Archive for January, 2012

July 26, 2009 South Saskatchewan River Canoe Trip

January 16, 2012

Day 2 of 5

We gambled and set up the tent without the rain fly, which paid off considering the warm night and lack of rain. We had a restful sleep, waking up when the sun was well above the horizon.

[Although we didn’t have a watch on the trip, and this had its benefits, I realize now in hindsight the photos have the time embedded, so I have occasionally added for the sake of my own interest, as I’m sure no one else cares to know!].

Waking up at Lemsford Ferry Regional Park (6:20 a.m.)

We were on the water by around maybe 8 or 9 am. We managed to haul the gear down the steep embankment without dropping anything in the water (barely). It started off looking like another warm day, but grew cloudy later in the morning and cooled off. For me this was perfect paddling weather. The scenery was similar, but with less cropland (and thus less irrigation pumps) and more pasture land in the river valley. Soon there would be only pasture land near the river.

Native prairie pasture flanking the south shoreline (9:30 a.m.)

A north wind blew some ominous looking clouds which produced some light scattered rain, for which we put our rain jackets on and off a few times. We were concerned about lightning, but the thunder and lightning appeared far off and infrequent. We hugged the north shore for shelter from the wind plus marginal lightning protection with large balsam poplar trees along the north shore.

North wind builds, bringing thunder clouds (9:30 a.m.)

While hugging the shore we passed under a branch of a large dead tree with a bald eagle standing on an upper branch, directly above our path on the water. I watched in fascination, and then unease as he eyed us confidently and did not fly away as I thought he would. Just as we passed under him, hardly 5 metres from him (could nearly see pupils of his eyes), he flew off across the river, an awe inspring and majestic flight.

It was this morning we learned the unusual characteristic of the river in terms of shallow and deep areas. We were following the north shore to avoid wind and potential lightning and inadvertently discovered that the river tended to be more shallow toward the middle of the river and deeper along shore. The bottom of the river is completey invisible, since the water is opaque with sediment. So we were initially guessing blindly where the seemingly random deep areas were, testing the depth occasionally with our paddles. We also watched for the periodic visible sand bars and islands that usually indicated shallow water, or partially submerged weeds/plants.

When about to round a point, we veered out toward the middle of the river and hit bottom in about 15 cm of water (6″). As we continued to attempt to get closer to the middle of the river, thinking it would
get deeper, we found the same shallow water, if not worse, to the point where we had to get out and drag the canoe to continue. The current threatened to tip the unstable canoe as it rocked on its keel on the shallow silt/sand bottom.

Beached! Figuring out the puzzle of river depth patterns

We grew frustrated until we decided to try heading back along shore where we came from. To our surprise, only about 30 feet (9 m) from shore, the bottom suddenly dropped off. We almost slid down the sudden invisible drop-off into the water. We jumped back in the canoe and found at around 15 feet (5 m) from shore, the bottom dropped off beyond the reach of our paddles when pushed into the water full length! This felt bizarre considering the wide width of the river, often more than 100 metres across. We found over time this invisible channel typically ran along both shorelines, though it sometimes petered out and disappeared.  However, overall it was only 2 times we had to get out and drag the canoe over a shallow spot after this. If the river level was much lower, this would have occurred much more frequently.

Between the canoe and shore, the depth suddenly drops beyond 5 ft depth! (11am)

By around 11:30 am we reached the second (and last) active ferry on our trip, the Lancer Ferry crossing, north of Lancer, SK. We got the time from the ferry operator. He was less talkative than the last ferry operator. We talked for 20 minutes or so (no cars) then continued on. We debated stopping for lunch at a small picnic table by the ferry, but with the wind now from the northwest and behind us, we decided to take advantage and drift with the wind and current while eating. We wanted to cover some distance in case the weather turned for the worse and we were grounded for a day or two. The clouds grew less ominous and it became optimum paddling weather with light clouds and winds (my skin tends to sunburn quickly, so prefer some cloud cover).

We aimed to check out Eston Riverside Regional Park as a possible camping location. At a bend in the river before the park the river suddenly became wide and very shallow. The deep channels along the shorelines disappeared. We ended up beaching and dragging the canoe until it was too shallow to budge it (keep in mind the canoe likely weighed a total of maybe 300 pounds without us in it).

We scouted the channel depth ahead on foot. We were only about 10 or 15 feet from a deeper channel, but could not get the canoe over to the channel. We tried to dig a trench in the silt/sand in front of it, but the current kept collapsing our digging efforts. Eventually we dug a trench deep and wide enough,
with our feet, to drag the canoe into deep water. At this point we had reached the beginnings of the river delta area where the current slowed as it entered Lake Diefenbaker. The current was still quite strong for the next 20 or 30 km, as the lake level was somewhat lower than maximum at the time.

This was the last time  we beached the canoe and had to drag it, as from this point forward we managed somewhat by intution and perhaps lucky guesses, to find the deep hidden channels within the river. We enjoyed this added challenge. Clues included watching the water surface for the fastest moving current, plus imagining where the laws of momentum would take the bulk of the water as it twisted and turned around bends.

