‘Free and easy:’ paddling along the Red Deer River

Mark Twain once wrote that you feel “mighty free and easy” on a river.

Paddle in hand, peering downstream from the stern of a canoe into the striated badlands along the shores of Alberta’s genial Red Deer River, it’s hard not to agree.

“It’s the perfect first trip,” said Mark Lund, a veteran paddler who literally wrote the book on Alberta canoe routes.

“You only need a little bit of instruction and anybody can pretty much paddle it.”

The Red Deer has its source in the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park and its upper reaches are well-known for whitewater thrills. Further down, however, the flow mellows and settles into its valley like an easy chair.

Downstream from the city of Red Deer, the river may be the best way to get a sense of Alberta beyond the mountains, and experience what the prairie landscape has to offer.

The banks alternate between steep walls and expansive valley views to distant hills. Eventually, it cuts through badlands with spectacular hoodoos and rugged mesas running right up to the water.

“You get a full transition from the parkland to the badlands,” said Lund, whose book “Mark’s Guide for Alberta Paddlers” is sold at MEC.

The scenery is otherworldly, like canoeing on Mars — if Mars had skies full of hawks and swallows, and evening recitals from coyotes yipping in the distance.

“Like all prairie rivers, that’s where the wildlife lives,” Lund said.

Camping? There are established sites along the route.

But many paddlers just pull up to a beach on one of the many islands along the way or find a suitable spot along the bank and pitch their tents. Scavenge some driftwood, light a campfire and enjoy the stars.

No camping is allowed within Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park — although the stunning scenery is well worth a stop.

Technically, the Red Deer is a backcountry trip. There are no services and you must carry everything you need, including water. If you’re random camping, there are no toilets, either. Bring a shovel.

But what makes it so doable is the number of possible entries and exits along the way. The roughly 190-kilometre distance between Red Deer and Drumheller can be configured as a day trip, a simple overnight or a multi-day excursion.

There are numerous bridges — even a ferry — along the way where cars can be stashed for the pull-out. Commercial services are available to ferry gear and vehicles back and forth, saving much time and trouble.

It’s a popular trip and sees plenty of boats on a summer weekend, but because everyone’s heading in the same direction — and roughly the same speed — you don’t see many of them.

There are caveats.

Don’t wait until too late in the summer, when the water gets shallow and forces paddlers to drag their boats. You will see cattle and they do leave their calling cards behind.

The occasional boulder protrudes from the water’s surface and you have to pay attention. If you get hung up, you can’t just call AMA.

Headwinds spring up and can make for hard work.

But on a sunny day, with the persistent tug of the current carrying you downstream, you can lay back against the gunwhales and let your thoughts drift along with the river. Pull your friends’ boats alongside your own and “raft up.” Talk, or not.

Enjoy the free and easy.

If You Go:

— Paddle Alberta has a useful website on the trip, including maps and approximate paddling times, at:

https://paddlealberta.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Paddling_CdnBadlands_MedRes.pdf

— Commercial shuttles include Red Deer River Adventures at http://reddeerriveradventures.com/

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