I spent 2.5 days over the 2018 September long weekend on a canoe trip with two brothers-in-law (Mike and Calvin) and our sons on the Red Deer River, canoeing from Content Bridge near the Tail Creek Campground to Tolman Bridge, near the Tolman Campground. This is a fairly nontechnical, low consequence river canoe trip that is perfect for families or novice canoeists. Later in the year water levels drop to a point that you should expect to be out of your boat several times per day in order to avoid grounding on the river bottom!
There is plenty of random camping along the route but note that fire bans are a possibility and can be on either or both sides of the river depending on the different counties that issue them. Also be aware that there is no random camping allowed in Dry Island Buffalo Provincial Park. The scenery along the route goes from prairie to badlands and is quite stunning in places. Wildlife includes many species such as eagles, osprey, coyotes, many different types of waterfowl, beavers, muskrats, deer and cows (!!). Lots of cows. Many potential campsites have a lot of cow paddies, so be aware of where exactly you set up camp or you could be startled in the middle of the night! There are enough formal campgrounds (Tail Creek, McKenzie Crossing, Trenville Park and the Tolman East and West campgrounds) that you could avoid random camping if you wish.
We didn't have the time or the inclination to do side trips, but many folks take time to hike up the hoodoos, cliffs and hills adjacent to the river and their campsites which would provide a more in-depth experience and the opportunity for photographing flowers and likely some good astrophotography as well, considering the dark skies along the route. We took just over 2 days to complete the 65km trip but we pushed it a bit because of the weather forecast for the last day. I only say we pushed it because we had kids along. An accomplished canoeist could do the entire 65km in one long day as we were only on the water for about 14 hours total.
One disappointment for our group was the lack of good fishing but this was likely due to a combination of low water and murkiness thanks to a rain storm on the first morning. I know that there is decent fishing on the Red Deer River, we just didn't have the time or the conditions to take advantage of it properly. Speaking of water, since there are no portages along this route, I recommend taking fresh water along rather than flirt with river water. There are lots of cows along the route and I wouldn't drink the water without at least treating it. There is even fresh water available at most of the campgrounds and picnic areas along the route so you can refill your supply.
Friday, August 31 | Content Bridge to Camp on Gravel Bar - 45min, 3km
Due to scheduling constraints we couldn't leave the Content Bridge / Tail Creek area until late on Friday. We finally got the boats in the water around 19:00 and realized that we could only go down river about an hour at most before setting up camp to beat darkness. The water was low for this first section and we ended up out of the boats a few times. The evening was absolutely lovely with soft light and no bugs. We ended up on a gravel bar in the river, only inches above the water level. Despite feeling like we had a pretty pristine camp, I was a bit nervous about what would happen in a severe rain storm. Would the water rise enough to flood our gravel bar? We also had no wind protection which didn't bother us at first because our evening was so pleasant. Unfortunately we were about to learn our lesson regarding river camping on gravel bars with no weather protection...
[I packed as I normally do for wilderness canoe trips, which meant limited gear. One of the packs is a tent and sleeping gear for Calvin and his two boys, so not even part of our gear. The little red cooler pack was an extravagance that provided two suppers for Niko and I - delicious and easy to prepare smokies. Next time I'll be a little more indulgent and include better camp chairs and likely a slightly bigger cooler. There is no portaging on the Red Deer River!]
[Driving down to the river near the Tolman Campground where our trip would end. Thanks to the nature of river trips we needed to do vehicle shuttles which took a few extra hours up front.]
[Packing gear at the Content Bridge. We chose to pay $20 to unload and park a vehicle on this side of the river at the Tail Creek Campground. You can also park and launch on the opposite side for free, but it's not as protected or convenient with steeper shorelines.]
[Ready to rock 'n roll! I used my Souris River Quetico 16' Carbon-Tec boat while Calvin, Mike and Niko used rentals from the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre. The rental boats were Prospectors which meant more rocker and easier to turn quickly in current. They were also basically indestructible compared to my 40lb see-through boat! My boat traveled much quicker than the others, but next time I'll likely rent too as we did hit more than a few rocks in the low water.]
[Calvin and Rokko.]
[Mike and Carter are out of the boat due to a very shallow section of river.]
[Looking back at Mike and Calvin walking their boats through a shallow section.]
[Niko and Derik had a 16' Prospector which was more difficult to steer than the longer 17' models. That was their excuse anyway... ]
[The gravel bar that we camped on was barely above river level and is certainly *not* above river level earlier in the year.]
[We set up camp in growing darkness. Note that my canoe was tied to some rocks as I never trust it untied - it's so light. The other canoes weren't tied up but probably should have been on hindsight. Lesson learned!]
[We enjoyed a nice fire to end the first evening out. It was cold enough to justify not only the fire, but toques, fleece and even down jackets!]
