Fiona spends more time outside than the average room full of North American kids. She’s a veteran winter bikepacker and much more. So I had to take her seriously when she asked to go on a paddling weekend with me for the May long weekend.
After asking around and doing some Google “research”, I decided that the Milk River from the town of Milk River to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park was going to be a good choice for us. My friend Tyler highly recommended it, and I read several blogs’ trip reports that made it sound fun. It sounded like it might offer a bit of exciting rapids while still being beginner-friendly enough for a 9-year-old. It looked more-or-less within the capabilities of our Innova Sunny inflatable (in hindsight, our Helios might have been the better choice) kayak so I wouldn’t have to rent any other gear.
My original plan was to drive down on Friday Morning and start paddling on Friday afternoon, but at the last minute, I decided that a night in Milk River would make for an easier start. I booked a couple of campgrounds and a car shuttle, we packed, and we were off.
The Milk River campground was like a ghost town when we arrived, with only some local teens chopping wood (I thought they worked there). Fiona spent some time exploring (and found frogs and garden gnomes) while I put up the tent and cooked. Since we knew there would be some car campgrounds and heavy winds on our trip, we decided to bring our tent instead of our usual tarp.
Fiona continued exploring and found a snake in the morning while I was drinking coffee and packing the boat. She calmly kept away from it, but had me come to see it since she knows I like snakes. It was a large garter snake sunning itself before slithering off to eat some vermin. One of our goals for this trip was not to get bitten by a rattlesnake.
The river started calmly enough, with small riffles and many rocks that we could run into. I started showing Fiona a bit about reading the river to know where the rocks are and also where the shallow water and slow current is hiding. There was an abundance of birds on the shores and in the water as well as the many cattle on the area ranches.
The arid prairie offered few trees, but was made interesting by the variety of shapes and heights of the riverbanks. They were essentially mud that had been carved by the river and there was lots of evidence of the river changing its own course through erosion of the banks. As the day wore on, the cliffs got higher and the rapids got swifter, but they were very manageable as long as you took some care to find your way between the plentiful rocks.
It seemed like no time later (it was in fact about 2.5 hours) when we came around a bend to the first night’s campground, Gold Springs Park. Super friendly and helpful, I really liked how much care the owners clearly put into this RV park. There were several tent sites down near the water, and they were super handy for getting our stuff to and from our boat. In fact, I brought the entire boat up to our site.
Fiona had a great time playing with different kids. We had a couple of rain showers, but not enough to dampen the fun. We had our usual burritos, but did not fire roast them since I didn’t want to buy firewood in such a sparsely treed area. The park has a playground and a small oxbow lake for recreation, so it is a convenient place for a kid to have fun.
The following morning we hit the river around 11 after a great night’s sleep. We met some motorcycle tourists from Canmore while eating our breakfast in the wind shelter at the park. They had some good tips on packing light and were a really fun bunch.
The river was fairly consistently faster than the first day. My routine question to Fiona as we would approach a section of rapids was, “Should we take the easy way, or the fun way?”. She inevitably chose the fun way, so we spent a lot of time speeding past the cliffs and dodging out to avoid rocks. Our kayak was really designed for flat water, so every wavy section that we hit required bailing upon exit. The thing we missed most was taking pictures of the impressive cliffs and of the river itself, my camera stayed in the dry bag for most of our boat time since I couldn’t paddle, keep the camera dry and take pictures at the same time. Fiona did take some video though and I hacked it into a YouTube video (<–yes that is a link to the video).
We had been threatened with 7 hours of rapids so I stowed Fiona’s paddle for the day thinking that it would be safer to maneuver the boat alone. The rapids were definitely easier to negotiate alone, but tremendous fun, we were almost disappointed to come to the Poverty Rock water access campground after a mere 5 hours. It did mean that we had a lot of sunlight left in which to dry our clothes. We had dry-pants and dry-jackets, but I had not worn mine since it was too warm. Fiona said I looked like I had been for a swim while wearing my clothes.
The Poverty Rock campground was quite popular, a couple of families were there as well as two other groups who were paddling the river. Fiona of course made friends with some people who it turns out were summer camp staff, no doubt trying to stay away from the 9-year-olds that would be their work for the next few months. They had great patience and looked at all the photos Fiona wanted to show them on the iphone that she was using as a camera.
Fiona and I walked up to a viewpoint after dinner and took some pictures of the view up and down the river. I suspect that Fiona’s crouching to take pictures of flowers was where she picked up a tick. She was wearing permethrin treated tights, so it is unlikely they crawled up her legs. It was also where I managed a cactus encounter. I was leaning down to take a picture of Fiona when I put my hand out for balance, on a barrel cactus! To take the weight off my hand, I lifted it and sat down, on a prickly pear cactus! Fiona had to pull a few of the spines from the seat of my pants. Fortunately there was no video, or I might be the star in the YouTube hit: “Man Sits on a Cactus.”
Surprisingly, some trucks, one with a trailer, drove down to the water-access-only campground and camped for the night. Other than giving a weird feel to the campground and their constant trips up and down the road (why?) they seemed mostly harmless. I would have been more annoyed if they had stayed up late being loud. As it was, I was already up at 7:30 when they began their pilgrimages up and down the hill in their 4x4s.
Our Sunday paddle was reputed to be the easiest, so I handed over the rear seat and gave Fiona back her paddle. It took her some time to get the knack of handling the boat, but she paddled us through the most difficult part of the day. Her arms were getting pretty tired by the time she switched places with me, but she seemed to have fun and enjoy the responsibility. The section she paddled was by no means flat, and she had to pay constant attention to steering the boat.
I took over near the entrance to Writing-on-Stone park and the imposing hoodoos of the park are impressive indeed. It is very typical of the badlands and is world famous for good reason. Soon we were seeing hikers on the trails through the park.
By the time we “planned” our itinerary for this trip, the car campground at Writing on Stone park was long ago booked up. If weather had been worse, I suspect that some folks would have left, but as it was warm and sunny, no sites had been vacated. Fiona had us go to the beach for a short time so she could go for a swim. I had a chance to talk to Wes and Cheri about kids and outside and fun, while Fiona played building in the sand games with their 3 younger kids. I thoroughly enjoyed our brief time together, they had tremendous knowledge of the area as well as some great insight into some aspects of parenting (like homeschooling) that have always fascinated me.
During our time on the beach we were treated to an appearance by a bull snake. Fortunately, Wes knew what it was, since I really only know garter snakes and I can tell rattlesnakes if they rattle or bite me. It created a great commotion on the beach.
The long drive home meant that we didn’t get home until 10:30pm. After her shower, Tonie was asleep within seconds after promising to wake me up at 8:30 AM with a double espresso. Instead, she woke me up at 9 with a tick (remember the tick?) that she found on the back of her neck. Once the tick was removed, coffee was served.
The Milk River area is one that I have mostly overlooked until now, but I will definitely be back at some point. There seem to be plenty of gravel roads, so I have high hopes that someone will tell me about a great bikepacking route that we can try some time.