July 25, 2009 South Saskatchewan River Canoe Trip

Day 1 of 5

I woke up earlier than the rest of the family and browsed pamphlets about local sites at the adjacent convenience store while waiting for them to wake up. Ate breakfast, packed up and hung out waiting for the parents to arrive with the canoe.

THE CANOE  is an old 1970’s fiberglass family canoe (manufactured in St. Maurice, Quebec). It was purchased from Sears in 1974. A few stats for future reference as we consider purchasing our own canoe:

* Canoe length: 16′
* Maximum width: 36″
* Depth at center to top of thwarts: 12-1/2″
* 1″ Aluminum Gunwale (around top edge)
* Weight: 75-80 pounds

The canoe has little rocker (flat bottom front to back), a mostly flat-bottomed cross-section and keel front to back. This makes the canoe stable and slow to turn. Good for wind and large water bodies, not so good for maneuverability and speed (i.e. not a whitewater canoe). Considering we were traveling downstream in a potentially windy prairie environment with a beginner paddler, it served its purpose well. Low (no) cost was a bonus as well.

The parents stayed at a hotel in Swift Current the night before. Parents arrived around 10am, drove down to the river down the old garbage dump road. The road was flanked on each side by scenic native prairie pastures, becoming a rarity as the native prairie is modified to cropland or alternative grass pasture. Loaded and launched canoe, leaving daughter with grandpa & grandma.

Approaching Highway 21 Bridge (11:30 am)

Ate lunch while paddling on the river (bannock, trail mix, etc).  It was a very hot afternoon, about 32 Celsius (90 F). Heat is not so much of a challenge if there is some wind. Cycling produces its own wind, but paddling produces little. Considering there was very little wind, we had to drink lots to minimize dehydration and heat exhaustion.

We jokingly measured time/distance in units of irrigation pumps, usually passing one every half hour or so initially. We saw a lot of wildlife, including pelicans and a female moose with a young one. In the semi-arid climate, the river attracted most animals in the area. As a result, we saw more wildlife than I have typically seen canoeing in the boreal forest up north.

Cow Moose and Calf (just before disappearing into the trees, honest!)

The river was typically flanked with balsam poplars and occasional willow trees on each side. Behind the trees was pasture and farmland on the valley bottom behind, but this was not very visible. We occasionally saw the outline of a farm yard through the trees. Because of the trees and river banks, the river had a more isolated and wild feel than it really was. This was in some ways the best of both worlds, the appearance of being immersed in the natural world with help not far away if needed.

Pelican (1:30 pm)

We saw many cattle napping in shade of the trees or coming to the river for water. We passed an abandoned ferry crossing, with a concrete ramp on each side, used by local farmers for irrigation pump access.

I had read on the internet to beware of hidden rip rap (large rocks) placed under water along former ferry crossings. The rip rap was used to help buoy up the ferries when the water level was low.  We did not see any rip rap and the river was plenty deep for canoes along this section.

We paddled without much of a rest until reaching the operational six-car ferry adjacent to Lemsford Ferry Regional Park around 4 pm. We had travelled about 30 km east-west as the crow flies, possibly about 35 or 40 km(?) considering bends in the river. There was signs along the river for the ferry, but no sign for the regional park, so we weren’t sure where it was or if it was open (some regional parks shown on maps are now abandoned).

Lemsford Ferry, Photo by Dr. Dennis Lehmkuhl in August 2009 (1)

The ferry operator was friendly and I visited with him while Sarah went to check if the regional park was open and where was the best place to beach the canoe, as the banks of the river were fairly steep along this section. The ferry operator was a local rancher/farmer who worked the ferry on the side. He knew all the car drivers pulling up as the ferry carries local traffic only, for the most part. He told stories while waiting for cars about how the water level has at times come up as high as six feet overnight, leaving the ferry out in the middle of the river, or vice-versa, leaving the ferry beached. When beached they have to get a tractor with cable to pull it back into the water.

There are two ferry crossings at this location which they use alternatingly depending on the water level. There are sand/silt-bars that come and go in the middle of the river, sometimes causing the ferry to beach in mid-river. If the sandbars are an obstruction, the ferry is moved to the other location.

Lemsford Ferry Crossing, Photo by Dr. Dennis Lehmkuhl in August 2009 (1)

The shores of the river here were silty and mucky, and soon the canoe floor was too. We had to canoe back upstream so we could cross the submerged ferry cable further out in the river. The cable position used to be elevated above the water a few feet, but it is now submerged to allow boaters to get through with greater ease and safety.

The only hint of the regional park was two women sitting in lawn chairs submerged waist-deep in the river, next to a crude boat launch. The boat launch was essentially a narrow (one vehicle width) path through the bush into the river. We later heard from the campground employee that one of the women felt a submersed snake slide over her leg while it floated/swam downstream, which quickly got them out of the water!

There was no beach at the regional park, just some rocks in the water at the base of a steep bank about 10 to 15 feet high. The regional park sole employee helped pull our canoe and gear up at the suggested docking location. We had to make two or three attempts to get the canoe to shore with the relatively strong current and our lack of experience maneuvering in a current. Like a lot of prairie infrastructure far from urban centers,  the regional park appeared to have seen better days. I guessed it was built in the 1960’s to 1970’s with minimal maintenance since.