[Map of our first day and part of the second. We camped near the tent symbol on Friday night. ++]
Saturday, September 01 | Camp on Gravel Bar to Camp on Grassy Shore - 8 hours, 33+ km
As predicted by the updated weather forecast (I still had cell service at our first campsite), it rained pretty steadily throughout the night on Friday. My Hyperlite Mountain Gear Pyramid tent is perfect for canoe trips but has been leaking more and more, especially when exposed to driving wind and rain. Due to the lack of any protection on the exposed gravel bar, moisture was blowing right into the tent at points throughout the night which was far from ideal! I also hadn't set up the insert properly and this didn't help the situation. The tub insert for the 'mid is perfect except one small detail. When the outer tent leaks, the water sits in the tub floor forming puddles instead of leaching into the ground like it normally would without the insert. Niko wasn't impressed and I felt bad. I wished I had a more weatherproof tent that first night - the mid is normally bombproof but apparently mine is ready for replacement. And replacement isn't cheap.
[I crawled out of a wet tent around 07:00 to a very humid, cool, wet morning scene.]
[As you can see - we have no protection on this site and the river has come up a bit overnight. Not quite the AAA campsite we first thought it was.]
As we slowly started waking up and moving around, I casually glanced west and was shocked to see a severe wall cloud moving towards our exposed camp very quickly! What the heck was going on?! The updated forecast initially called for the rain to end at around 07:20 but it was 07:21 and a severe storm front was moving straight towards us. I yelled over at the few people that were up and out of their tents to hurry up and get back inside. I was very nervous about the winds that I was sure were going to arrive any second and glanced nervously at the boats before diving into our tent and holding on for dear life!
[Holy CRAP! Where did THIS thing come from?! A threatening wall cloud moves very rapidly towards our exposed camp. I cautioned everyone to get into the tents and HOLD ON. ++]
At first I thought I might have been wrong. The clouds moved over us and there was an eerie calm - no wind at all! Then it hit. Yikes. I've been in my tent in a few severe storms this year for some reason, but this one was pretty scary due to our exposure and the fact that we had so many kids along. The winds were at least 80km/h at times and included hail and rain. Thankfully there was no thunder. At one point I asked Niko what that "sound" was and realized quickly that it was a canoe blowing across the rocky ground! I dove out of the tent and repositioned it but was nervous about our boats blowing away. Thank goodness my 40lb boat was tied to a pile of rocks! Also thank goodness I'm anal about packing up camp as soon as I awake, as Niko and I were in full Gore-Tex already and had our sleeping gear packed away. We thought there was puddles in the tent before the storm!
[The front moves over our camp, absolutely hammering us with strong winds, rain and hail.]
Thankfully the storm moved through quickly and a blue sky appeared soon afterwards (it didn't stay blue for long). The strong winds died down but were still plenty strong at 40-60km/h and we had issues packing up camp including Calvin's tent nearly blowing away with him inside (!!) and Mike losing a sleeping pad temporarily to the nearby river! Again - lessons were certainly learned about where to set up camp with bad weather pending. We got away with one this time but losing a boat or even a tent to the river could be a real problem, especially further downriver where it's more remote and there's no cell service. We slowly packed up a soaking wet camp and had a nice big breakfast of bacon and eggs to cheer ourselves up a bit before setting off for day 2 at around 11:00. It felt good to be paddling down the river after all the drama of the storm.
[Calvin is in here somewhere calling for help. I decided a photo had to be taken first though. Calvin wasn't too impressed at the time... ]
[As you can see, it's pretty cool and gray at 11:00 on Saturday but it still feels good to be on the river again.]
The rest of the day went much smoother than the first few hours. We paddled past steep cliffs and gentle rolling prairie hills, witnessing waterfowl, beavers and even eagles along the way. The river was very muddy compared to the night before, thanks to the rain. Fishing was difficult due to the fast current (5km/h) so we didn't do much of that. I found myself really enjoying the river trip as compared to my normal lake trips. It was certainly different in a number of ways but not all of them were for the worse. The river trip was much easier and quicker to paddle, even against the wind. We were less remote than I normally am, but still out of cell range and still quite alone for the most part. A short section of river contained two interesting sections. The first was a "sideways" rapid that was too shallow to run so we lined it. Mike almost tipped his boat here in higher water on a previous trip after getting hung up on a rock. The second was a section of class I rapids that we all ran with no issues and was a blast!
[A gaggle of Merganser's (ducks) tries to escape our attention.]
[Lovely landscapes dotted our whole route. The fall colors helped brighten a cloudy day.]
[My nephew, Liam, was a great canoe partner. Is that blue sky we're seeing?]
[We saw quite a few Herons along the river.]
[This was a section of river that was simply too shallow to canoe through. During high water it can be a tricky little run due to its sideways flow and some shallow rocks that can hang up the boat in a strong current threatening to flip it. We lined the boats through here rather than take risks.]
[Leaving the rapids.]
