones buried deep within the sands and gravels of the hillsides, these species have long since vanished.
But the valley remains home to many species of wildlife, including several that are listed as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern by provincial and federal organizations. We have shared our campsite with an Endangered northern leopard frog, watched pelicans and double-crested cormorants fish along the river and heard the cry of Prairie falcons on the high bluffs, to name a few.
While some things have been lost from this landscape forever, much remains unchanged. Far below the prairie farms and fields lies a whole other world that is seldom visited by humankind.
June 30, 2015
Yesterday afternoon, as we paddled toward the Canadian Forces Base at Suffield, the air began to fill with smoke. We smelled it faintly at first, but within an hour it surrounded us, clouding the air and blocking out sunlight. We turned on the radio and listened for a news update: the smoke was being carried in on an east wind from Saskatchewan, where several wildfires were burning. Air quality warnings were in effect for Medicine Hat, Regina and several other towns in the area. People were being warned to keep windows closed and avoid spending time outdoors.
However, we had no option but to continue. We paddled to a spot on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River, across from the Base, and chose a campsite in a cottonwood grove. In such groves all along the River, there are networks of cattle and wildlife trails, clear of branches and with large, flat areas where the animals find shelter during hot summer days. Sure, there is cow dung just about everywhere, but you can’t have it all when you’re camping. We set our tent up beneath the canopy of leaves (on a blissfully dung-free patch of dirt), cooked dinner on a small fire and crawled into our sleeping bags.
But smoke was not all that blew our way that evening: around midnight, we awoke to a low roll of thunder and the sound of rain drops on the tent fly. Having been warned about the hazards of prairie thunderstorms, we treat them with a great deal of precaution, making sure that our canoe is tied up and all equipment secured before retreating under shelter to wait for them to pass.
On this night, we realized that we are not alone in our cautious approach: as the storm drew nearer, a whole host of prairie animals began to assemble quietly beneath the protection of the cottonwood trees. First, a Nuttall’s cottontail rabbit nibbling gingerly near one corner of the tent; then, the snap of a branch under a mule deer’s hoof a little further off. One by one, they came; all party to a silent understanding that this secret space was to be shared in times of adversity.
It was an incredible feeling to be part of that wild prairie community in that moment; to share in their secret.
June 25, 2015
June 24, 2015
When we were planning this trip, one aspect of it seemed more shocking to our friends than any other: that it would be just the two of us, alone together almost every day, for two-and-a-half months. It seemed inconceivable to many people that we could spend all that time together.
In a sense, I can understand where they were coming from. There are a lot of quiet hours out there on the river. Having fallen into a comfortable routine, we can now shed some light on how it really feels to be out there all day, every day, with just one other person.
We started by entertaining ourselves and each other by singing songs. When we ran out of songs, we made terrible puns until we couldn’t even stand them ourselves. When the puns got boring, we began making up limericks about the wildlife we saw along the river. The transition from puns to poems seemed like a natural evolution.
Then, one day, we discovered the joy of the rechargeable radio and we can honestly say that there has been no turning back. We had originally purchased the radio, the TUF Freeplay, from MEC at the recommendation of Geoff and Pam MacDonald, who had paddled across Canada over the course of several years. They had suggested that we keep it on hand to listen for weather (and thunderstorm) updates from local radio stations as we travelled eastward.
We hadn’t even considered using it for casual, recreational listening until about a week into the trip. Since then, we’ve tuned into a local country music station every afternoon. We now know all the hits: from “Lips like Sangria” to “House Party,” know all the words.
Some backcountry camping purists may think that this type of technological encroachment into the wilderness experience is sacrilege. And maybe it is, but exploring in the digital age can be a very different experience than in the past. As we write this blog on our netbook, we’re sitting by our tent under a cottonwood tree. Each evening, we climb up the hillside to send Twitter and Facebook updates to our followers. Is it wrong that we aren’t shutting down all of our devices and disconnecting while we’re on this journey? Or does it help to remind the rest of the world through digital media that the wilderness is still out there and that it’s as important as ever?
What matters to us is that we’re still having a great time together. We haven’t been short of entertainment yet!
June 23, 2015
It’s our last day on the Bow River: a fitting time for an homage to the wildlife we’ve seen so far on this trip. We’ve been truly
amazed at how many birds, bugs, fish and animals we’ve seen each day. All the prairie wildlife comes to the river to drink, nest, hunt or just cool off and play in the water. From the billions of tiny bugs that fill the air each evening to the Franklin’s Gulls that skimmed the water chasing after them all the way to Carseland, there have been too many to describe.
