I've had a few people ask me to put this on paper, so since I'm avoiding finishing a report that I REALLY need to do for work today, here it is.
I did this run a few years ago, and should have taken some pictures and notes at the time, because my memory is fuzzy on the details. Take all descriptions and measurements with a grain of salt. To tell the truth, I might have the order of the rapids wrong, too. I asked around a bit and didn't find anyone who had done the trip before. Hopefully this will give you a sense of what the trip is like, and maybe encourage you to do it.
IF YOU WANT TO SKIP MY UNNECESSARILY LONG WINDEDED JIBBER-JABBER, SKIP TO THE BOTTOM, where I've outlined the trip details.
After thinking and speculating for a while about what the Upper Upper Red would be like, and being unable to find anyone who'd done it before, I decided there was no time like the present to find out. I squished some instant mashed potatoes, canned corned beef, and a hammock tent from my friend Derek into my mini creek boat (the 6'6 Bliss-Stick Scud). I made it fit by using a full drybag as my foot rests, and replacing my backrest with my foam sleeping pad.
No one jumped at the opportunity to join me for the trip (short notice and an 18 km starting portage probably played a factor…), but my friend Brice kindly and foolishly agreed to hike in with me. This was super handy because it saved me a shuttle, and probably saved me from death by exhaustion.
As can happen, I had a bit of a late start, and when I picked up Brice in Calgary I realized that I'd forgotten one detail. Luckily, the good fellows at UnderCurrents were able to rent me a paddle, and it was time I learned to use a different offset, anyway.
We parked at the “Skoki” lot (the last turn before the main Lake Louise ski hill parking) and had the good fortune to encounter a Louise employee who was headed to the back ski lifts in a pickup truck, and kindly agreed to give us a lift (after he finished scolding us for trying to drive up the “employees only” road by ourselves.) We walked up the valley, past the Temple Lodge and Paradise chair, slightly weirded out by the lack of crowds and snow. I almost immediately abandoned the notion that I might carry my loaded boat on my back the whole way and opted for towing it behind me. I then abandoned the idea that I was going to do so independently, and gratefully accepted Brice's help in pulling it. The sticky spring trail pulled backwards harder than I expected…
Boulder Pass was an easy climb and rewarded us with a fantastic view of Ptarmigan and Baker Lakes: both still partially covered in ice, but with rushes and early spring flowers popping at the margins. We scooted down to the lake, and it was a very welcome relief to pull the boat along effortlessly in the water beside me instead of lugging it through mud.
I took some time to congratulate myself on how smart I was to have bought new sandals just for this trip. They were way more packable than hiking boots, and easily moved from mud to rocks to streams without getting soggy.
Deception Pass was really hard. I was out of shape, you'll probably fare better. The pathway is steep and rather unrelenting. The muddy scree grabbed my boat and threatened to defeat me with every step. By the time we got to the top, both Brice and I were muddy, gasping for breath, and dripping sweat. We collapsed without enjoying the view. I was busy questioning my life decisions and struggling for air, but I think Brice was using the last iota of his strength and wifi signal to unfriend me on facebook. The thing he still doesn't know is that, if you can read a topo map, you'd probably chose to go the OTHER way around Fossil Mountain, past Baker Lake… um… just due to the fact that THAT way is entirely down hill. On the other hand, the view through your tears from the top of Deception Pass could be described as “nice”. “Very nice,” even.
Let's return to my footwear choice. Once we recovered our breath and had a bit of snack, I slowly became aware of the fact that perhaps my sandals weren't perfectly comfortable right out of the box from the store, after all. In fact, it was very possible that they were causing me no pain simply because my feet were numb with cold. I slipped on my neoprene paddling socks and poured hot water into them. It should have been less hot, but it did have the unfortunate effect of bringing the feeling back to my cold, bleeding, and now scalded feet. Four years later and I still have scars from those sandals.
Here nor there. There was a lot of snow on the backside of the pass, and we managed to ride my boat like a toboggan for a while, which was a welcome bit of fun after our little brush with misery.
We camped for the night off the trail in the valley and I sort of learned how my loaned hammock tent worked. The next morning after a bit of hot oatmeal, Brice headed back to the car and I continued pulling my boat in search of the river.
