Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip

Anyone who has ever travelled anywhere by water knows that it is can be both a tremendously exciting and relaxing way to experience the world. Nevertheless, these a paddling trip requires a lot of preparation which can be intimidating for newcomers to water sports. So in this post I will try to help you wade through the muddy waters of canoe and kayak trip planning. Continue reading “Water Bliss: A Guide for Planning your First Paddling Trip”

Watching the River Flow

“If I had wings and I could fly, I know where I would go. But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly, and watch the river flow.” – Bob Dylan

In my last post, I wrote about music festivals being a classic summer pastime. One that’s a party that will keep you on your feet most of the day and up until the wee hours of the morning.

Canoeing is Zen on the Water

Another much more peaceful must-do summertime experience is canoeing. Studies show that being close to water improves your mood and health, and really what better way is there to spend a scorching hot summer day than by paddling down a peaceful river? With this in mind, Philip, my father and I embarked on a four day paddling adventure down the Red Deer River.

The Red Deer River
A Nice view for 4 days.

Paddling the Red Deer River

The first thing to consider when planning a canoe trip is your level of experience. It had been years since either Philip or I had been in a canoe on a river, so the Red Deer River Badlands paddle seemed like an ideal one that’s accessible to a lot of people. To illustrate just how easy it is, after gushing about it to my coworker, he took his wife and two kids on a similar stretch for an extended weekend trip. We relied a lot on this Paddle Alberta writeup for trip planning, as well as my dad’s advice since he is a very experienced paddler and has even led trips with dozens of teenagers on the North Saskatchewan River.

Following the Paddle Alberta itinerary, we picked up a kayak from Valhalla Pure Outfitters in Red Deer and loaded up my dad’s truck with our gear, his canoe and the rented kayak and headed to the Content Bridge which is East of Red Deer.

Dad had arranged for a (very good) friend to drive out to pick up his truck and come pick us up in it on the morning of the fourth day. As we learned, arranging the car shuttle is by far the most annoying part of canoe travel.

We loaded the canoe to the hilt and put in around 11am. We paddled a full day through forested hills and scenic canyons. Pelicans flew overhead and fish jumped in front of us as we made our way along in a state of sublime relaxation.

A Great View on the Water
Day One on the Water – A Great View

The biggest challenge on this stretch is a two sets of rapids about 2/3 of the way to the campground. The first set can be avoided by keeping to the left of the channel and the second set my dad I walked the canoe through. Philip went through both sets in the kayak which weren’t too technical.

Navigating rapids on the red deer river
Dad walks the canoe with all our gear around some rapids.

Eventually, near dusk we landed at an island across from the Trenville Park campground. The campground would be a great place for families to stay, but after spending a full day enjoying the tranquility of canoe travel, we preferred to maintain to have the island to ourselves. We set up a rustic camp, started a small fire and Philip cooked a delicious backcountry pizza. To our tremendous pleasure, we saw some fireflies lighting up the dark sky just before retiring.

Sunset on the Red Deer River
Last light on the Red Deer River from the island

Day Two – Paddling through the Alberta Badlands

The next morning we set off for the Tolman campground, over 35km away. It was a scorching hot day and it didn’t seem to matter how much we water we drank or how often we dipped our hats in the water, he could not stay cooled down. As the topography changed to Alberta’s unique badlands we jumped out on a small island in Dry Island Provincial Park to have a much needed swim.

The Badlands from the Red Deer River
Alberta’s unique Badlands come into view.

Feeling refreshed, we jumped back in the boats and continued paddling. The benefits of our dip quickly wore off and we found ourselves cooking in the sun again. Adding to the challenge, the water was very still during this stretch, so we weren’t moving very quickly. It made for really nice pictures though. Again, near dusk, we found the campground and set up for the night. Sadly, there were no fireflies at this campsite and the tent sites were very far away from the water, so we longed for our island from the night before.

Water like glass on the red deer river
Pictured: water looking like glass.