But there are a few encounters that have been truly memorable for us.
On our first day out of Calgary, we came upon a young moose standing in a shallow part of the river. It watched us approach and waited until we were quite close before it turned and splashed wildly up the bank. Once it had reached what it must have felt was the relative safety of the shore, however, curiosity took hold again and it plodded along beside us before the bank rose up again and it vanished from view.
Next, there were the beavers who, at first, we assumed were just as curious as the moose. How cute and inquisitive, we thought, when a beaver swam by to check out our campsite as dusk fell. We began to question its motives when it returned later that evening, coming ever closer to our site and raising its body out of the water so that we could observe its size. The Bow River beavers, it turns out, are rather large and territorial! We guarded our paddles closely that night, afraid that they may be stolen by a vengeful beaver. We were relieved to find all of our equipment untouched in the morning… despite a set of fresh beaver tracks nearby.
The Canada geese, too, were a species that we thought we knew well but have come to appreciate anew. Being June, there are hundreds of goslings on the river in groups chaperoned by one or two parents. Each time we approach such a group, we are treated to a “broken wing display” by the mother, who tries to draw our attention away from the youngsters by honking loudly and pretending that she is easy prey. We’ve seen so many such displays that it’s surprising they are still effective for distracting predators, like coyotes, that hunt along the river. While the mother makes her display, the goslings flee as fast as they can which, given that they cannot yet fly, is not very fast. Instead, they may swim with necks outstretched and heads held low to the water, dive beneath the surface or run awkwardly along the shore. The latter escape strategy is by far the most entertaining: wings outstretched for balance, they run like toddlers, occasionally tripping over their own feet. We’ve watched them run like this for hundreds of metres, sometimes scrambling up hillsides or tumbling down them, eventually plopping back into the water to join their brothers and sisters.
And today, we witnessed something truly rare and incredible when a six-foot long lake sturgeon swam right under our canoe in just two feet of water. We felt the powerful flick of its tail right through the bottom of the boat. Lake sturgeon are often referred to as a living fossil because the species has changed little over the past 100 million years. Both females and males only begin breeding after about age 20. The species is endangered but this particular population spawns around the Grand Forks area, where the Bow and Oldman Rivers join and become the South Saskatchewan River.
And of course, there are the coyotes that watch us from the river banks and sing us a lullaby each night from the hillsides. We’ve been lucky to see all of this wildlife, and much more, in just a couple of weeks on the Bow River. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be watching the banks of the South Saskatchewan; we’ll let you know what we find!
June 21, 2014
June 14, 2015
We knew when we started this trip that there would be highs and lows, but we never expected that they would come so early on. What a roller coaster this week has been.
We first put our paddles in the water at Lake Louise just over a week ago. From there, we had a leisurely float down the Bow River past Castle Junction to Johnston Creek canoe campground, then on to Banff the following day. The Banff townsite materialized suddenly, as if out of nowhere in the middle of the mountains. Our first portage of the trip, around Bow Falls, went smoothly, despite one of our water jugs rolling into the river and another being stolen from beside the pathway. From our map, we had expected to find a campground on the outskirts of town, but when we saw none we decided to paddle on to Bow River Campground just past Canmore. We followed the river along below the Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak, illuminated in the twilight, and arrived at the campground just as night began to fall. The campground was full, but a friendly couple allowed us to squat on the edge of their site for the night.
We awoke the next morning expecting that our day would be occupied by a long, painful portage around the Bearspaw, Kananaskis and Horseshoe Dams. Fate had other plans.
We put into the water after a lazy breakfast and floated along, reaching a fork in the river about a kilometer downstream from the campsite. We agreed that the right side of the fork looked like the correct route to follow. We swung around toward the outside of the fork to avoid a fallen tree in the river; what we didn’t notice was that the current was carrying us toward another tree jutting out from the left side of the riverbank.
We paddled hard to avoid it, but not hard enough. The tree caught Harry in the stomach and stopped the boat dead. Realizing we were in trouble, Harry tipped backward out of the canoe, hoping that would free it. It didn’t.
The canoe had become trapped on another branch. Harry watched helplessly from the water as the boat slowly listed to one side and flipped over, dumping Abby, our dog, and I into the frigid water.
I bobbed to the surface and looked around for Abby, but couldn’t see her. I quickly realized that she must be trapped under the boat. Screaming to Harry, I frantically tried to grab the bow of the boat and drag it toward shore, but the boat was heavy and the current was strong. Harry, much taller than I, swam underneath the boat and found that he could reach the river bottom. Grabbing the gunnel of canoe, he pushed up hard and managed to flip the boat right-side up.
