Words and Photos by Ryan Stuart
The air feels like an oven, so hot and dry that it burns my throat if I breather too deeply. I sip from my water bottle, swish the liquid around my parched mouth and squint in the withering sun. Not a whiff of cloud. A hawk circles overhead, silhouetted in the stark sunlight. As far as I can see downstream there's nothing but meandering river and endless sky. Not a tree in sight. The quiet is thick as a blanket.
I didn't expect any of this when my dad and I decided to take a canoe trip in southern Alberta. But then this has turned out to be a trip of contrasts.
Ask most folks about canoeing in Canada and they'll wax on about Ontario and Quebec. Ask about Alberta and talk soon turns to the stunning beauty of Banff and Jasper national parks, or the oil patch. Some might remember Calgary, home of the 1988 Winter Olympics and the Calgary Stampede.
Alberta isn't known as canoe country, but any paddler who studies a map of the vast western province will see the potential. Sure, most of it is covered in wheat fields or boreal forest, but Alberta also has some big lakes, long rivers and even a semi-arid desert. That's where my dad and I are.
The Milk River is one of the only Canadian rivers that empties into Gulf of Mexico, and it is the only one that jumps the international border twice. Born on the edge of Montana's Glacier National Park it deeks north, slices through the arid, southeast corner of Alberta, and wanders back into the United States where it joins the Missouri and eventually the Mississippi.
I'd heard about the Milk's canoe-friendly Class II-III whitewater, pretty canyon walls, abundant wildlife and easy shuttles, but was skeptical that one of the best canoe trips in the province was in the prairies rather than the Rocky Mountains. On the plus side, it was close to my dad's house in Calgary, and we had only a three-day window. The Milk would have to do.
In early July we load up at dad's house, driving south and then east. Pretty soon it's all flat prairie and seas of crops. With not much to look at we talk. It's still a new thing for my dad and me.
When I was young he worked a high-pressure office job, leaving the house before my brother and sister and I woke up and coming home after we'd eaten dinner. He was always around on weekends, but, perhaps taking a cue from his own stiff-upper-lipped parents, rarely talked much with us kids. I knew he loved me but don't remember him saying it.
I moved away at 21. Almost 20 years later dad is retired and softer. Last summer we went on a weeklong hiking and canoeing trip. It was the first time I can remember spending more than a day alone with my dad and it was amazing. We didn't get into anything too deep. No one cried, but we talked about all kinds of things we had never raised in the past. We got along great. So here we are again. On the surface it's a weekend adventure, but more than that it's a chance to spend time together, to get to know each other.
Three hours after leaving Calgary we meet the canoe shuttle at the town of Milk River. As soon as we push off into the 30-foot wide channel it’s obvious where the name came from.
When Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery crossed the continent in 1804-1806, it followed the Missouri River much of the way. At the confluence of a river coming in from the north, Capt. Meriwether Lewis wrote, "the water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the a mixture of a tablespoon full of milk. From the colour of its water we called it Milk river.”
Full of silt from the muddy banks, the river's water does look like a milky tea. The murky water is opaque, hiding rocks that would normally be easy to spot. Dad and I are both accustomed to reading water, but not like this. From the bow he spots a rock just before we ram it at full speed and jams in a powerful cross-bow draw. As the boat tips violently I throw a brace. We miss the rock and manage to stay upright. I start paying more attention and begin learning to read the milky water, avoiding the ripples that look like peaks on a frosted cake, and training my eyes to spot the pour-overs, which blend into the contrast-less surface. The only advantage to the brown water is the lack of glare.
Flowing at a steady clip we make good time swinging back and forth across the river, chasing the meandering current and doing our best to avoid the rocks littering the best lines. Not having canoed together much, we're more divorce boat than skilled team. From the stern I set up to thread a line between two boulders and my dad, thinking we're headed for a direct hit, throws in a draw. I scramble to adjust.
As the low banks became higher, we leave the riverside farms behind. On either side of the river sheer walls rise, pocked with thousands of small mud nests. As we float past, swallows burst from them in swarms. Perched high in a nook on another corner we spot a pair of owls. Hawk and falcon nests sit on the edge of cliffs, while their owners circle overhead, hunting the banks. Marmots scurry out of sight as we approach. And when the hills recede we see cows, black, brown and spotted, grazing the banks. This is Alberta, after all.
Three hours out of Milk River we arrive at Gold Stream Park, an RV campground on an oxbow above a small dam. We could camp anywhere we want below the high water mark, but opt for the comfort and convenience of clean water and flushable toilets. Over wine, dinner and cards the conversation slowly loosens up. We talk politics and family, shift into my career and dig into his health.
The air's got a chill when we wake up, but also a heaviness. With the cloudless sky it promises serious heat. The crux of the paddling lies ahead, so we get going early.
A few bends into the river, we notice our pace quickening. The water is moving faster. Every corner now brings more rocks to pinball through. Nothing is big or scary, but the hazards are constant as the river bores deeper into the sandstone cliffs, squeezing the water through swifts and boulder fields. I weave through some rocks and then ferry across the river to set up for the next rapid, avoiding a shallow spot along the way.
"I"m going to go left and then right around those rocks," I call from the stern.
At the next rapid Dad directs, "Through those waves and then a hard turn around the hole." When I miss a line he throws in a perfect cross bow draw to correct. It's fast and fun paddling, demanding concentration and constant maneuvering. Yesterday we acted independently, but today we're communicating. It feels good to paddle as a team.
We're making fast time and roll into Poverty Rock around 2 in the afternoon. An amphitheatre surrounded by cliffs with a fin of rock protruding in the middle, it's the best campsite on the river. My photographer friends tell me the evening light here is amazing. But evening is still a long way off and the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. The only shade—a couple of rustic shelters—promises little respite. After a 30-minute wander and two cooling dips in the river we decide to paddle on. Basting on the river is better than frying on shore.
Soon after leaving Poverty Rock the canyon walls fall away and the valley opens into big sky country. The flow slows and the river meanders aggressively. The rocks soon disappear, replaced by sweepers on the outside of corners.
For a while the less demanding steering allows us to chat about relationships and priorities. Then the heat sucks us dry and the hawk circles. Our conversation ebbs to directions and single word answers. Around dinner time the rock walls reappear, but now farther back from the river in the form of hoodoos, towers of stone capped with a rock. We've entered Writing on Stone Provincial Park.
The land along this three-mile section of the river valley is sacred to local First Nations. Native people made seasonal camps here to harvest berries and hunt, but also to connect with the spiritual world. All along the rock walls they left carvings and drawings. Later, the narrow canyons leading away from the river and into nearby Montana, were ideal routes for outlaws and bootleggers.
That night, bunked in the park's riverside campground, we cool off in the shade of towering cottonwoods and talk. Topics jump around and it's all easy and relaxed.
Our last day on the river we mostly spend on land, hiking to the rock galleries and ogling the wild topography. A cross-prairie ramble is the highlight for both of us. We cross the river and hike up a dry canyon and onto the plain above. Pronghorn antelope bound across the grassland. Deer slip in and out of the bush. All the while the Sweet Grass Hills, where the Indians used to go to spot the buffalo herds, beckon to the south. As we wander the trail-less grasslands we seem to be on the same wavelength. We immediately agree on where to go and what to do. As the day heats up again we head back to the river and get in the canoe for the last time before packing up. The trip is nearly over and that's okay. We push off from the bank and ferry across in smooth tandem strokes without saying a word.
— More writing from Ryan Stuart.
— Reality Check – an unreal canoe adventure through Alberta’s Bow River Valley.
— Fathers and Sons on Washington’s Winchester Wasteway.