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Milk River Paddling With Fiona

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.














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Elbow Lake, the frozen edition.


The Highwood Pass highway closes on December 1 every year for the winter. We decided to squeeze in one last camping trip to our favourite spot, Elbow Lake. This time we brought along Fiona’s schoolmate to share the adventure. We also brought Fiona’s class mascot since it was her turn to have him home for the weekend and write up what they did together.

In late November, the sun sets early and so by the time we drove out and hiked in to the campsite, we were setting up in twilight and cooking in complete darkness.

Tania and Tadhg got to share the palace. I was under the tarp with the girls.

This being a winter camping trip, we were expecting cold, and we got it.  I knew things were pretty chilly when my fingers were sticking to metal as I prepared dinner. Though I didn’t bring a thermometer, from past experience I would say that the temperature after sunset was in the -20ºC range, possibly colder.

Priority for warmth definitely goes to the kid that isn’t mine, so we made sure that both girls were well bundled for daytime and for sleeping. Fiona kept to her policy of sleeping under a tarp and she and her friend were well protected – cocooned in their individual sleeping bags, both of them inside a double bag. The nighttime temperature dropped, definitely into the low -20s. I had placed some water bottles between me and the girls in the hope of keeping them thawed, but they were quite frozen by morning. The girls slept through the night with me waking nervously to check on them from time to time.

We slept in on Saturday morning and didn’t start coffee until after 9. We spent the day on a leisurely hike down the Elbow Valley toward Tombstone campground. The valley is always beautiful, but with a coating of snow and hoar frost on the trees, the beauty was magnified.

We headed back to camp fairly early so we could prep dinner in at least some light. The kids took that as an opportunity to sled on the trail leading into the campground.

Saturday evening discussion revolved around whether it was colder or warmer than the night before, but it mattered little – once you get below -20ºC, you need to pay attention. I heated up the water bottles and wrapped them in clothing to keep them from freezing overnight.

I was thrilled that the girls slept just as well our second night out as our first. After reading to them for half an hour or so, I didn’t hear from them until morning.

I had Tania’s first cappuccino delivered by 8 AM. The happy kids did some more sledding after breakfast while we packed. We hit the trail back to the car by 11.

Thought the morning had dawned cold, by the time we reached the parking lot, the temperature had warmed to what felt to us like tropical: we guessed just below freezing, but someone in the parking lot told me -8ºC. Typical for this type of trip that the warmth comes as we leave.

Thanks to Mia and Jim for the loan of their 7-year-old daughter for the weekend, that was a big show of trust, and it made our weekend that much more fun.


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Assiniboine 2015 part 2: Smokin’

Our second day of hiking dawned a little hazy.  We assumed it was some sort of weird fog until it occurred to us that it was responsible for the campfire smell that we had noticed during the night.

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Even with our view obscured by campfire smoke, the trail was stunning.  Since the longer view was hidden, we payed more attention to details that we might otherwise have missed.  The area around Mt. Assiniboine has a tremendous variety of ground cover and Fiona delighted in pointing out mushrooms and naming them.  I am not a mycologist, so some of these may be repeats, but there was still a huge variety.

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Our second day’s hike was much shorter than the first and so even though we dallied in getting started, we arrived at the Og lake campground in reasonable time for dinner.  The lake itself was not huge, but was in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains.  It would have been nice to see them, but we still really enjoyed the surroundings.  Most happily for Tadhg it was the day that we ate the supper from his pack, so he would be treated to a lighter load on the third day.

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Fiona has declared that she only sleeps under tarps now. It’s a water filter, not an IV bag.

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Our third day of hiking was a short 7km to Lake Magog campground.  Though we were close to Mount Assiniboine, we could not tell it was there.  The smoke was thick enough that visibility was under 200m. We were disappointed, but we tried to make the best of it.

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Fiona likes swimming in glacial mountain lakes, a pastime not at all affected by smoke.

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Bringing mom her backcountry cappuccino

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Since we figured the smoke probably wouldn’t last forever, we decided to stay an extra night and spend three nights rather than two at Lake Magog.  We figured that this would give us the time to wait for the smoke to clear.  Tadhg was dead set against it since it meant that we were redistributing the extra food among all of us instead of using it to curb his insatiable appetite.

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We spent our days enjoying the mountains, dayhiking (though the views were somewhat obscured), swimming in the lakes (well, Fiona anyway), and enjoying what we could see.  We hiked the Nub a few times if it looked like the smoke was thinning in hopes of getting a good view.  Though we never got the spectacular views we hoped for, we did get the fun of the hikes and the kids got lots of time to play.

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The evening of our second day at Magog was at least moderately clear.  Tania had the very good sense to hurry us through supper and down to the lake shore to take advantage of the break in the smoke.  It was a good thing since this was the clearest view we would get of the majestic Mt. Assiniboine.

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Part 3 coming soon

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My bike on the Iditarod Trail
My bike on the Iditarod Trail

Back in the days before before fatbikes were common, there was a bike/run/ski race on the Iditarod trail called the Iditasport.  In 2002, it was replaced by the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  In 2001, the final year of Iditasport, RJ Sauer made a documentary called “A Thin White Line.”  The film is now on Vimeo and if you haven’t, you should watch it.  I am not in it since I did the race in 2002, but it is very accurate in its portrayal of the trail and racers.  When I talk about “type 2 fun” and “I’m not giving up just because it’s hard” it is in direct reference to this film.