I watched Abby bob out from beneath the boat, looking scared but unhurt. Knowing that we needed to regain control of the canoe, I pushed myself up out of the water and back into the heeavy boat. That I was able to do this from the side, without the canoe tipping, speaks to how heavy the canoe was when fully loaded with our gear. Once in the canoe, however, I could see that our situation was about to become much worse: ahead of us was a large log jam, stretching most of the way across the river.
Seeing that Abby was unable to climb up out of the water on her own, Harry hoised her up onto a nearby log before swimming back toward me and the canoe. I tried to paddle away from the logs, but it was no use. Once again, the canoe became trapped against a log. This time, however, water began to rush in over the sides. As the canoe swamped, I fell out again and was carried downstream toward another part of the log jam.
I remembered the advice I had learned about log jams during my training as a raft guide: approach feet first and then push yourself up and on top of the logs. Fortunately, I avoided any sharp branches and climbed out of the water unhurt. Harry was washed up onto the other side of the same log jam. Quickly but cautiously, we began removing what gear we could from the canoe and lifting it to safety on logs while the water rushed through the branches below. Once we had salvaged everything we could, Harry worked on trying to dislodge the canoe. With the current pushing hard against it, there was little he could do.
Once we realized that Harry would not be able to get the canoe unstuck on his own, we decided to call for help. We were trapped in the middle of the river, with freezing cold water flooding through the trees all around us. Luckily, the dry bag with our valuables, including my cell phone, had been accessible and we had strong cellular reception. I phoned 911 and was patched through to the dispatcher in Canmore, who contacted Alberta Public Safety in Kananaskis. Again, we were lucky, because we were able to change into dry clothes and keep warm while we waited. The rescue boat arrived in less than 30 minutes and plucked us all out of the dangerous situation.
We lost our canoe, tent and gear barrel, but we were lucky to make it out alive. We spent the next several days staying with friends in Calgary while we worked with locals, guides from Canadian Rockies Rafting and Canmore Fire Rescue to see if any more of our gear could be retrieved. Several people went out to the log jam but the water was still too high to get close enough to the canoe.
When we finally accepted that it could be a very long time before we got our canoe and the rest of our gear back, if ever, we began to collect borrowed and donated gear from some of the many people who offered to help us out. I started out feeling pretty low as we began the re-grouping effort. After all, this trip has been my dream for many years: this is not the way I had envisioned it unfolding. But as we met up with one person after another, their encouragement began to lift my spirits.
Finally, the night before we were scheduled to get back on the river, we made a trip to Mountain Equipment Co-op for some supplies. As I stood in the emergency supplies section, I looked up at a fellow who was entering the checkout line and was stuck with amazement: there, in front of me, stood my canoeing idol, Karsten Heuer. Karsten and his wife, Leanne Allison, made a documentary about their own canoe trip across Canada, which retraced the footsteps of Canadian author Farley Mowat. That he would appear before me the night before we restart our journey after a major setback was nothing short of incredible.
I told Karsten the story of our journey and our accident. He was familiar with the stretch of river where it had happened and supportive of our continuing. I wrote down his email address and promised to send him updates.
Yesterday, nearly a week after the accident, we made it back onto the river. We were all still a bit shaken, but nevertheless eager to continue on our journey. Geoff MacDonald, who completed his own journey across Canada by canoe with his wife Pam just two years ago, loaned us his canoe and saw us off at the river. It was a fitting end to our week: to begin our journey anew with the support and well wishes of other dedicated Canadian paddlers. We are looking forward to what adventures lie ahead.
Special thanks to Jess and her crew at Canadian Rockies Rafting, Steve Westlake from Canmore Fire Rescue, Dan van Hout and Geoff MacDonald for helping us out and to Tavis Ford for putting us up for the duration of our stay in Calgary.
June 4, 2015
All our bags are packed, we’re ready to go
This is it: the last day before we leave for our cross-country canoe trip.
We’re here in Alberta staying with Harry’s family. Tomorrow, his mother will drive us down to Lake Louise and drop us off east of the townsite at a spot along the Bow River where we’ll put the canoe in the water and begin our journey!
Looking back from this point, preparing for both the trip and the wedding was even more work than either of us had imagined. Would we do it differently if we could? Absolutely not.