[The sky clears off and the paddling becomes downright pleasurable.]
[Calvin enjoys a perfect day on the Red Deer with his son. Doesn't get much better than this!]
[Taking breaks is key when traveling with kids. There were tons of cows on the east side of the river here.]
[A pair of eagles along the river.]
[The sun is getting low as we search for a good campsite on Saturday. We really wanted to avoid making the same mistakes as the previous day, although the forecast was better.]
Late in the afternoon we started to search for a good campsite. We didn't want to repeat our mistakes from Friday evening, and it was a bit frustrating to find a good site. Thankfully we held off some of the earlier "options" because we ended up finding a near-perfect site on the west side of the river at around 18:30. This site was still slightly exposed, which we didn't love, but it was elevated and located on some nice soft grass. We had easy access to the river and even a spot on a pebble shoreline for a safe fire.
[This spot slightly below camp was the perfect spot for our campfire.]
[My Ultramid 2 is in its happy place here!]
[A great evening along the river. ++]
[Family canoe trips are a great way for everyone to catch up without distractions.]
[Evening settles in and with the clearing skies comes some very cool air!]
[Nothing like a fire to make the outdoors cozier. There was plenty of driftwood along the river banks to make a nice fire without harvesting any standing timber.]
Sunday, September 02 | Camp on Grassy Shore to Tolman East Campground - 7 hours, 33 km
Naturally it rained a bit on Saturday night, but nothing like the rain on Friday night or Saturday morning and thanks to a better tent setup we didn't get any moisture this time. Between the heavy dew on Sunday morning and the light showers, however, everything was still soaking wet! I enjoyed the sounds of yipping coyotes near camp before everyone else got up - I don't hear that every day. The nice part about Sunday morning was the ability to light a fire for warmth while we enjoyed another hearty breakfast of bacon, hash browns and egg wraps - with a strong cup of coffee of course! We managed to break camp a bit earlier than the day previous and made the decision to paddle all the way to the end of the trip rather than wilderness camp another night as initially planned. The reasoning behind this decision was a pretty dismal forecast for Monday including highs of 8 degrees with pouring rain. Gross.
[Much nicer than 24 hours earlier! (But still soaking wet.)]
[Back on the Red Deer! Note the Hyperlite Mountain Gear packs? They are perfect for canoe trips since they're completely waterproof, very strong and very light. And no - I'm not a gear ambassador for HMG, although I've tried. I just really, really love their products.]
Sunday was a beautiful day despite the winds being turned around and into us from the south. We felt like we had to paddle more than we actually did, therefore we shaved some time off our total by going a bit faster than we needed to. We stopped at a lovely picnic area for lunch in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park before continuing on down river. It took a bit longer than originally planned but we paddled under the Tolman Bridge at around 17:30 just in time to grab a couple of campsites and get setup for the evening. One interesting note about Sunday is that we started seeing some motor boats on the river despite it being only inches deep in spots! We spoke to one couple who was fishing for Goldeye, which are quite prolific in this river.
[Another lovely day along varied landscapes.]
[It was another cool morning. September is a tricky time for wilderness trips as it can be 30 degrees or 5. On the same day.]
[Paddling under the McKenzie Crossing Bridge - there's also a campground near here.]
[The river widens significantly in places, necessitating more paddling than I was expecting. Apparently some groups get into trouble on the Red Deer River because they assume it's an easy float and don't bring proper gear for paddling.]
[Lots of waterfowl along the riverbanks.]
[Dramatic landscapes as we enter Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park.]
[There was evidence of shoreline erosion especially along the more muddy sections where random camping would be a mess.]
[Canoeing is good for the soul. Everyone should go on at least one canoe trip in their lives.]
[A nice break at the Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park day use picnic area. There is also fresh water here so you can top up your water supplies.]
[Dramatic cliffs and hills along the route - this isn't a boring paddle by any means! The river also got quite deep in spots, which explained the presence of motor boats.]
[I love these little draws and canyons that lead to the river and hold wildlife trails.]
[Another wide section of river.]
[Looking back at dramatic cliffs as we leave Dry Island Park.]
[The Tolman Bridge comes into view.]
[Paddling under the Tolman Bridge.]
[Our campsite at Tolman East Campground.]
We had a great evening at the campground, although finding firewood was an interesting exercise. Basically we went to the river and scrounged up driftwood from the west shore. Good thing I had my bucksaw along because I had to cut up some pretty big logs to get enough wood to burn. The campground cost $21/night and was unsupervised although a parks employee did drive through early in the evening. One highlight of Sunday night was a night hike into the sandstone hills next to the campground to look at the Milky Way.
Of course it poured again on Monday morning - as predicted - and the weather was pretty darn cold. We were very happy we made the decision to get all the way to the campground as paddling against a strong wind in 8 degrees and driving rain is NOT the way to get kids (or adults) to come on future canoe trips!