Day Three on the Red Deer River

From Tolman Campground, we headed for another long day to Bleriot Campground. I was excited to see the last of the Alberta ferries and the rumoured glut of fireflies at the campground. The weather was much cooler on the third day and we were happy when it rained on us, By then we were in a groove and seemed to paddle quickly and efficiently. There is the option of staying at the McKenzie Crossing campground, but again we didn’t really want to camp next to someone’s massive RV and listen to their loud generator after spending a blissful day surrounded by nature and water, hearing only birdsongs and water ripples from paddle strokes .

Only birds, water and paddlin’.

The Bleriot campground, although farther away, was very nice and more suited to our preferred style of camping. Arriving at dusk, which seemed to be our trademark, we set up camp and cooked all of our food save the oatmeal we had planned to eat in the morning.

Paddling at dusk
Paddling at dusk has its perks

Upon finishing dinner, I looked at my empty bowl a little forlornly and wished we had more food. Shortly after saying that, two hot dog angels appeared in our campsite and offered us their weiners that they said they would otherwise be throwing out. We gladly accepted their offering and scarfed them down. Although the campground delivered us a tremendous gift in the form of heavily processed meat (anything starts to sound good once you’ve been on the water long enough), it did not deliver on the promise of epic amounts of fireflies. I suspect it was a bit too early in the season for them (end of June). We were however, visited by an adorable baby cottontail rabbit that seemed to have very little fear of people.

Cute bunny at our campground
Cutest campground visitor.

On the morning of the fourth day, my dad’s friend drove his truck up from Red Deer and after a little convincing, agreed to let us treat him to a juicy 7-napkin burger at the delicious Bernie and the Boys Bistro in Drumheller via the Bleriot Ferry before taking us back to Red Deer.

The Red Deer River badlands paddle proved to be a wonderful initiation to the world of canoe-camping for us and we were so excited to canoe more that we took a fantastic and thorough 3 day course with the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre. After completing the course, we feel competent enough to canoe even without my awesomely outdoorsy woodsman dad and are hoping to do one of the U of C Outdoor Centre’s canoe expeditions next year. The guided expeditions are great because they provide the boats and most importantly, they take care of the annoying car shuttle logistics. That being said, we have rented canoes at the Glenmore Resevoir for a peaceful evening paddle in the middle of the city and have plans to run the Bow again as well as paddle a few of the beautiful mountain lakes nearby.

Paddling in the city
Paddling in the city.

Not only is paddling a canoe a surefire way to enjoy some summer Zen, it’s also a wonderful low-impact workout with many health benefits and a truly amazing way to see the world. I think it is safe to say that over the coming years, we will be spending many more sun-filled summer days padding in a canoe as long as the rivers flow.

 

Surviving the Nile on a Kayak at Night

After testing my courage the day prior by trying to kayak through white water rapids on the Nile, I decided that I loved kayaking but wasn’t so sure about the paddling through rapids business. I debated between taking a sunset yoga class and renting a river kayak for a peaceful cruise at dusk. Having these options available to me is yet another reason why the Nile River Explorers camp at Bujagali Falls is such an incredible place.

Philip and I decided to head into Jinja for lunch which meant taking our first boda boda ride. For the uninitiated, boda bodas are motorcycle taxis that every guide book tells you not to take in the introduction because they’re so dangerous, but then tells you that they’re pretty much your only option for getting around in some circumstances. This was the case for getting to Jinja from Bugujali Falls. With a little trepidation, our boda boda driver, also named Philip, told us to step on and took off. I chuckled to myself as I rode between Philip and Philip in a Philip sandwich of sorts.

While we clung on tight, Ugandan Philip told us how he thought the dam had hurt the people of Bujagali, rather than helped. He said that the government had promised that everyone in the village would get electricity, but it was years later and they hadn’t delivered and the electricity was being sold overseas. The dam removed the falls which generated a lot of steady income for locals, since tourists and locals would come to visit the falls and go white water rafting or kayaking year round. He told me that he wanted me to share this story, so I am now, although at the time my heart sunk because I felt like sharing it wouldn’t do much for him.

Once in Jinja, we worked out that he would stay and wait for us for a couple hours and then bring us back. Jinja was a cute small city, with a decent expat culture it seemed, but I think Jinja’s selling feature was it’s shopping. The shops had a lot of the same wares that we saw all over Uganda and Kenya, but for a lot less. The environment is much more relaxed there too since the shop owners won’t immediately go for a hard sell, like we found it to be in Kenya. If you want to bring some East African souvenirs back, I would highly recommend picking them up in Jinja.

