Couple’s exotic journeys include Central Alberta waters

Diana and Arie Vandervelden have canoed past desert hoodoos as pelicans circle calmly overhead.

Diana and Arie Vandervelden have canoed past desert hoodoos as pelicans circle calmly overhead.

They have breathed in the scent of wolf willow and chokecherry blossoms while warblers sang in cottonwood trees along the riverbank. As their canoe nosed through glass-smooth waters, they heard kingfishers chatter and pheasants screech while the sun beat down from a blinding blue sky.

The Vanderveldens’ river journeys might sound exotic, but they happened in our Central Alberta backyard along Prairie waterways, such as the Red Deer, Milk, Oldman and South Saskatchewan Rivers.

The couple has drawn on personal experiences paddling 1,200 kms of Alberta rivers to compile an informative guidebook — Prairie Paddling, Discovering Alberta’s Badlands by Canoe. They hope the self-published book written by Arie, will inspire more Central Albertans to plan summer holidays that entail canoing past century-old homesteads, grasslands and fossil-strewn desert.

Diana has canoed every summer since meeting her now-husband in 2006, and never gets tired of the views. “It’s very hypnotic and relaxing. You get to look at nature and feel a connection. You feel like you’re part of the landscape,” said the Stettler native, who felt the pressures of everyday life slip away with each paddle stroke.

Part of the appeal for Arie, who was born in the Netherlands but moved to Nanton at age 14, was the chance to daydream and contemplate. “It’s good for the soul,” he concluded.

Arie’s book maps various river courses and includes detailed descriptions.

Co-ordinates for GPS navigation, access ways to the river and 37 campgrounds are also included, as are colour photographs of birds and wildlife, and interpretive stories about geology, ecology and history.

Some of the most interesting are about historic figures, such as hard-living Happy Jack, who epitomized the lonesome Alberta cowboy after settling along a remote section of the Red Deer River in 1903.

There’s also U.S. dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown, who was drawn by Alberta’s treasure trove of fossils.

Some 6,500 pounds of bones and rock were shipped to New York from his 1910 expedition alone.

“This is without a doubt the richest Cretaceous deposit in North America,” Brown enthused, comparing the creatures in his shipping crates to a “veritable ark.”

Some of the living creatures the Vanderveldens encountered on their journeys include moose, deer, antelope, Prairie dogs, beavers, a coyote, and elusive owls and peregrine falcons.

Although paddling is described as meditative, the guidebook book doesn’t overlook negative aspects — such as mosquitoes.

Arie believes the pests can mostly be avoided by staying in the middle of the river, away from marshy banks, but there were times when Diana resorted to paddling inside a tented net covering, purchased from a sporting goods outlet.

Weather can also be a hazard. “You have to really watch the sky and watch the clouds changing,” said Diana.

The book describes a violent storm that arose on Aug. 1 2009 while the couple were camping out on a sandbank.

“Incredible” wind flattened and sandblasted their tent, followed by a lightning storm that lasted throughout the night, leaving the campers feeling frightened and exposed.

Later the Vanderveldens discovered the storm caused two deaths in the province, including a spectator killed when the stage collapsed at the Big Valley Jamboree.

While freak storms can always whip up, Diana believes keeping track of forecasts is important.

The book lists supplies needed for the journey, and should help canoers avoid over- or under-estimating the time it takes to travel between points on the river.

“You need to know where you are going, how long it will take, and what the weather will be like.”

River flow rates are discussed and landmarks described from the perspective of being on the waterway.

“It’s very useful to be able to recognize things so you know where you are,” said Diana, a 48-year-old human resources consultant.

Arie would like more Central Albertans to realize river canoeing is a “fantastic recreational opportunity.”

The 45-year-old geologist misses it since recently moving back to the Netherlands with Diana, where he works for an international oil exploration company.

Unlike Alberta rivers, canals near their new home in Assen have no currents, so paddling is less relaxing and a lot more strenuous, he said, with a chuckle.

Arie hopes his book inspires more people to “get canoing.”

Prairie Paddling is available at or from Arie’s website, for $24.95. It’s also available in Red Deer from Valhalla Pure Outfitters.

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