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.


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North American Music Festivals: A Definitive Ranking

Music festivals are a wonderful summer pastime in North America. Although one may argue that the original music festivals is Glastonbury in the UK, North American festivals get their fair share of well-deserved attention. What better way to spend a hot summer’s day than sitting outside and enjoying some live music in the company of many other music fans?

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Homestoke Explained: The Calgary Folk Music Festival

Travelling is many things to travellers: a chance to explore new places, see parts unknown, try exotic foods, experience the local culture and push your limits. As much as I love and crave international adventures, I must admit that a lot of these things can also be experienced at home. So as much as I’m a firm believer in being excited about travel, I also think there’s a case to be made for finding adventures at home. I call doing so “homestoke”, meaning to seek out amazing adventures while at home between trips. As a non-digital nomad, to me this is sustainable travel. I can fill up my wanderlust cup at home while saving money and time for big adventures abroad.  I consider myself fortunate enough to live in a place that gives me ample opportunities for these mini-vacations.

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Getting to Know Kampala’s Rhythm

As our world becomes more urban, I often wonder if it’s possible to get a feel for a country without seeing its capital when travelling. Cities offer a different perspective on daily life, unique opportunities for entertainment, as well as a bustling and exciting environment. That being said, cities can also present a certain set of challenges and this was most evident during our trip to Kampala.

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How to Get Your Zen Back After Being Sick While Travelling

Few things can harsh a traveller’s Zen more violently than getting sick on the road. It can be difficult just to get around and meet your needs in a strange place, but doing so when you’re sick is even more challenging.

To that end, my resolve was pushed to its limits when I came down with a mystery illness during a trip to Uganda. Having pushed myself physically with hikes in the Rwenzoris and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and whitewater kayaking on the Nile, I felt strong and in good shape for our 4 day climb up Mount Elgon, but an illness nearly flattened me.

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The Dreams that Lie in Wait

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” – Henry David Thoreau

Last summer I made one of my lifelong dreams come true: I came within arm’s length of a wild gorilla. A silverback no less. 

My interest in great apes began in grade school when I had to choose an animal to do a report on. I chose mountain gorillas since they are both huge and intimidating, but also very rare. My initial reaction was to fear them on account of images we see of growling silver backs, but as I researched them I learned they are gentle, intelligent herbivores that live in mountainous rainforests. 
Gentle herbivores is right.
Photo credit: Google Images
As I learned more about gorillas, I became equally interested in their mountainous forest habitat and devoured any books on rain forests I could get my hands on. Yes, I was that cool. What can I say? No other animal had managed to capture my imagination as much as those gentle giants. I was so enamoured with them that I wrote all my grade 4 assignments about them and had at least 3 stuffed gorillas in my room. I dreamed of one day seeing one in its wild rainforest home, but it was just a silly childhood dream to be filed away along with so many others. By the fifth grade, I already had a new series of topics to obsess over and more dreams to add to the file.

But as the years passed by the dream returned. Upon seeing blue giant morpho butterflies in the Costa Rican jungle, I remembered just how much the mountain gorillas of East Africa inspired me as a child. Now over 20 years after that dream first occurred, I found myself perched precariously on a steep jungle hillside in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest wondering if I would in fact see an endangered mountain gorilla that day.  The day had started with an all too early wakeup call at 4am to make the over 2 hour bumpy drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi where a few hundred mountain gorillas call home.

The hills and rice terraces of Kabale, just outside of Bwindi.

Upon arriving in the park, groggy trackers are divided into groups of up to 8 people based on their ability to bushwhack for hours through thick jungle.  Still sore from a recent trek in the Rwenzori Mountains, I hoped for a shorter day of hiking but the Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers had other plans. Our group of 6 tourists, 3 porters and UWA ranger named Stephen was assembled and briefed before setting off along a dusty road toward a clearing at the top of the hill.
“Gorilla tracking is easy.” Said no one ever. 
Once at the top, we paused for a much needed drink of water and took in the view of lush green rice-terraced mountains before entering the forest. Buzzing with excitement we trekked cheerily over unending rolling hills until our feet and legs ached. As the day stretched on, I sensed people’s energy levels draining and asked Stephen how long we had been walking.
“3 hours” he answered matter-of-factly and then gestured for us to follow him off the boot beaten path.
We turned sharply into dense rainforest, trailing Stephen as he chopped branches out of way with a machete. Thorns grabbed at our clothing while we achingly made our way up a steep ridge. Once we gained the ridge, Stephen told us that this was where we would be having lunch.
“Are we going to see gorillas at all today?” A trekker asked the ranger with impatience in her voice. “I hope so.” He answered solemnly.
“So there’s a chance we may not?” Another added rhetorically.
Then things got even harder.
Feeling discouraged, I sat on the cusp of the hill and ate my lunch in silence. I thought to myself that maybe this was only meant to be a dream while others in the group grumbled aloud. Meanwhile, Stephen radioed the rangers who had been tracking one of the families since sunrise. They spoke in Ugandan so I had no hope of gaining insight on whether our group would get to see the animals we flew halfway around the world to see. I resigned that I may indeed come away from the experience disappointed.

“Time to go!” Stephen ordered and we all stood up and shuffled along behind him.

We walked for another 45 minutes, growing even more discouraged and tired as time went on until Stephen gestured to stop and pointed to a bush in front of us. I strained to look but could only see green jungle plants, not the enormous black apes I had hoped to see. As we stood and stared quietly, the bush began to shake ever so slightly as a collective wave of excitement surged over us. Could it be?  Was this the moment of truth we had been waiting for? The moment we had walked laboriously for hours through dense rainforest for? The moment that I had first dreamed of when I was only 9 years old? The anticipation was stifling.
The shaking turned more violent as a giant male silverback pushed the brush out of his way making a window through the foliage to stare at us. He was quickly joined by several members of his family who crouched beside him and peered at us through their picture-perfect natural frame. 

At this point I was speechless.
The scene was breathtaking and we spent the next 60 minutes following the family through the forest as they ate, climbed trees and even slapped one of our crew for getting too close. It felt like a surreal, living dream.
Pictured: a Belgian about to be slapped by a silverback. 
Once our time with the magnificent creatures was up, I reflected during the long walk out of the forest on the importance of never letting dreams go no matter how far away in space and time they may seem. Some dreams linger quietly in the background until the time is right to pursue them, and good dreams may just follow you until they come true.
And what a dream it was. 

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