The most difficult part of the trip planning was preparing the food and supplies to be mailed to our re-stocking locations. (Luckily for me, this was Harry’s job!) Once we had mapped out the stops along our route based on an estimated 40 kilometers of paddling per day, we made a schedule of where and when we will pass through towns and what types of supplies are available. We noted a couple of locations that will be the last stops before several day-long stretches with no access to towns or grocery stores. In the prairies, many of the towns marked on the map are ghost towns, with no shops, houses or any inhabitants at all!
We prepared two packages: the first, we mailed to our friends’ house in Calgary, Alberta; the second, to Douglas Provincial Park, Saskatchewan. Since these packages will contain all of our supplies for up to twelve days, we had to make sure they contained all the important things we will need, like meals (including dog food!), sunscreen, bug spray and soap. Did we remember it all? We’ll find out when we get there!
Luckily, during the first week of our trip we will pass through Banff, Canmore, Cochrane and Calgary, so if we have forgotten anything important we can make a stop in town and go to a store. By the time we get past Calgary and out into the open prairies, we should have everything we need.
Harry and I have allowed ourselves a few small indulgences for the trip: I’ve packed three waterproof journals and pencils, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and a tiny guitar I picked up for $5 at a thrift shop. Harry has chosen to bring a sketch pad and pencils, Hugh Brody’s Maps and Dreams and a fishing rod. We’ll share joint custody of a brand new hackey sack; though, neither of us has played in several years. I’m told that Harry has packed a few treats and surprises in the re-supply boxes as well.
Before we get on the river tomorrow, we’ll treat ourselves to some scoop ice cream in Lake Louise. It’s the little things we’ll miss the most.
April 15, 2015
“You’re the only bride I know who would plan a canoe trip for the three months right before your wedding!”
I couldn’t disagree. A wedding in another province (Alberta), and a reception in yet another (Ontario), is plenty to occupy your mind without shifting back-and-forth to canoe trip logistics.
When my parents first heard of our whirlwind summer plans, they were understandably doubtful.
“Do you think that, maybe, you should just do it next year?” my mother asked.
“No, we want to have the wedding this year, because we want to make sure that everyone can come,” I replied, assuming that she was referring to the wedding. She wasn’t.
“Well, we know a married couple who sailed around the world. When they finished the trip, they got divorced,” she cautioned. Still, I wasn’t sure I could see the benefit of waiting until after we were hitched to learn that we couldn’t stand each other’s company for a full three months.
The wedding itself will be a weekend-long festival at a family ranch, with home-cooked meals on both nights. We are thrilled to have the chance to spend so much time with our family and friends and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but sometimes it all feels like a bit much.
Our breakfast table conversations commonly go something like this:
Me: “Did you ask your uncle if my mother can use his kitchen for an entire day before the wedding to bake a three-tiered carrot cake?”
Harry: “I figure we’ll ask him when we see him. Do you think we should bring a hacksaw or a hatchet, or both?”
We are having two very different conversations at once which, obviously, can be confusing, and must be navigated skillfully.
“I think we should just bring the hacksaw,” I reply carefully, watching his response to make sure that we are, in fact, talking about the same thing.
Last week, I reached a low point. I had been increasingly losing sleep as, each night, I lay in bed mentally reviewing my “to do” lists for both adventures. At least one night each week, I would wake up at 3 am and work on the lists and schedules on my iPhone of what we needed to buy and prepare and when it all needed to happen leading up to our June departure date.
One night, the restlessness began as soon as I got into bed. I knew it would be a long night.
I can’t remember what Harry said, but I can remember my response: “Well, you’re not stressed because you have no idea how much work there is to do before we leave.”
I heard myself speaking in the firm, matter-of-fact manner that is reserved for those special occasions when I am putting everything I have into not completely losing my shit. I was suddenly aware of the toll all this planning was taking and knew that I owed it to both of us to do something about it.
After a few moments, I continued, my tone softening a bit. “I need you to take ownership of something. I can’t carry all of this; it feels like too much.”
“Well,” he began carefully. “It might be easiest for me to handle the canoe trip planning.” He looked at me to gauge whether I was about to explode in a ball of feminist rage and self-righteousness. When nothing happened, he continued: “You already know where we are at with the wedding planning, so I could make a list of everything we will need for the canoe trip.”
His plan sounded reasonable; I agreed.
We both tossed and turned that night, waking up periodically to check and update our lists. At breakfast the next morning, my fiancé looked at me anxiously. “We have a lot to do before we leave!” he said.
I looked back at him and smiled. “We sure do,” I said.
And I was reminded again, for about the millionth time, exactly why I’m marrying him.