Paddling the Milk River

Updated for 2020
Because 2020 is the year that won’t quit, a diversion failure in Montana has meant that the Milk River has all but dried to a trickle. Communities along the river are facing drought conditions and the repairs aren’t expected to start until September. Unfortunately, this is not the year to do this amazing paddle. Read on to plan next year’s trip.

While Alberta is famous for it’s Rocky Mountain vistas, paddling the Milk River is a lesser known but quintessential Albertan activity.  The southern badlands that the Milk River carves through form a unique landscape and a beautiful sight to behold, especially from the water.

The Milk River was named by Lewis and Clark who thought that the water resembled the colour of a teaspoon of milk dissolved in a cup of tea. The river begins in Montana, flows into southern Alberta along the town of Milk River and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, and then carves southward to Montana through the Sweetgrass Hills before eventually joining the Mississippi watershed, making it one of the only rivers in Canada to do so.

The scenery from the Milk River is spectacular and the camping along the way is superb which is why this was on our Alberta Summer Bucketlist.  Paddling the summer heat away is one of our favourite activities and we have taken awesome trips such as canoeing on the Red Deer River and camping on Maligne Lake. Those two are fairly beginner-friendly paddles, but a canoe trip on the Milk River can be challenging in some sections because of large rocks and fast turns around cliff bands. Overall it’s a intermediate paddle.

Hoodoos along the Milk River
Hoodoos formed by erosion make a unique landscape along the Milk River

Paddling with the Outdoor Centre

We chose to do the trip with the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre to benefit from having them to do the shuttles, reservations, and guide us to some hoodoos with Indigenous rock carvings on the water’s edge. (translation: they did all the hard work!) The Outdoor Centre requires that people complete the ABC of paddling course prior to embarking on this trip, so would-be Milk River explorers should have some experience paddling before going on their own.

Canoes under the starry sky, ready for the Milk River Paddle!
Canoes under the starry sky, ready for the Milk River Paddle!

Camping on the Milk River

There are multiple places that you can put in for this trip including the townsite of Milk River and where we started at the privately owned Gold Springs Campsite. We were able to set up camp right next to the river and spot an amazing diversity of birds including swallows, ospreys, red-tailed hawks, eastern kingbirds and hermit thrushes.

The next morning after introducing ourselves to the paddling crew, we put in and started our 34km journey to the beautiful Poverty Rock campground. On the way we passed through farmland and and cottonwood forests that were teeming with wildlife. Closer to Poverty Rock is when the landscape starts to change to more badlands scenery and farmland is replaced by dramatic cliffs and carved out canyons.

Poverty Rock Campground on the Milk River
Poverty Rock Campground on the Milk River

Poverty Rock is an absolutely stunning campground that operates on a first-come-first-served basis. There are plenty of places to camp both near the river and in the shadow of the majestic rock for which the campground is named. We saw a tremendous diversity of birds, wildflowers and even an adorable baby cottontail rabbit at the campground. There you can also hike up to a scenic overlook that puts all the bends you just paddled through into perspective. It’s important to know that paddling associations and the local landowner help maintain the campground for river users so we all need to look after the site and leave it better than we found it.  There are even garbage and recycling bins so there’s really no excuse to leave anything behind.

Overlooking the Milk River from a bluff at Poverty Rock
Overlooking the Milk River from Poverty Rock Campground

Paddling to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

On day 2 of paddling, we bid adieu to Poverty Rock and headed southward to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The journey takes you through fast moving turns, high canyon walls, and otherwordly looking hoodoos with early Indigenous peoples carvings on them. There are a few places along the route where you may dock your canoe and hike to view the hoodoos closeup. Although I’m not typically one to condone defacing nature, it is pretty cool to see the history of people passing through the place. Some of the “rock graffitti” dates back to the 1800s!

Hoodos in Southern Alberta
Checking out the Hoodoos before Writing on Stone Provincial Park

As for the Indigenous rock carvings, nowhere on the Great Plains is there a larger protected collection than in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. After an easy  20km paddle on day 2, we approached the Park just as the summer heat became unbearable. While some in our paddle crew leapt out and swam in the river they spotted a great horned owl on the bank. Excited, we paddled back upstream to get a picture and it was well worth the effort!

Great Horned Owl on Milk River
Paddling upstream to see this Great Horned Owl was worth it!

Camping at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

At Writing-on-Stone, we said goodbye to the UofC Outdoor Centre crew and thanks to their help with the shuttle, our car was already parked there. We set up camp in good time and headed to the waterfront for a refreshing swim. This campground is great for everyone, from families with massive RVs, #vanlifers, and tent campers who arrived by river like yours truly. It is noticeably less busy than other Alberta stalwarts like Banff and Jasper National Parks, but you will still need to reserve ahead of time here.