We reached Eston Riverside Regional Park around 2 pm. I stepped out to take a look around
while Sarah napped in the canoe (we anchored it to a large stick sunk deep into the mud and reinforced with rocks). The park was primarily a collection of cottages ranging from small plywood shacks to extravagant multi-level mansions, nothing like what we saw at Lemburg Ferry Regional Park. This was obviously a getaway for some that lived and worked as far as Saskatoon.  It almost seemed surreal after being away from such sights for even the short time we had been on the river. The park was evidently heavily irrigated, as it was full of lush trees and grass, and obvious oasis in the semi-arid climate.

There was an outdoor swimming pool full of adults and kids, canteen with the typical confectionery wares, and a small RV park on the side, at least half to two thirds full of RV’s, campers and trailers, and maybe the odd tent (about 50 sites total according to website).

After a 20 minute walk around the cottages to stretch my legs and get a feel of the place, I returned to the canoe. We decided to keep on going and find a wilderness campsite. Partly because this park felt too developed, busy and noisy, and partly because it was a long paddle from Eston to Cabri Regional Park which we planned to check out next.

We left around 2:30 pm and passed some cottagers/campers canoeing and kayaking near a boat launch. They did not seem interested to visit and did not care to advise us that our initial routing north of a large “island” would end up being a dead end. The paddlers did not seem to venture much farther than 1 km from the boat launch. We soon had the river to ourselves, which would continue until reaching Lake Diefenbaker near Cabri Regional Park the next day. We never passed any other canoe trippers the entire trip.

At this point we were passing what was shown on the map as a large undeveloped area to the south, a community pasture of native prairie, about 12 by 8 miles in size, with no developed roads shown on the map. This area had the most “wild” and isolated feel of the overall trip.

We saw many cows, but no humans at all, except once someone on a dirt-bike in the far distance, likely checking on the cattle. At one point we heard but could not see construction equipment, which I guessed were digging a gravel pit in the gravelly hills to the south.

We also saw funny triangular signs, (often with bullet holes in the them) along the hills adjacent to the river shorelines. At first we thought these were placed by the ranchers to mark popular watering holes the cows visited, so they could find the animals to check on them. But the signs were not consistently placed at what appeared to be common watering holes. We later learned these were placed by government surveyors to mark the property line of crown land along the river and private land beyond. Although we did not realize this at the time, we never did venture beyond the signs onto private land, as there was plenty of shoreline space for stopping.

The wind was behind us and we made good progress. A highlight of the trip was to discover on this  afternoon a section of river abundant with unique water birch (Betula occidentalis, also known as Red Birch) along the shores and on the little islands, in some places the water birch were more than half the trees along shore. We only saw these trees along this section of the river.

Dense Water Birch groves flanking both shores (incl’d large island on left)(3pm)

The groves of birch looked inviting so we decided to stop and explore inside a grove. From a distance
they looked like an inviting place to set up camp, but turned out to be full of cow manure and some cow bones (we think). Obviously the cows thought the groves looked inviting as well for protection from both hot and cold, as well as for wallowing in the mud for relief from flies and mosquitoes.

Inside a grove of Water Birch (Betula occidentalis) (4pm)

As we drifted further, we decided to take a break while drifting with the now quite strong tail wind. We ate a quick pre-supper and Sarah read from a book while we drifted without paddling. After an hour break, the sun started to turn organgish and hang lower. We started hunting for a campsite in earnest, first along the south shores. They were either very open (little trees), or thick with waist high rosebushes. We saw a sandy escarpment along the north shore and headed there. It
turned out to be a perfect site.

The embankment provided a nice sandy dock, which allowed us to pull the canoe in parallel to shore without beaching it. We anchored the canoe and unloaded. We threw the gear up a ~6′ high bank and found a perfect place for the tent nestled between a small hill (2 metres high) on the east and a willow bluff (8 ft high willows) on the west.

Unloading at an idyllic sand dock (7:20 p.m.)

We saw some cows further upstream and were at first concerned they might trample through the campsite as their trails passed somewhat close, but we never saw them again after setting up. We encountered bulls later in the trip, but fortunately not here.

But we did jump when we heard a coyote howl loudly at very close range, likely 50 feet or so, just behind the hill on the east side of camp. Soon after a pack of coyotes howled in the distance from a group of trees several hundred metres north. Instantly, the instincts of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors came alive. Adrenaline was pumping. I grabbed a large stick and Sarah’s hand as we crept around the hill to see where the coyote may be hiding. I’d rather surprise the coyote, then have it surprise us. Expecting to meet at the top of the hill, we were relieved to see the lone coyote running across the prairie toward his hidden pack in the distant trees. I’m not sure if he knew we were there or not.

While a somber reminder we shared the land with other mammals, we felt a new sense of awe, wonder and connection with the land and place. It was at this time we started to feel some of the connection with the natural world, and disconnection with the civilized, that I find so refreshing and what makes the extra work of such a trip seem worthwhile.

We also saw a beaver nonchalantly chewing on willow branches along shore, about 50 feet downstream of camp along shore. He did not seem to mind us watching him. We made it to bed just as the sun was setting.

Day 1 and 2 Map

See next post for the next portion of map for Day 2.

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