Once back at Bujugali, we gave Ugandan Philip a good tip for waiting and asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture with Canadian Philip. He obliged, but couldn’t keep his eyes open for the picture. Must be a Philip thing.

Over here Philips

From there we decided that a rolex with avocado from a street stall and a beer on NRE’s beautiful patio were in order while we decided between sunset yoga and another kayak adventure. While we pondered this, we were joined by this truly beautiful specimen on the patio:

Blue beauty

After some liquid courage in the form of cold Nile Specials, I said that I thought I could do yoga anywhere but could only kayak the Nile on the Nile so Philip and I rented a river kayak for what was supposed to be a late afternoon/early evening cruise.

Heeding our kayak renter’s advice, we set out upstream first and paddled against the current to start our tour. We paddled around islands where birds seemed to be the only inhabitants and to the opposite bank where villagers were washing their laundry and filling up their water buckets. We remarked at how much easier it was to pilot a longer and wider river kayak than a shorter white water one. We never worried about tipping it once and paddling against a gentle river current was very easy compared to a white water rapid.

Not a care in the world a this point.

As dusk began to settle in, we finished the last drops of the Nile Special that we had smuggled on board and set to return. I insisted on trying to get a few shots where our kayak lined up perfectly with the reflection of the setting sun as we paddled back.

Success!

Pretty soon, we noticed that the dam was in front of us and we were losing light fast. When we set out, we had not seen the dam at all so something seemed amiss. We asked a couple local fishermen if they knew which way NRE was and they both pointed us toward the dam. We humoured them for a bit until we found a third fisherman who told us to go back the direction we came. Exasperated and somewhat scared, I suggested that we pull the kayak ashore and call the Kayak the Nile. When we got a hold of them, we advised that we were safe but that we weren’t exactly sure how to get back.

Trying to explain where we were on a dark river was next to impossible, so we were told to wait where we were for a rescue boat. Feeling rather silly, we waited sitting perfectly still on a river that yesterday had consumed us both in massive waves, but today in this spot, was as calm as could be. Fireflies started to glow along the shore and frogs began their nightly chorus. The scene was somehow both stressful and serene at once.

We waited for what seemed like a really long time until calling again and being told to follow the music. That sounded easy enough until we paddled closer to it, but it  started to seem like the music was bouncing off the opposite bank which made it difficult to tell where it was coming from. With a few more phone calls and some worried paddling, we finally found our way back to the NRE camp.

As it happens, we had made the classic river sport mistake of  underestimating how much faster we covered the same distance going downstream as we had gone upstream and overshot the camp on the way back. We insisted on giving the staff at Kayak the Nile a tip for their troubles and they kindly reassured us that we weren’t the first to get lost and all that mattered was that we were safe.

While it was stressful to feel temporarily adrift on the longest river in the world, we were in good hands and learned an important lesson that we can carry with us as we progress in improving our kayaking skills. I think that the Zen in this experience is learning to accept that you’re learning which means you will make mistakes. Ambitious, adventurous types like myself and Philip want to excel at everything right away but that is rarely possible and there is an opportunity to learn in almost every experience.

Our time at NRE and Kayak the Nile was brief and at times, harried (our own doing not theirs), but it was amazing enough to inspire us to continue kayaking and recommend Nile River Explorers and Kayak the Nile to anyone looking to kayak or go rafting in a truly beautiful spot. I know I hope to be back some day. 

Surviving the Nile on Kayak

I recently returned from a 5 week adventure in East Africa and people are constantly asking me what was the most memorable part of the experience. I struggle to answer it because the whole trip was amazing but also because travel is so personal.


What may have made the top of my list may not have been some one else’s idea of a good time. If I answer this question as honestly as possible, my most vivid memory is of white water kayaking on the world’s longest river. The first thing that comes to my mind is of course, the one that I have no pictures of. It is also the only time I have (somewhat intentionally) done something truly GoPro worthy (more on that later).

