Category Archives: Travel Journal
July has been a banner month for mountain hiking. Brian and some friends encountered 9 bighorn sheep high on a Kananaskis ridge recently, enjoying a sunny mid-day siesta. Can you spot the 9th sheep?
The red paintbrush and white valerian carpeted much of the alpine.
The Okanagon dry forest still had a few flowering plants blooming even though any spring moisture had long left the soil. This is the profoundly beautiful Mariposa lily Brian photographed just a few days ago.
Hiking the subalpine trails in Mt Revelstoke National Park. This early July flower abundance is fully 4 weeks ahead of schedule this year! The lupines in the foreground were in full bloom.
Day 8: The final leg
“Today’s alarm clock: Catbird meowing, Red-winged blackbird trilling and a Spotted towhee buzzing, all in the bush hardly a meter away from the tent. I could hear every crystal clear note of each of the birds’ calls. I suspect it was 4:30 AM.
We arose at 6:30 to partially cloudy conditions, with low cloud and mist on the hills just to the north.
Once on the river, it was an hour paddle to our takeout on very quiet, flat water. Rain fell for much of our paddle, but had stopped by the time we pulled out at Sandy Point.
We drove one hour to Medicine Hat, where we met with Uncle Stu and Doris for lunch before we began our drive back to Calgary.
Kilometres today: 7″
7 mammal species sighted: 46 Mule deer, 10 White-tailed deer, 1 elk, 5 coyotes, 5 beavers, 1 raccoon, 2 Nuttall’s cottontail rabbits
65 species of birds: including 4 confirmed nests of Prairie falcon. One nest had 5 nearly grown chicks, another had 2 downy “bobble heads”. 2 Bald eagles, 6 Golden eagles (one with a goose kill), 12 Pelicans.
1 Wandering garter snake, 1 scorpion.
166 Km total, took 30 hours of canoeing, so we averaged 5.5 Km/hr. (of interest: normal summer flows from 150 cms to 600 cms should provide good paddling. River speed varies from 2 km/hr at 100 cms to 6 km/hr at 2,000 cms. June daily mean = 600cms, July = 330 cms and Aug = 157 cms…….info from “Marks Guide for Alberta Paddlers”).
“I was up by 5:30 AM to disassemble the tarp and start on our breakfast (cheese omelet). We took down the entire camp and were on the hiking (deer) trail by 7:30 to explore the big coulee just 300m downstream. We hiked way up the valley bottom, found a logical ascent to the high grassland plateau, and returned to camp via a grassland ramp.
High on the top during our descent, we were in some fantastic badlands of bentonite and hoodoos with orange ironstone cap rocks. There we scared up two cottontail rabbits, one of which posed long enough to photograph before it bolted like lightning. I stopped for my morning constitution, with a view, moved a rock on the ground, and lo, there was a scorpion! I suspect a female, as it looked fat and pregnant! (I chose another rock to make my deposit!). Other finds included some fossils, dramatic sandstone weathering, and a pronghorn skull!
Once on the river we enjoyed a tail wind for at least an hour, making some good downriver time. That luck soon ended, but the headwinds were not that bad, and somewhat variable, so we did get some relief.
Three more eagle sightings were made during the day, as were several deer of both species. The most dramatic hoodoos and coulees were now behind us, but still the views along the river were stunning. Dee spotted a wandering garter snake as we paddled not far from shore. A storm caught us by surprise as we paddled, but we were able to get our rain gear on and continued with big raindrops falling and somewhat distant lightning making quite the racket. It soon stopped, but the new moisture brought out the Nighthawks and Bank and Rough-winged swallows in force. A beaver slapped his tail as we passed, and another slipped into the water with a loud splash.
Finding a camp out of sight of the big pipeline crossing but before the take out tomorrow at Sandy Point District Park at Hwy 41 was a bit tricky. But just as the sky was turning black and threatening, we managed to find one after a few false starts. Dee rapidly put up the tent as the thunder and clouds approached, and I quickly took apart the canoe and transported our gear up the steep bank.
Just as we finished erecting the tent, all hell broke loose, just like at the start of the trip, although the hailstones were tiny. We had just enough time to slip under the tarp to wait out the worst of the storm. A blue-sky reprieve soon appeared, and we took full advantage with drinks and treats, overlooking the river and fantastic badlands cliffs on the opposite bank. Soon another black storm cloud appeared, and we beat a hasty retreat to the comfort of our tent and Therma-rest lounge chairs, hot cup-of-soup in hand.
Storm cloud after storm cloud with lots of lightning and thunder then continued. It all lifted, however, and we were able to do a short walk up the coulee behind us.
Kilometres today: 33, and we have named this camp ‘Thunder & Lightning Camp.’”
Day 6: Hoodoos, dinosaur bones and coyotes!
“During breakfast we spotted a raccoon on the other side of the river, and watched for some time as he prodded the waterline up to his elbows looking for clams. He never noticed our presence. We had been seeing raccoon tracks pretty well everywhere where there was soft mud, so it was nice to finally see one.