If you have time, you can do a short side-hike to the historic Skoki Lodge. I think they'll even give you tea and cookies if you get there at the right time. I didn't have time for such nonsense, but I did poop in their outhouse. Eventually I made it to the Red Deer Lakes backcountry camping site. This would be a good destination for your first night, as there are pleasant tenting sites, bear cables, and an out house. The landscape is quite fantastic as you leave the forest: Pipestone Mtn. and Mt. Drummond impose in the background while in the foreground, spruce and pine stands give way to a broad valley with an expansive flat bottom populated by dense, 2ft-high, brush.
I followed a wandering trail through the scrub brush and managed to find the point where two small, shallow creeks joined forces to be big enough to float my boat. I'd consider this to be about the upper-runnable extent of the Red Deer River. I happily donned my gear, stuffed my bleeding feet into the cockpit, and set forth on the crystal clear water, happy to be free from the punishment of carrying a boat that was supposed to be carrying me.
The river bubbled me along happily at a pleasant pace, wandering jubilantly through the valley, giving me time to admire the view, or peer down through the water so clear I could see individual snails on the bottom.
My elation lasted about 5 minutes before I was beached on a gravel bar and had to get out. This pattern continued, and I ended up putting my deck on the cockpit and using the boat like a sit on top, legs draped over the sides, which let me easily hop on and off to get through shallow bits. Given that the sun was shining and the wilderness was spectacular, it wasn't unpleasant.
Within an hour, the river convinced me to get back in the boat properly, and I dawdled along admiring the view and thinking about the “waterfall” indicated on the old, rough-scale topo map I had, and what it might be like.
It wasn't very impressive. River flow would have been in the low single digits cms. The “falls” were a small (5ft), jumbled drop with a bumpy but straightforward line on the right. I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't more epic, and continued a short distance, snacking from my cockpit with my spraydeck off, (inexplicably) comfortable with the fact that the only known waterfall on the voyage was now behind me. The nice thing about being dumb are the constant surprises you get treated to in life.
As the river straightened and picked up steam, I happened to notice a horizon line nearing. I scrambled to re-bag my lunch and get my deck back on. A teensy eddy slowed me enough to peer over the small ledge and decide to run it (I had little choice at that point). Another horizon line greeted almost immediately: a small ledge, but with wood on one side, and - judging by the increasingly incessant din – more to come below.
The river (though small) was quick and straight, presenting no eddies. I made a snap decision between possible consequences, and decided to get out as quickly as possible. I tossed my paddle into the trees, popped my deck, and lunged my body onto the passing shore. My boat slipped from my reach. I'm sure you can imagine better ways to do this, and in retrospect, so can I.
The ledge I had been scared of was gentle enough that my boat ran it upright, deck-and-pilot-less. I skittered helplessly along the shore as it ran the next once successfully, as well. By the 3rd ledge, it had capsized, and I was suddenly very aware of the thundering sound coming from downstream – maybe there was a “waterfall” on this trip, after all. Well, that would be exciting.
My boat came to rest on a midstream gravel bar, upside down, 15 ft above a big horizon line over which I could see only the tops of spruce trees. I had some thinking to do.
Having resolved the above situation, I continued through the next playful bit of river. I would never see that sandal, bearspray, or medical kit again, but I still had my map (until I lost it on the next portage).
The order of things gets messy in my memory after this, so excuse the imprecision.
The water is spectacularly clear until a creek from the Drummond Glacier joins from the left. It's interesting to watch the two waters mix.
When hyperbole is common in our everyday speech, it's hard to describe truly fantastic things. The scenery is completely wonderful for the entire way. I know that last week, someone told you your dress was “breathtaking”, and the hamburgers were “totally amazing”, but I can tell you that floating into valley after valley of endless forest and mountains was pretty special.
There were a few more rapids of note.
My favourite was “Tyrannosaur”. It's a small, easy, 5 ft drop where you have the choice of 4 different mini-channels separated by rock outcrops (like the river is pouring between the toes of a large, terrible lizzard.) The most fun is a swirly line to the left, over the “thumb”.