To get to Bujugali Falls from Kampala, my partner Philip and I took the free shuttle offered by Nile Rivers Explorers from Nakumatt Oasis Mall. The setting at Bujagali near Jinja, Uganda was exceptionally beautiful for learning to kayak and because the river is damned at that section, it is also very deep. This means that it is possible to attempt manoeuvring rapids on the river after very little instruction. My experience with kayaking is limited, so Philip and I were thrilled to be the only two people in the class that day. We received a full morning of one on one instruction from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors at Kayak The Nile. I hoped to stay dry for at least some of the morning, but to my chagrin the lesson began with us practising an emergency underwater exit which would come in very handy later on.

People getting a lesson the day after ours. 

We spent the rest of the morning practising strokes and turns and a few more emergency exits for good measure. Despite the instructor’s reassurance that I was picking it up very quickly, I was extremely nervous to go through the rapids on a kayak. Despite having worked up an appetite by paddling the calmer waters on the Nile, the lump in my stomach made eating lunch difficult. All the same, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the setting, and the excitement of learning a new sport.

Oh sure, the Nile looks calm here. 
After lunch we drove about 20 minutes to our launch point and carried the kayaks down to the water and put in. We were not on the river long when the first set of class 3 rapids appeared on the horizon. The instructor told us where to paddle to avoid the worst of the waves but my kayak seemed to head straight for them despite my furious strokes. I approached the first wave that was at least twice as tall as me and was sucked straight up it by its awesome force. It all happened so fast but it felt like it was going in slow motion and at one point me and my kayak were vertical and I was paddling into the air. Finally the wave tipped me over its crest and I landed with a thud in the wake. I paused for a moment amazed that I was still upright and resumed paddling furiously.
I like to think I looked like this
(source: www.orangetorpedo.com)
I was 3/4 of the way through the rapids when suddenly I flipped upside down and found myself head first in a raging river. It took me a second to remember what the emergency exit procedure was and I reached back overhead first for a way out before remembering that I needed to grab my spray skirt in front. One good tug and I was pushed up to the surface for the most welcome gulp of fresh air.

The safety kayaker helped me back into my kayak and handed me my paddle which I gripped with shaky hands. The instructor paddled over and said “you going over that massive wave was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!” and I so wished that I had been wearing a GoPro. “Two more sets of rapid to go” he added. The knot in my stomach tightened.
But it was probably more like this. 

The second set of rapids had a less foreboding look than the first set but there was an eddy I was advised to avoid. Naturally, I ended up right there. The safety kayaker instructed me to paddle fast and hard to get out of it which I miraculously did without flipping (the instructor later informed me that most people who go in the eddy flip).  By the 3/4 way through the rapids mark however, I started losing steam and was flipped again.

Getting out of the kayak underwater was easier this time, but as I struggled to crawl back in the kayak the instructor tried to reassure me by saying “kayaking is not a graceful sport.” He then instructed me try to maintain more power through the next set of rapids which was the “easiest.”

For those of you have never white water kayaked before, paddling in the rapids takes a lot of strength. You really have to give it your all, funny faces and grunting included. So by the third set, I was getting really tired and flipped again at the 3/4 mark. By this time though, I managed to hang onto my paddle while going over and the instructor remarked that I was getting very good at getting back in my kayak. Maybe even with grace? I wouldn’t go that far. 

Meanwhile I should add, Philip who curiously is nicknamed “Flip”, only flipped once in the 3 rapids and still had enough steam to practice edging in an eddy while I waited exhausted by some reeds.


The rest of the journey down the Nile was a peaceful float which allowed me to regain some composure. Even as I write this, I remember the panic I felt as I was being tossed around in the river current and the disappointment of not even making it through one set without flipping. But I also remember the sheer exhilaration of those moments before and after my flips, as well as the blissful feeling of the sun beating down on my face as we gently floated to our pull out site.


While I learned that I need to work on my upper body strength before attempting to kayak through more white water rapids, I also am proud of myself for having tried something new and somewhat scary.

The whole day translated into an epic, memorable adventure and I would recommend a day at Kayak the Nile to any thrill seeking travellers out there. Although, you may want to make sure you pay attention to the emergency exit procedure at the beginning of the lesson!