We had packed up camp and were on the river by 8 AM, and then hiking again by 8:30 at the big White Rock Coulee, the other deep valley that makes up this special area. We hiked for a little over an hour, looking for dinosaur bones and fossil wood. We found and photographed some nice examples. One hoodoo cap was sitting as if ready to fall at the very top of a huge cliff, atop a pinnacle of bentonite. We joked that if we set up camp, we could witness its tumble!
The canyon walls were steep, hoodoos plentiful, and evidence of deer and coyote everywhere.
There was a set of easy rapids immediately downstream from the entrance to White Rock Coulee, and from there on we were battling headwinds. Lunch was enjoyed at a small but beautiful coulee entrance with the only (small) tree around for protection from the wind. We went for a short walk, and Dee found a dinosaur skeleton, in the usual multi-thousand fragmented pieces. But there were some sizeable bones that we photographed. We searched unsuccessfully for any teeth.
Back on the river, the headwinds were momentarily forgotten as we watched a Golden eagle attempt to lift off with a kill! A half dozen blackbirds were harassing the big bird,
and eventually he dropped it! We were able to see that his kill was a young goose, but one old enough to have the white cheek marks! The opportunistic eagle no doubt returned to his prize after we were out of sight further downstream.
Paddling progress was slow, but eventually we made it to an excellent, protected campsite with easy non-muddy access. A terrace provided the dining room view of the river and badlands, and just behind, nestled in a dense, young cottonwood forest, was a clearing where we set up the tent. Hiking promised to be good with a fairly extensive coulee behind us.
From the camp, we enjoyed the calls of a Yellow warbler, an abundance of Cedar waxwings, and a resident Baltimore oriole. And then the rain began. It was light, but consistent. We set up a rain tarp with our big green groundsheet, and enjoyed a late afternoon hot mocha drink. Carpets of deer hair indicated a kill, and sure enough, we found a nearly fully articulated skeleton of a buck. Winter kill, no doubt.
The rain stopped around 6 PM, and so we headed up the coulee. Steep, rocky and dramatic would best describe it. After finding more dinosaur bones, we began a gymnastic climb to the height of land, just to prove to ourselves that this was in fact the coulee we intended to camp at. All good.
Upon descent down a different route, we encountered huge slabs of stone fractured and broken creating a labyrinth of caves and overhangs. Bones littered the area, and coyote tracks were everywhere. We may have stumbled upon a den. A lone coyote watched us from the top of the bluff behind our camp upon our return. One long look, and then he vanished. Typical coyote.
Kilometres today: 16, and we called this camp ‘Coyote Camp.’”
Day 5: A full day of coulee exploration and wildlife discovery
“We hiked far up Bull Springs Coulee this morning, past fantastic hoodoos and deeply cut bentonite cliffs. A few dinosaur bone fragments were found, but nothing significant, and an elk antler was seen high up on a cliff edge.
We encountered a very defensive Prairie Falcon, and after watching her aerial theatrics, we worked out where the eyrie was, high on a sandstone cliff shelf. At least two very young, down-covered “bobble-heads” could be seen. When we passed by the site later in the morning, a second falcon joined in the aerial defense performance.
At the point where we decided to exit the coulee to access the height of land, we followed a game trail up and out of the valley bottom. Half way up, we came across a dead deer fawn! The eyes were still moist, and no scavengers had yet found the tiny animal.
Some 150 or so meters above the river, we reached the prairie highlands. Views in every direction showed no buildings, vehicles or people. Gas and oil well heads dotted the landscape of course, but except for the ubiquitous white “No Trespassing” signs located every 100 meters for the military lands, it was classic, rolling native short grass prairie.
A Sprague’s pipit called from high above us, and Meadowlarks calls were a constant, as were Lark sparrows. The moisture from the rains were quickly sucked up by the land, and a green flush has appeared. The wildflowers were a treat for the eyes: miniature gardens of mauve harebells, orange gaillardia, yellow Hawk’s beard and goldenrod, red scarlet mallow, white yarrow and prairie aster, pink showy milkweed and thistles all created bright splashes of colour in a brown and grey landscape. The scents of wolf willow and milkweed were lovely. New plants to us were grease wood and skunk bush shrubs.
We descended back into our valley via one of the prairie ridges, and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon waiting for the mid-day heat to dissipate.
After dinner, we ventured back out, this time ascending up a different route. Dee found a nesting Nighthawk quietly sitting on her nest as we hiked up the steep slope, and we scared up a mule deer doe which bolted from her unseen resting site just meters from us. As she made her escape, she gained a ridge to the river far below. Her silhouette against that backdrop made for a powerful visual moment.
Height of land elevation: 2,543′ (775m), and our camp: 1,971′ (602m)…..so we climbed just under 600′ from our camp.”
Day 4: Clear, calm and fantastic Hoodoo country!
“We had a full windless day, allowing us to travel with ease. The high overcast from dawn until late afternoon kept the solar intensity at a reasonable level, making most of our time on the river a bit chilly, enough to wear a light jacket.
A singing Brown thrasher sat on an exposed perch looking very handsome when I emerged from the tent early today. A female Common merganser announced her low fly-over too, doubling back for a closer inspection of our camp. A mule deer appeared across the river on the high horizon, as I prepared breakfast. Her huge ears gave away her species.
