Red Deer River – Content to Tolman Bridge

Trip Dates: Friday, August 31, 2018 to Sunday, September 2, 2018
Total Trip Distance (km): 65
Difficulty Notes: A pretty tame river run from Class I to II depending on water levels. Suitable for all levels of canoeist in lower water.
GPS Track: Download

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!

Red Deer River Content to Tolman Bridge Route Map

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.

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.

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.

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.

That cloud looks a bit strange. It’s calm right now but it’s moving rather quickly towards us.

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 80 km/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 re-positioned it but was nervous about our boats blowing away. Thank goodness my 40 lb 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!

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 40-60 km/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.

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 (5 km/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.

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.

My UltaMid 2 is in its happy place here!
A great evening along the river.

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.

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.

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!

The Red Deer River surprised me in a good way. Although it’s a far cry from the “true” wilderness of Woodland Caribou Park, it’s still well worth the easy paddle and I’ll be back for a longer trip someday.

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