Bow River Trip Report

Posted by Robert N Pruden on Jul 25, 2007

Paddling the Swift Bow River with Myrl Tanton on Canada Day July 01, 2007

I met Myrl at his home in Calgary, Alberta on June 30, 2007. We haven’t paddled together in three years since we paddled Lake Minniwanka, water reservoir for Banff, Alberta, late one cold November day. I did meet Myrl one warm day in Edmonton while I was on the river. We met and chatted briefly. I was heading upstream and he was moving downstream and getting near the end of his day paddle. Our put-in point for the Bow River trip was just below the Ghost Lake Dam. Due to washed-out road conditions from heavy rainstorms, the road down to the put-in point was closed off. We had to portage our kayaks from the top of the hill just behind the Ghost Lake Dam. While we were still in Calgary, Myrl informed me that it was an easy 100-meter portage. When we got there I was sure we were looking at a 300-400 meter portage. The worst of it for me was the fact that I had unknowingly left sodden clothing in the VJ from my last paddle. That added to the weight that caused me to get scrapes and bruises during the portage. Next time I will remember to bring my portage cart.

Now, before I go any further, I should write about our adventures on the way to the put-in once we left Cochrane. Let’s talk about gasoline for a minute. Cars require fuel just as paddlers do. Myrl is good about fuelling up his car…or at least he is good about fuelling up his wife’s car. Not five minutes out of Cochrane, Myrl suddenly hit his hands on the steering wheel and pulled over. This impulsive act startled me and immediately I thought to myself, Myrl, what did you forget at home? Gas! He said that he forgot to fill the gasoline tank before leaving home. He thought he did, was sure he filled something. That something was evidently the tank to his wife’s car. Now, if you believe that God intervenes when we need help then get this: not two seconds after Myrl turned the car around then parked it on the shoulder of the highway toward Cochrane, two vehicles stopped directly in front of us. They were a group of friends travelling in two vehicles who wanted to talk to each other for a moment. Myrl was able to hitch a ride into town only a minute after he stopped the car. He also managed to hitch a ride back to the car fairly quickly once he filled a jerry can with the missing link to our continuing journey.

Now, just before Myrl ran out of gas, er…Myrl’s car ran out of gas, I had mentioned that I hadn’t eaten anything that day. Myrl generously stopped at McD’s and bought me a meal. I shared my fries with Manju and ate my burger. Now, Myrl managed to make a wrong turn so he detoured through a parking lot and hit the brakes rather stiffly at a red light. This action caused a rather disrupting inertial effect on the cup of Coke that I had pinned between my knees. Yep! The cup fell to the floor of Myrl’s car and the lid popped off, thereby decanting my thirst-quenching beverage on the floor mat. Immediately after this happened, I was suddenly more thirsty that just before it happened. Funny how that happens, eh! Myrl grimaced over this mishap a little but his reaction would not be nearly what it was when he realized that for all intensive purposes, he filled the wrong car with gas. Still, Myrl did not even say one single swear word, not when my drink spilled on his floor mat, not when he ran the car out of gas and not when he realized that he forgot his paddling gloves on the ground while he watered the flowers prior to launching. Bad things happen in threes, right! Aight, so then we were destined to have a great time on the river and that is exactly what happened.

The site of the dam is impressive but a more desirable a vision was the sight of the Bow River as it curls its way east toward Calgary, Alberta, away from the dam. The surface of Ghost Lake was filled with power boaters cutting lines through its glass surface and sailboats that leaned with the wind and glided with a powerful grace. The sight of the sailboats excited me and helped me ignore the pain that I was suffering during the portage as the edge of the coaming scraped my arms and shoulder.

I am a frequent paddler of the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, Alberta. That river is often silty and at best, has a green appearance when its waters flow clear. The Bow River, even during the higher levels that Myrl and I experienced that day, flows relatively clear with dissolved minerals that give it a blue tinge with a slightly cloudy white turbidity. The water is drinkable, at least to me, and drink from it I did.

My very good friend, Manju Ahlawat, would drive Myrl’s car from the put-in point at the dam to the take-out point, located under the bridge at Cochrane. Alberta. Manju wished us luck and stayed at the put-in point, high up above the river, to watch our progress down the hill during the portage and once we were on the water, until we disappeared around the first bend. Manju is from Delhi, India, and has never conceived of the idea of heading off into the wilderness in such a way. I promised her that she would get her chance one day. She said that once we launched, we disappeared very quickly around the first corner. The rivers current is very quick, quicker than I am used to on the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. I know from sight that I could never paddle upstream on this river, especially while it is in a semi-flood state as it was today.

Myrl was on the water before I was as I was busy taking pictures. I launched and was surprised at how powerfully the river grabbed the VJ and sent her on the way. Shortly after launching we found the first rapid. It was a wave train containing waves in the 1/1/2 – 2-foot range. I opted out of running them because it had been a while since I last paddled through such waves. Myrl, of course, was looking for them. He expertly paddled his stripped canoe through the wave train while I watched. It wasn’t long before I got my paddler’s sense of balance and went looking for any wavy water that I could find.