“H Canyon” will probably be run someday by a big shot. I had no interest, especially solo and so remote. It's a small canyon with completely vertical sides to the water's edge. I scouted from river right. The entry to it is a 15-20 ft falls over a diagonal ledge. It looks straight-forward, and much of the outflow goes harmlessly to the right, but a considerable amount goes left, into a deep, dark undercut, from which extraction would be difficult or unlikely. There appear to be a few fun, smaller ledges in the canyon itself, and the way out is another significant drop: perhaps a 6 or 8 ft vertical falls into a 20 or 30 foot very steep, jumbled slide. I didn't spend a ton of time scouting this section, I guess since I'm lazy, had only one shoe, and had lost my map.
By the time I got to Swirly Canyon, the river had some significant volume (25 cms? Wild guess.) I scouted from river left. At the entrance, the river squeezes slightly into a straight-forward 10 ft falls that goes deep (if you have a loaded boat and miss your boof). There is a large, slow but swirly pool following this small falls, and nice eddies on both sides which make getting out easy enough. However, if you must run this, I strongly encourage setting some bulletproof safety, because the outflow pinches into a tight, steep, pour-through that I would judge to be unrunnable. (I think the portage would be easier if you started above the first falls, too.) You can walk the ridge above the short canyon to an easier put in below, but (since I was half barefoot and too lazy / tired / sore to walk that far,) I opted for a scramble/slip down the bank right after the bad bit of the river. A few little rapids rewarded the effort.
At one point you'll come to the Sandhills Warden Cabin (built 1931) – It's usually locked and unoccupied, but it would be worth a call to parks to see if you can rent it and get a key. A night spent there would make the whole experience seem a bit less desperate. Regardless, I highly recommend NOT stopping on the inviting beach upstream of it. Unless you can breathe mosquitoes instead of oxygen. The cabin looks like this: http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=9837
You'll find any number of suitably flat camping spots along the river.
You'll pass under a pedestrian bridge (a relic of the fire road that used to be maintained to this corner of the park). If you wish, you can get out here and walk the short distance up to the designated “Scotch Camp” campsite which has a fire ring but no other facilities (to my knowledge.)
After a few hours of paddling beyond the bridge, I took a break onshore to stretch my legs and dry my gear in the sun. Quite unexpectedly, out of the woods rode 3 attractive European women on horseback. I had been completely alone in the wilderness for 3 days, and with their gently tanned skin, cheerful feminine voices, tight riding jeans, and long blonde hair tousling in the breeze, they were quite a sight for me to behold. In my one sandal, balding helmet hair, threadbare surf shorts, and mal- fitted purple undershirt, I imagine that I was quite a sight for them to behold, too. They suggested I should come back to their cabin with them, and since I was clearly delirious, I agreed. Just because.
It turns out that they were working for the summer at “The Outpost at Warden's Rock,” an outfitters camp nestled in the no-man's land between Banff Park and the YaHa Tinda. The proprietor is a rough old cowboy who looked me up and down as I stood barefoot by his horse corral, asked a few questions as to how I'd gotten there, then said I had better “come in and warm my ass and have a coffee.”
The stop at the outpost was both a welcome sign of civilization, and a sad reminder that my trip was nearing the end. A few hours later I would break for dinner and meet my friends Derek, Micha, and Vanessa, who were on a bicycle-camping trip up from YaHa Tinda.
The last day of the paddling trip was impossibly long. I had cleverly saved weight by packing half of a small can of cooking butane. Porridge made with cold, unfiltered river water isn't a highly recommended way to start the day.
It's an interesting but non-whitewater paddle from Warden's Rock through the YaHa, past the area of the 2005 forest fire, and to the first major bit of civilization – the blue bridge and Mountainaire Lodge. I was racing a thunderstorm most of the day: I could see and hear it whipping up the valley behind me, cracks of lightning prodding me onwards every time I slowed my pace. I blitzed through the popular “Upper Red” run including Gooseberry ledge, S-bends, and Nationals site. I'd HOPED I might be on time to get to Double-ledge in time for the weekly club paddle trip that started from there, imagining how cool I'd be to just “drop in” and join the group, but alas I missed them. The final stretch of river, from Coal Camp to the Town of Sundre, seemed to take forever. Miles and miles of flat river braided through gravel bars. With every bend I erroneously allowed myself to believe that home might be within sight … The sun went down, but I had decided I would get home that night and wouldn't give up at this point. I fantasized about getting home in time for wing night at Swamp Donkey's pub, but last call came and went with no sign of town. I actually started worrying that even if I DID make it home, dinner might be another meal of instant mashed potatoes, lacking anything more substantial in my cupboards. Numerous times I considered camping another night, but decided I HAD to be close – and couldn't bear the idea that I might unknowingly camp with home around just ONE more corner. My hands hurt. My shoulders ached. The sky was grey and starless, soaking me with a persistent, cold, drizzle. I'm not complaining, I've had worse long weekends.
