One of our favourite peaceful summertime experiences is canoeing down a river. 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 canoe trip on the Red Deer River to Drumheller.
Canoeing is Zen on the Water
“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
A Canoe Trip on 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.
Content Bridge to Trenville Park
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 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.
The biggest challenge on this stretch is 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.
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.
Paddling Through the Alberta Badlands to Tolman Campground
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.
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.
Tolman Campground to Bleriot Campground
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 .
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.
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.
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 unique 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 plan a Milk River canoe trip with them next year. Later one we planned a solo backcountry excursion to canoe/camp on Maligne Lake.
Their guided expeditions are great because they provide the boats and most importantly, they take care of the annoying car shuttle logistics.
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.