We came up to an area on the south bank that was composed of hills of black and broken rock, almost like a scree heap on a mountainside. There appeared to be a way in between the black heaps but we did not bother to investigate the opening. Later on, when we stopped on an island to eat lunch, we met a group of friendly people who explained that had we turned into that open area then we would have found a series of waterfalls that we could have bathed in. Apparently, there is a creek in there that cascades down a series of ledges before it falls into the river. I do believe that Myrl and I have some unfinished business there. Sounds like another day paddle to me. J

For the most part, the section of the Bow River that we paddled this day curves through the edges of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The river thus cuts through rock in places and in other areas slices through the edges of the Alberta prairies. The surrounding land is mostly used for grazing cattle. There are a few sites where folks have built cabins next to the river. It was at one such site that we paddled right past a black bear without noticing it. We learned that it was there because once we overtook a rafter, he informed us that it was there. I am not sure how we missed it but when you consider all the beauty of the land that the Bow River cuts through, it’s difficult to look one way or the other and catch all the sights.

We saw a variety of wildlife along the way. There were several bald eagles, both immature and mature adults. At one point I thought I spotted some kind of vulture but it was too far away for me to be certain and zooming in with my Optio WP proved to be ineffective in bring the image of the suspect vulture in for a closer look. There were mallard ducks; red-tailed hawks flying high in the thermals; sandpipers (or snipes) with fuzzy babes following close behind; and other various species of smaller birds including robins, sparrows and river swallows. There were also warblers along the way but I did not see them, I only heard them. My favourite warbler is a Wilson’s warbler. This small green bird never sings the same song twice. The first time I heard it was during my cross-Canada trip somewhere in Saskatchewan. I heard it singing from somewhere on the sandy banks of the river within the thick growth of willows. I eventually spied it because it moved. Its colours were identical to the willow leaves. I don’t recall hearing a Wilson’s warbler on this trip but I love to remember the bird’s song. I can still hear it as I write this. We even came upon an inukshuk when we opted to paddle a ways up a creek. It was assembled in a beautifully shaded area that would have made an awesome campsite. We also spied hundreds of river swallow nests built into a rock face near Cochrane. These nests are built using mud, which the swallows mix with their spit to form a sticky paste. I have seen these nests along the North Saskatchewan River from the Rocky Mountains to well into Saskatchewan: that is a 1200-kilometre range.

Just before we stopped for lunch on an island, the river does an s-curve. At the middle of this s-curve is a very cooling wave-train right smack dab in the middle of the river. I headed straight for the middle of it and got a couple of good waves in the chest. I was shouting Woopie! As I went through and happy to do so because I was feeling a little hot from heat of the prairie sun, which pounded its rays down upon our heads through a cloudless sky. There was a group of three rafts floating along the river filled with a younger crowd of folks. On the side walls of one raft sat four young women, one leg propped on the floor of the raft and the other leg hanging into the water. They must have had a pretty exciting run through that wave train.

We stopped at the island and met a group of people who were out on the water to celebrate Canada Day. The island is not just a sand bar but a rocky upwelling of a foothill that parts the Bow River into two channels. It is full of evergreen trees: pine and spruce. The hot sun was heating the ground and the trees causing the scent of pine resin to permeate the air. It felt like I was deep in the mountains on a hot day. Well, certainly all I had to do was look west to see the Rocky Mountains looming close by. The group of people turned out to be a collection of extended family members. Apparently, each year on Canada Day they get together to float and fish along the Bow River and this island is where they stop to picnic. Well, the mother invited me to enjoy some “fresh” fruit. I joyfully accepted her offer and was surprised at the unusual taste of the fruit. I recognized the familiar tingle of hooch, probably vodka, on my tongue. I smiled and commended the “goodness” of the fruit as she smiled with glee. I brought along some mangos which I peeled while we all talked about being on the river, fishing and Canada Day. We stayed there for about 20 minutes before Myrl tapped my shoulder and suggested that we get moving. I could tell he wanted to be on the water: so did I!

Throughout the entire trip, the sun shone strongly, the air remained clear and I was at peace for once. The only concern I had during this trip was the duct tape patch on the hull of the VJ. It has been there for more than two months now and I was trying to be careful not to run over any rocks that might scrape it off and cause the VJ to take on water. Well, the duct tape stayed where it was and the VJ only took on water through her hatches whenever I paddled through the wave trains. The hatch seals haven’t been replaced for over three years. The foam seals become compressed over the course of a year and thus begin to let in water because they no longer provide effective seals. That is one more bit of maintenance that I must perform some time this year. I’ll be certain to do it immediately after I develop the 36-hour day thus providing myself with some free time to do such chores.

Paddling the Bow River from the Ghost Lake Dam to Cochrane, Alberta is a very pleasurable day trip if you throw in a picnic somewhere along the way. The river’s current is so fast that even without paddling the trip can be done in less than 4-hours. The water is clean and cold, so it is an ideal trip during which to do some swimming. If those cascading waterfalls are really there, then that would be a must-see aspect of this trip. The island that we lunched on has camping and picnicking sites that make it a good stop. For situations where help is needed, there are farms upon the high banks all along the way and Highway 1A follows the river. I would recommend this trip to anyone looking for a cool way to spend a hot day.

Incidentally, there is an awesome ice cream shop at Cochrane. If you want to do a drive through a beautiful countryside and have a to-die-for destination: the ice cream shop is it! Heck, you might as well bring your kayak, do the Ghost Lake paddle and end the day at the ice cream shop.

Robert N Pruden July 18, 2007 2150h

Photographs of the Bow River Paddle


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