Regardless of how you happen upon Writing-on-Stone, it is home to an incredible amount of cultural capital by way of its extensive collection of Indigenous rock carvings. The Park offers daily interpretive tours with an Elder to explain the significance of the carvings. We had intended on doing one of these interpretive hikes the day after our arrival, but shortly after cooking dinner a massive storm rolled in and was still pouring the next morning.

Petroglyphs in Southern Alberta
Petroglyphs along the Milk River, we’ll have to go back for the interpretive tour !

Better to be rained out then than when we were on the river, but it still would have been nice to have an Elder interpret his people’s history for us. Instead, we packed up as hastily as possible and had the rain follow us all the way to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump interpretive centre near Fort MacLeod. There we opted to tour the inside of the Centre as the rain remained unrelenting outside.

The centre features artifacts and a short film describing the importance of the jump and the history of the people in the region. Eventually, the rain stopped and we were able to go outside and appreciate the expansive prairie views from the top of the jump.

The Milk River, A Great Place to Explore in Southern Alberta

Alberta’s badlands may not have the name recognition of the mountain ecosystems but they remain a worthy place to explore nonetheless. Especially from the waters of the Milk River during the heat of the summer!

Beating the Heat on the Milk River
Paddling the Milk River, A great way to beat the heat!

Wilderness need not always be rugged mountain peaks, it can be anywhere there are more plants, birds and hoodoos than people. So if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path gem in Alberta, consider paddling the Milk River to Writing-on-Stone and enjoy a mixture of unique wilderness and intriguing human history.

Considerations for Paddling the Milk River

  • The Milk River is an intermediate paddle and is best done in the spring or early summer when the flow rate is still high. It can dry to barely a trickle in the late summer so it is best paddled earlier in the season like in May and June. See this helpful post at Paddling ABC for more details.
  • Paddling this river requires some experience as there are swift turns, steep canyon walls and there are so many rocks that you will not likely be able to avoid them all. If you do hit a rock try to paddle over it straight on. We did this many, many times, but neither us nor anyone in our group tipped. So long as you keep your cool and hands off the gunwales you can survive contact with the rocks and cliffs pretty easily.
  • Rattlesnakes frequent the area, so be careful walking in tall grass along the banks and around the hoodoos. Listen for their distinctive rattle and back away slowly if you hear one. You shouldn’t die if one bites you but it will hurt like hell so best to avoid it!
  • There are some stone carvings in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park that are visible from the self-guided Hoodoo Trail around the campground. Otherwise, the majority of the massive collection of carvings are considered sacred and can only be reached by guided tour.

Packing List for a Milk River Canoe Trip

  • Canoe or Kayak and Paddles (duh)
  • Camping supplies if you intend on overnighting (which we recommend!) so a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag in a dry bag, camp stove, plates, and utensils.
  • Waterproof barrel or drybag to store your clothes and personal items.
  • Food barrel or cooler. We learned a handy trick from our guide where you freeze water bottles for the cooler to keep the food cool and when they melt, you have drinking water! It’s way less messy than a bag of ice.
  • Sun hat & Sunglasses – You may even want super cool ones on a string in case you end up taking a swim
  • Swim suit (or just jump in your clothes and make sure you have some dry ones for the evening)
  • Bugspray, sunscreen, lip chap with SPF, hand sanitizer or wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, and any other toiletries
  • TP and ziploc bags to pack it out in.
  • Pack towel
  • Water bottle – We love our Pristine Bottles for paddling as they have a built in filter
  • Camp soap – We use liquid castille soap in a reusable container.
  • Camp chairs
  • Lighter and fire starter (be sure to check if there are fire bans)
  • Leave your itinerary with a loved one since there will be little to no cell reception on the river.
  • GPS or map from Paddle Alberta if you’re so inclined. We also like this book: Prairie Paddling, Discovering Alberta’s Badlands by Canoe. Be careful though, it will inspire you to want to do even more badlands paddles!
  • (Optional) Fun stuff like a camera in a waterproof case, binoculars, crib board or your favourite backcountry game.

Map of the Milk River

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2 Replies to “Paddling the Milk River”

  1. Would a Zodiac type craft be suitable for the Milk River? We’ve been to W on Stone, such an amazing site. Enjoyed your post!

    1. There’s a lot of rocks to dodge, I’m not sure a Zodiac would be maneuverable enough? You’d also want to look into the situation this year — I know there was issues with the dam and low water levels last year.

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