or, Learning the ropes
2 July, 2000
After months of planning, six weeks of boatbuilding, and a couple of weeks transferring the whole show from Vancouver Island to Alberta, we’re at the starting point in Medicine Hat. There’s a pancake breakfast, with a few dozen friends and relatives gathered for a picnic at Strathcona Park. CHAT-TV is also present to record the event for the Monday night news. At 12:30 p.m. we ease Ambrose Jane into the water and Sylvia takes the first tentative strokes at the oars. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and even a couple of great-great-great-grandchildren of Ambrose and Jane Shaw wave us off.
The afternoon is hot and sunny, a perfect day to start the trip. Sylvia’s brother Bill and cousin Sherryl are coming with us by canoe for the first few days. We were expecting an easy float, with lots of time for reading and daydreams. But the river flow is below normal, making for long stretches of still water followed by short rapids. We aren’t round the first bend before we’ve ground to a halt on a rock bar and must get out and push!
Because of the water level many large rocks are exposed, and we are obliged to pick our way through them. The river switches back on itself like a snake doing yoga — ten km of rowing sometimes nets us about two in a straight line. Late in the day, shooting a rapid into the sun, we thread between two big rocks and fail to notice the third one, smack in the middle. We hit hard, to the sound of cracking plywood. Oh no! Breaking out the duct tape already!
That night we find a quiet campsite under the cottonwood trees. Just after dusk, the coyotes began to howl. A pleasant end to a nerve-wracking first day.
We start the day with a few repairs and adjustments to the Ambrose Jane. A good sleep has us feeling better about our chances of success.
The day is much cooler, with a few light showers. Around mid-day there’s a downpour with lightning and hail ? thank goodness, not the golf-ball variety! The wind gives us a bit of grief, swirling around in the steep-sided valley and blowing the Ambrose Jane in every direction.
After noon, we enter the Suffield Military Reserve. There’s no live fire (yet), but lots of wildlife: deer, elk, coyotes, beaver, bull snakes, and even a rattlesnake. Pelicans and gulls are common, and a variety of ducks. Nighthawks, swallows and blackbirds fly through the air hunting insects.
More shallows and rapids — lots more! Clearly this is not going to be as relaxing a trip as we’d thought. The prairie wind has gone crazy, too. We’re mostly protected by the steep valley walls, but every now and again we pass a gully, and watch out!
There are two sets of rapids actually marked on the topo map, which none of the others have been. We approach them with mighty trepidation, deciding to check them out from shore before running them. Although they might be boat-eaters at high water, they don’t look like much now. We shoot them with no more difficulty than any of the smaller ones we passed through earlier. We spend a couple of hours resting and exploring at The Narrows, an infamous bottleneck where Ambrose and Jane portaged most of their gear and let the boys shoot the rapids in lightened boats.
We decide to stop early that evening, to savour a perfect campsite. Bill and Sherryl, poor souls, must get back to work so they push on toward the Highway 41 bridge. We hear later they paddle till 10 at night, then get up at dawn for another five hours’ hard labour.
A late, lazy start to our day after a night in a beautiful cottonwood grove and some tramping and photography in the badlands. We can well imagine Ambrose and Jane having camped here. The river has changed character downstream of The Narrows, straightening up and losing most of its rock gardens. We are able to put up our little 3.5-sq-metre sail for the first time, and with its help we make a 50 km day’s run to Hwy 41 — our longest yet. Though it was mostly under sail, we are still exhausted by the end of the day. Clearly the Ambrose Jane isn’t as fast as a canoe. But we’re in no rush.
A day of headwinds, so no “free” miles today! We wait out a downpour under some cottonwoods after lunch and then continue rowing — into more headwinds. That evening we make our first camp in Saskatchewan, across from an abandoned homestead. The old wooden house is in remarkably good shape, though the Montreal newspaper pasted to the walls as insulation is dated October 25, 1922.
We arrive at “The Forks” — the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers ? this morning. Sylvia feels like she has come home. When Ambrose and Jane returned to Alberta a few years after their river trip, they settled on Berry Creek, a small tributary of the Red Deer. Since then Sylvia’s grandparents, their children (her aunts and uncles), and now her cousins have made their homes along the Red Deer. She first visited the area when she was 10 years old, and it has always been her spiritual home.
We pass a bustling Hutterite colony, then stop at the Estuary Ferry for a ride and a chat with with the handsome young ferry operator. (We were expecting an old-timer like Ambrose, who ran the Steveville ferry for years!) It’s an overhead-drive cable ferry, not the more usual submerged cables), so to get Ambrose Jane past we have to take down her mast.
Later, under a hot and cloudless sky, we have our first swim from the boat. The water’s delightfully cool, although we notice a lot of foam today, probably from farm or ranch effluent. We try not to think about it. After the swim and a lunch afloat, we put up the sail and fly along, bend after bend. Yippee! Though we’ve been passing them all day, the shady cottonwood groves disappear toward suppertime. We camp on a sandbank under the roasting sun.
It feels like we’re back in civilization. We come to the Lemsford ferry, where there is also a regional park. It’s a dusty, forlorn little place, almost entirely deserted, but we are able to score an ice cream and a nap in the shade before heading downriver. It’s another blazing hot day. We pass grove after grove of cottonwoods, but again they disappear in late afternoon when we want to camp. We finally pitch our tent on ground thick with dried-up cow-pies, with a lone cottonwood for shade. That night we’re awakened several times by a browsing porcupine. But he has his own agenda and doesn’t appear too interested in us or our scattered gear.
Just when we thought things were getting a little routine, even boring. The river braids into multiple shallow channels, rife with sandbars, as we approach the delta where it flows into Lake Diefenbaker (formed by Gardiner Dam). Choosing the correct path becomes important, and the topo map (dated circa 1970) is way out of date. Even the air photos Bill supplied us with are less than accurate in the shifting delta.
The fact that Ambrose Jane is a two-perspective boat — the rower faces backwards, the “navigator” looks forward — becomes apparent. As Sylvia watches with alarm the thunderheads boiling in the sky behind us, Greg is far more concerned about navigating the winding channels and sandbars under blue skies ahead.
We exit a tricky channel just as the downdrafts hit. Rushing us along under bare poles, with blowing sand and a suddenly choppy river, we land the boat under a cutbank and cower beneath our tarp. But the deluge doesn’t materialize. It’s just a glancing blow, as the thunder and lightning skitters off to the north. It gives us, however, new respect for these prairie busters.
We’ve encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of cows by now, and all of them have just stood, staring at us, and then inevitably stampeded away. But this afternoon, drifting and rowing down one narrow side channel, Greg suddenly hears a rhythmic grunting. We soon realize it’s coming from the herd ahead, and that one of the “cows” is in fact a bull — a big one. With lowered head and a determined look in his eye, he’s edging our way, snorting threats. We hesitate for a while, debating. We could drift quietly by, or take to the oars and sprint, but the water is only knee-deep — scant protection from an angry bull. The only sensible option is back upstream, but we soon discover we can barely make progress rowing against the strong current. So with much nervous glancing over the shoulder we strip off, step overboard, and drag Ambrose Jane back up-channel to choose another branch — all of which now appear to be guarded by potentially threatening bovines. When we camp that night we made sure there’s a good strong fence between us and cows of any sex.