It was September long weekend, we had already made our commitment to no more trips that year. Well.. We were addicted to being outside, the year is 2020! A year when taking freedom for granted isn't a thing!
So.. as I mentioned I had taken a moving water paddle course on the Athabasca River the year before, and I was bound and determined I would use it. So here we are a free weekend sitting on our patio in Sylvan Lake, Alberta when the last minute plan comes to fruition. My boat (as some paddlers refer to their canoe) wasn't quite the right one. My boat was a Canadian Tire Pelican model. A great recreational model, but super heavy and not necessarily a good river tripper. So we did what usual people would do, call our instructors up in Barrhead and ask if they would loan us one of their canoes, last minute! Of course Nature Alive being the wonderful folks they are, obliged us for a fair rental rate.
We now had a few minutes to switch up our gear to paddle gear. You know I carry different gear on a paddle trip, then on a car camping trip, then on a hiking trip and we really do mix it up! But where to stay when we get up there to the river put in? We now have a two and a half hour drive up to Barrhead, including the infamous Grizzy Trail Hwy to figure it out. I like it this way. Figuring out things on the fly is half the fun!
On the way there, I realized there is a crown land campground in a place called Blue Ridge. We could camp there. With a put in at that bridge in the morning and then paddle the Athabasca River back to Fort Assiniboine. That will be a cute little 60 km run.
We get to Barrhead to get the canoe. We enjoy a quick chat with our instructors, we ask for some reassurance that what we have for skill is enough for what we plan. They advise we'll be fine. They tell us about the great camping on the sandy beaches of Five Mile Island at the half way mark.
We load up the canoe on the top of the car. Which is a funny story in itself as I had just bought a little Spark. A very short little Chevy car that I call a half car because that is the size of it. The little 13' car looked really funny with a 17' heavy river canoe on top of it! Even the instructors asking are you sure about this? Of course, I giggle and say, yeh, it'll be fine!!! Uhhh hmmmm.....
Off we go back roads to Blue Ridge to find a spot at the campground. The camp area seems awfully busy with campers, strange! But that's ok, we find a little spot off in the corner. After we get all set up and just about ready to unload some gear in to the tent, a couple ladies come by on quads to tell us that we can't stay. There is a private wedding going on. They hum, and they haw ask what we are up to, which we reply "paddling the Athabasca River tomorrow". So they end up saying why don't you stay and join us for the party, and the wedding tomorrow. We reminded them we would be gone early in the morning to start our paddle trip, but we would love to stay the night.
So the night before our lovely trip we got to have a little impromptu wedding party with complete strangers. Talk about wedding crashers! We enjoyed some frozen liquor treats and some music and a bonfire with the pre-wedding party! Many asked us what we were up to. When we told them they seemed concerned "you shouldn't be paddling that, its' a pretty crazy river, we hope you know what you're doing." Talk about giving me the jitters! I really question my sanity sometimes, but then I realize most of my fears although rational and important in keeping me humble are fears to overcome by doing the things that prepare me to face them, ie. learning a new skill. Fears keep me humble, learning and practice helps me face something unknown with a modest dose of confidence, that's how we grow, right?
So in the morning at the Blue Ridge bridge we loaded up the canoe, hid the little Sparkie under a bridge and off we went on our first Athabasca River trip to Fort Assiniboine.
We got on the river and everything seemed okay for about 5 minutes.. then it happened it started raining. Then the work that is the Athabasca River started. It moves pretty fast on that section. There we were dodging tree piles and other obstacles and trying to read the river flows with minimal experience. At one point I wanted to cry because as I looked ahead there seemed like a more than just a few obstacles coming at a time. My boyfriend though reminding me don't worry about those one's up ahead, just worry about the one in front of you - some of the best advice ever! At one point we had to pull some pretty fancy moves to figure out a way through... I was quite proud of that moment.
So that first day you'd think was gonna make for a miserable trip because the first bit of it was rainy, cold, miserable and full of some challenging paddles for our novice skill level. But after a bit, the sun came up the obstacles became less common and it turned in to a very nice paddle. We stopped for lunch on one shore and then carried on to the Five Mile Island, which is really really nice!!
We landed at Five Mile Island in one heck of a wind storm. Let me digress for a moment while I tell you that carrying a cheap survival bivvy is not a bad plan, which I do. I'll tell you why. We almost lost our tent!! It was so windy, it took everything we had to try and keep our parachute of a tent under control. Tying it to trees just in case we let go trying to set it up. Again, you'd think we were in for serious trouble, but we weren't. The wind died down the sun came out and we got to spend the evening indulging in a box o'Barefoot wine on this beautiful sand beach. A little beach fire, a perfect September evening. Now let me talk about indulging in wine on a trip, don't do that!
The next morning I woke to the sound of what sounded like the wildlife taking over us. Banging and clanging and crashing. I am trying to wake up my boyfriend who is hard sleeping (wine). But it's no use he isn't going to save us. Thankfully I am a tarzan princess! I got up with my dog opened the zipper expecting to see a moose but instead there was a couple of deer there on the beach, but there was also evidence a moose had been by. My boyfriend woke eventually. We both had a terrible headache, and guess what, someone forgot to pack the tylenol! So we had to suffer our self induced misery. Don't bother with booze on trips! It's just not worth it.
The next day, the paddle was a little easier in some ways, as the water moved a lot slower, but harder because the water was slower meaning our paddling had to do more of the work. One of our fond memories of that trip was looking for a lunch spot. So there we were aiming to land on the shore of this little island. If the canoe doesn't land right on top of a fresh steamy pile of bear poop and more worrisome it was also a puddle of fresh bear pee! We decided to abort that lunch spot paddle away and have lunch in the canoe. Good call! We didn't want unannounced company.
We were both a bit grumpy that day for you know the reason but eventually we landed at Fort Assiniboine right under the very bridge where I had started my first paddle course! It felt like I had truly conquered a goal, getting to use some of my new skills. I liked that course so much, I would do it again every year. You know as we get better at a skill, we sometimes forget the basics, and they are the building blocks. So I would say it hurts nobody to take a refresher course every year of those basics.
Every time I put a paddle in the water, I am truly thankful to Nature Alive in Barrhead for their instruction. I took the intro Paddle Canada tandem moving water course with them in 2019, and then the following year a refresher course. They do more than just that though, check them out on Facebook.
Anyways the Athabasca River is fantastic. There is a place just north of Whitecourt, Alberta called Windfall road where I have "crown land camped". It's also on the Athabasca River. If I ever do this river again after a bit more paddling experience, I would like to paddle it from there!
Anyways, this little trip from Blue Ridge to Fort Assiniboine, I highly recommend it for someone that has a moving water course and wants just enough excitement to keep you thankful for taking a paddle course.