Once on the river, the current took over, and transported us in to more and more spectacular badlands. We had arrived! A Golden eagle perched on a bentonite pinnacle high above, and just lower down to the right hung the bird’s nest. We couldn’t see any chicks, but the nest was likely very deep. Several mule and white-tailed deer were seen either resting or feeding as we quietly passed by. And finally, we spotted a female elk, which appeared in a small valley from a grove of small cottonwoods. She quickly disappeared up the valley. One of the estimated 70,000 elk that live here!
I conducted a Herald newspaper interview via satellite phone on a very calm stretch of water once we had passed into the block of military land on the right side of the river. Until now, the reserve was only on the left. The interview was for the upcoming TV showing of the Kilimanjaro climb, scheduled to air province-wide on June 23, 2015.
I also did my 2 weekly CBC radio shows with Calgary and Edmonton, as we floated quietly and Dee steered a bit from the bow. It was lucky that we were in a windless spell.
The famous “Rapid Narrows” were easily navigated on the right side, but Dee hopped out to lighten the front-end load, making any rock hits that much less of an issue. At the downstream end of the rough water, we set up camp with a spectacular view of the badlands across the river, including “Murphy’s Horn”, a distinctive hoodoo formation. Cedar waxwings were fly-catching as we enjoyed our river view for our late afternoon tea time.
We plan on spending two nights here, giving us time to explore “Bull Springs Coulee”, part of “Prairie Coulees Provincial Natural Area”.
Kilometres today: 37, and we dubbed this camp ‘Murphy’s Horn Camp’”
Day 3: Perfect camp locations under ancient cottonwood trees:
“Mist was rising from the river as I prepared breakfast of French toast with real maple syrup.
On the river by 8:30 with gusting winds unfortunately coming out of the North, so we had a big day ahead of us. A lone coyote was spotted hunting beside the river just after we passed the boundary to CFB Suffield, the military reserve, and 5 mule deer were counted as we paddled. The day’s wildlife highlight, however, was an eyrie with 5 almost fully grown Prairie Falcons. One of the adults passed overhead nicely giving us a look at his black armpits, a diagnostic feature.
The clouds built all day, and several were showering off in the distance, but we never got any rain. And the meandering river gave us periodic breaks from the relentless North wind. When it was time to make camp, thick sandbar willows prevented any easy access to what appeared to be good riparian forest. Finally we came across a lovely grove of cottonwoods, and upon inspection, Baltimore oriole and House wren songs greeted us. Every landing on shore meant finding rocks, in order to avoid the fine, gummy mud which threatened to suck off our boots at every step! The bentonite soil deposited at the shoreline turns in to “gumbo” and is a nasty, messy challenge!
Our tent sat perfectly under an old cottonwood, and our kitchen area was beside another gnarled tree that must be one of the 300 year old trees our guide book talks about. We had a command view to the river, and our camp was somewhat protected from the persistent wind.
I climbed to the height of land behind our camp, and found a small chunk of fossil wood and some superb sandstone boulders festooned with red lichen. 4 buck mule deer in velvet were spooked by my surprise appearance on the ridge above where they rested, and later I spotted a doe.
Kilometres today: 33 (73 km canoed out of a total 166 km to our end point), we dubbed this camp ‘Ancient Cottonwood Camp.’”
Day 2: Their first camp morning:
“At first light, probably around 5 AM, the dawn chorus was intense. A perfect, quiet and chilly morning in ideal riparian forest allowed the bird songs to absolutely fill the air. Breakfast was enjoyed on our “porch”, the sun warming our bodies and the surrounding air. A lone pelican drifted into view, taking off from being startled by our proximity, even though we sat motionless. A white-tailed deer tiptoed in the forest behind us.
Our morning paddle was in still air under a perfect prairie sky, dotted with summer clouds. American goldfinches chittering made a continual auditory backdrop, as did Least flycatchers, Rock wrens, Bank and Tree swallows. I was scanning a ridge in the near distance, and spotted a coyote sniffing in some bushes. Within moments he had noticed us, and when he ran, two more appeared. They scampered with ease up the steep prairie sage-covered cliffs, disappearing in moments. Three Turkey vultures passed overhead, following the escarpment and no doubt getting a lift from the up-drafts, and a bald eagle was observed being dive-bombed by a Red-tailed hawk. Ring-necked pheasants called now and again.
We took a hiking break mid-morning, and spent half an hour exploring the complex terrain. Small cliffs appeared to have separated recently from the native prairie, eroded by the river. Ridges of prickly-pear cactus were abundant, but one ball cactus (Mammalaria) was seen flowering in amongst the thick prairie grass.
Our camp was perched looking across at some excellent badlands, an indication of what was to come. We set up under some towering cottonwoods.
In the grasslands behind us, we found a bird nest on the ground (pipit?) with 5 little eggs under a sage bush, Lark sparrow and a male Lazuli bunting singing!!!
Kilometres today: 23. We called this camp ‘Lazuli Camp.’”