UPDATE: The website for the park indicates it officially opened in 1967 and provincial government assistance withdrawn in 1996:


The park consisted of a picnic area near the river with old picnic tables and fire pits, an old swimming pool empty and out-of-service (with grass and I think some trees growing in it), a baseball diamond overgrown with weeds, unpainted concrete block washrooms/changerooms, and a rustic plywood snack shack that was open periodically when the store employees/owners were not fishing. There was a collection of about 20 fishermen shacks (very basic) adjacent to the park. While the park was a bit more rustic and sparse than we expected, it was all that we needed. And the price was right at $10 for one night.

We made supper at a picnic table near the trees that line the river. Supper included bannock mixed from a flour/baking powder mix we took along and smokies fried in a frying pan with the camp stove. We regretted not bringing more fresh fruit, especially apples which generally travel well. At least three pieces of fresh fruit each per day would have been ideal, instead of the one I packed (thinking dried fruit generally adequate).

We took turns showering and cooking. The shower was much needed, washing silt covered feet especially. The shower consisted of three shower heads attached to bare copper pipes along a bare cinder-crete block wall. I was worried at first there would be no hot water, but the hot water supply was sufficient.

Supper felt like a lot of work after a long, hot day, cooking over a hot stove. In hindsight we should have cooked more of the bannock at home and packed it along (note for next time). The campground employee came and talked while we cooked, he seemed lonely as the park does not seem to get many visitors. He is not likely paid much.

He used to live in Alberta on the Little Red Deer River and told us about meeting canoeists while fishing and inviting them to camp on his property. He had a wicker cowboy hat and advised us to get wicker hats rather than our cotton tilly hats as the wicker is much cooler and more comfortable in the heat (note for next time).  He used to work in a trade (I think?) but is no longer able to because of his health. He confirmed reports of bull snakes being common, but rattle snakes less so.

The bull snakes apparently are not poisonous, they just have sharp teeth and will bite to defend a perceived threat (i.e. innocent human about to step on them unknowingly).

He told us we were the fifth or sixth canoeists to come down the river this year. One group was a father & daughter who came from Calgary (about one week?) and planned to canoe to Ontario. They had a screen tent they set up, ate and slept in. Another group was some Europeans canoeing from the Rockies to (?). The campground employee generously gave us some drinking water from his store-bought supply.

We bought a large bag of ice at the fishing shack/store for our cooler as the freezer packs we had were already warm. It was one of the last bags they had! In hindsight we should not have relied so much on the cooler for food preservation, as ice may not have been available.

We set up the tent as it was getting dark and the mosquitoes were now coming out in full force. I regretted not bringing a watch with me as we never quite knew what time it was. I checked the cell phone periodically but was paranoid about the batteries going dead so avoided this. I did not bring the cell phone charger, which again I should have done. Note this is the first canoe trip I have ever organized as an adult, so I have yet to develop tripping systems. My parents took care of the trip supplies planning on previous trips.

We set up the tent at a nice cozy spot in the trees near the edge of the river bank where we pulled the canoe up. There was evidence of past flooding with silty ground and bushes, water-logged picnic table (now dried out) and organic debris (branches, roots, etc) wrapped around the trees and bushes from the current during flooding.

Looking south from tent site, away from the river

Looking toward river from tent site as darkness falls and mosquitoes rise (9:15pm)

Overall on the trip we slept very well and tended to sleep in, which is unusual for me when camping. I think this is mainly due to the fact that we brought the deluxe 2 inch thick, full-body-length inflatable foam mattresses. These are pretty much as comfortable as a spring mattress. At least it feels that way after a day of physical activity. It is debatable if they were worth bringing though, because they took up significant room in the canoe and we ended up placing them upright in the canoe. This resulted in them catching a lot of wind and contributed to difficult steering during windy times. A smaller (i.e. one or 1.5 inch) partial-body-length, inflatable mattress may be the happy medium between the deluxe model and the not-so-great thin blue foamies we used to use on canoe trips.

On one hand I missed the more complete escape from civilization of previous wilderness trips, but on the other hand it was nice to have showers and potable water close by, especially considering the river was so silty and relatively polluted compared to the north.

According to Dr. Dennis Lehmkuhl’s website, there is an interesting high level of mayfly biodiversity observed at this site in August 2009. A more detailed report can be found at his website below:

(1) http://www.dennislehmkuhl.com/18601/184123.html

Quoted from website above:

The South Saskatchewan River at Lemsford Ferry, near the Alberta border is little impacted by dams, pulp mills, sewage, or effleuents, and I find that it is unique in the Saskatchewan River system.  It seems to be unique in the world. It has has a very diverse mayfly community that is not only a large number of species present, but also found are very unusual, rare, or otherwise unique species.  Many are shared with the Colorado River  system, some are eastern or mountain species, and the combination unusual. 

Found here are species of the genera  Ametropus, Lachlania, Isonychia, Raptoheptagenia, Macdunnoa,Traverella, Choroterpes, Acanthamola, and probably Pseudiron and Analetris.  Also present are the more common genera Ephoron, Heptagenia, Stenonema, Stenacron, many genera of Baetidae, plus Tricorythidae, and others.

The website includes many interesting details related to the general health of the South Saskatchewan River and threats to sustained biodiversity along the river.

Day 1

See end of the next post for rest of map from Day 1.


One Response to “July 25, 2009 South Saskatchewan River Canoe Trip”

  1. Garth Says:

    Thanks for this. I did this trip Aug 2011. Easy traveling. Estuary to Cabri Reg. Park in 3 days. Still water from just below Elrose so a little tougher. Not bad for 2 old guys. my cousin was 71 and I 69. Trying from grassy lake to Elrose this summer.

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