The Sundre bridge in the distance finally brightened my spirits. I paddled under it with a smile, then, because of who I am, misjudged my takeout and managed to wander cluelessly around the woods for a while on way home, within town civic limits and without a clue which direction was home.
When I finally stumbled into my yard, I sadly noticed I'd left my lights on, and scolded myself for it. Getting closer to my door, I could hear that I'd left my radio on, too, 4 days earlier. Fool. As I opened the door I could see that, somehow I HAD LEFT MY GAS STOVE BURNING!? … It turns out that my friends on the bike trip had seen the storm coming and decided that “camping” at Keegan's house seemed a much better idea than another night in the rain and wind. Popcorn was popping, drinks were being poured, and it was a hell of a way to end a pretty fantastic trip.
Anyway, to summarize:
Don't do this trip for the whitewater. There is some, but… I mentioned the walk in, right? DO do this trip for the scenery and the experience. You will be the only human(s) in the whole valley at that time of year, and it's pretty spectacular. Don't paddle all the way to Sundre. Take out at Coal Camp. DO bring me my lost sandal, if you happen across it.
HERE'S THE SUMMARY IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ MY LONG, CHATTY STORY ABOVE:
- Go at the highest flows possible. I did July long weekend.
- It took me 4 days including the hike in.
- The put-in is about an 18 km portage and it's really pretty and a little bit miserable
- Walk in from the Lake Louise Ski area (park at “Skoki” lot, walk through the back side of the resort, over boulder pass, then either over deception pass towards Skoki, or down around Baker Lake.)
- Camp near the put in at the Red Deer Lakes backcountry site – it has bear cables and an outhouse
- The first hour or two the river is very small – 8 ft across, crystal clear, and you'll have to hop out a few times to get over gravel bars.
- Eventually you leave the open valley, the river speeds up a bit, goes over a little (5ft) rocky-slidey drop and you need to portage an unrunnable 30 ft falls onto a jumble of rock.
- Enjoy the run – much of it is floating through a spectacular landscape. You won't see any other humans.
- There are a few rapids of note:
- H canyon: it may be runnable by someone skilled and brave. A small and low volume canyon with completely vertical walls and what looks like a few fun ledges. The entry move is a clean 15-20 ft ledge with most of the flow going safely right, and some of the flow going left into an uncomfortable looking undercut. The last rapid is a small (6ft) ledge into a 30 ft very steep slide.
- Swirly Canyon: The river has more volume at this point. The entry pinches a bit to a clean 12ish ft falls followed by a big pool. Then you have an awkward scramble up and around an unrunnable drop. It's an easier portage if you skip the first drop, too, and if you have a rope.
- “Tyrannosaur” is a small but fun drop where you have the option of 4 different mini channels.
- You'll pass a ranger cabin in a terribly mosquito infested flat area. It is locked and seldom occupied.
- On the last day you'll pass under a foot bridge – this means you're getting closer. A few hours later you'll get to “The Outpost at Warden Rock” - an eclectic outfitter camp.
- A few hours after Warden Rock you'll get to YaHa Tinda, which is the closest place you could have parked a car. You're still probably 9 hours from Sundre, and I don't recommend the long, slow, braided float to town. It is worth continuing from the YaHa through the commonly paddled “Upper Red” sections though (Gooseberry, Nationals, Double, Coal Camp…)
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Drive west from Sundre, turn left/south at the signs for coal camp / mountainaire. Follow this paved road as it winds to the river. Park at coal camp, or wherever farther up that you choose.
From Lake Louise, go right/ northish from the highway, towards the ski hill. Before you get to the main hill parking, there is a sign for skoki parking. Go to that lot. Try to wrangle a ride to the back lifts to save some uphill walking.
Wilderness float with some fun rapids
July / high water. Watch the gauge and try to go when it's fairly high, so the upper reaches are most runnable.
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