Badlands SUP Touring Trip: South Saskatchewan River


Total  Time: 2.5 Days

Total Distance: 85 km

Put In: Highway 879 bridge on the South Saskatchewan River

Take Out: Strathcona Island Park boat launch, Medicine Hat, Alberta

A good trip begins with an idea.  For me, it was me at Strathcona Island Park in Medicine Hat a few years ago. We were visiting my in-laws and they took us to the park for a few hours.  The park is right on the South Saskatchewan River and I was astounded at the high cliffs so I took a quick picture and messaged it to Keith saying “Let’s paddle here someday.”  A few years later: here we are, being hosted in the lap of luxury by my gracious in-laws.

We weren’t coming in blind. I had picked up a copy of Arie Vandervelden’s excellent book “Prairie Paddling: Paddling Alberta’s Badlands by Canoe” which gave some good advice and expected timelines for paddling the South Saskatchewan.  I highly recommend this book!  I even emailed Arie a few questions and he got back to me with answers – seems like a great guy.  Canoes travel faster than SUPs but the book gave us an education idea of how long it might take.  Arie’s book said that depending on water and wind, we could expect for the trip to take 2 and a half days.  We chose late June since water levels are supposed to be at their highest which makes for nice cruising speeds.  Since it took us 10 hours to drive to Medicine Hat from Winnipeg we booked 5 days for the trip; 2 for travel and 3 for paddling. We were able to fit all our equipment (including boards and ourselves) inside a Honda Accord!

 

Keith and I had already overnighted on our touring SUPs but this was our first attempt at two nights. We picked up a few more dry bags including some Red Paddle Co roll tops and my new baby, a Watershed Colorado in black.  My complete set up was:

-Red Paddle Co 13’2 Voyager + Inflatable SUP

-Black Project EPIC full Carbon paddle

-Black Project School spare paddle

-104 litre Colorado dry bag (aka “The bedroom”): machete, tent, Hennessey hammock, reflector pad, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, Helinox chair one)

-30 Liter MEC dry bag (aka “The Kitchen”): Food, kitchen bag, primus stove, isobutane canister, plates, cutlery, extra water bottle, etc.

-30 Liter Red Paddle Co dry bag (aka “The Office”): Towel, sunglasses, phone, water bottle, sunscreen, toilet paper/trowel, snacks/lunch, clothing, guidebook, multi-tool, headlamps, rain shell, etc. This was the bag I could easily access for anything I’d want on the board or at a stop.

Day 1

We got to the trailhead at Highway 879 and discovered no easy put in spots.  Instead, we had to hike down from the bridge with all of our gear – after first inflating the boards in front of a rather large looking ranch.  The sign on the gate was interesting.  I wasn’t sure which of these fierce creatures was the most fearsome:

Luckily the traffic wasn’t too bad at 8:30 in the morning so we managed to offload all the gear quickly on the bridge and get it and our boards and down to the water. We then began figuring out where to put what.

With the help of my in-laws and a quick prayer for safety, we set out on the water a little after 9 am.  Initially, we felt very heavy in the water but after a few minutes we got our legs back and started to enjoy the views.  The badlands are quite stunning.  We noticed that the river was fast but not too fast – averaging about 4 km per hour without paddling.

It was definitely hot! One of the things I wanted from this trip was the freedom to stop and explore whenever we wanted.  So after about an hour, I noticed what looked like an old car hidden in the hills by the side of the river.  Not sure how it could have got there since the hills around it look impossibly steep, but we stopped and checked it out:

Next, we paddled steadily in the growing heat til we saw a beautiful stand of huge trees with an abandoned building behind it.  We stopped in and found a most excellent campsite under the trees – it had everything you might want including a nice fire ring, an abandoned building to check out, and pasture all around with cactus, flowers, and beautiful vistas. 

After exploring the run-down building, we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy the shade of the trees.  If we had made it here earlier in the day we'd easily have stopped here for the night - such a great spot. Lunch was easy as my mother-in-law had packed some for both of us.  Yes, we were coddled but how could we say no to it? Our usual approach to is to use our “Office” dry bag to keep all of our daily essentials in so whenever we stop for lunch or for a rest, we only need take the one bag off the board. 

Note: When paddling down this river close to summer the temperatures can get very high.  Make sure you being/drink plenty of water and try to stop where you can find shade. Trees grow along much of the river but they are not always dependable and you might go up to an hour before finding some. 

After lunch, we got back on our boards and then disaster struck.  As I pushed off from shore I noticed that my board was all over the place. Arghhh – had I lost my tracking fin? Yes, yes I had.  The tracking fin stabilizes the board and helps it to stay straighter when you paddle.  Mine had apparently fallen off and sunk.  This is very rare so I’m guessing I hadn’t attached it quite correctly.  Sadly, we couldn’t find it and had no spare.  So, for the rest of the trip, I had to change my strokes and switch paddling sides more often.  I was pretty bummed out at first but after an hour or two I got mostly used to it – I was just slower and it was more challenging to try paddling against the current.  Lesson learnt: always bring a spare fin! 

The temperatures keep increasing and we enjoyed the beautiful views.  At one point we passed an island and a little islet of the main island looked like a perfect place to stop for a break and go for a dip.  It felt very good to cool down and enjoy the fast-moving shallow waters – though we had to swim in the lee of the island where the current wasn’t so fast.

We decided to try to find a place to camp somewhere between 5 and 6 pm.  That would leave us plenty of time to set up camp.  We both planned to use our hammocks that night and knew we were a bit rusty so setup might take a while.  There are no official camping spots on this river so you just find a good place and that’s where you camp.  We came across a sweet looking island a little after 5 and stopped to explore. It was nice but was either too exposed or had too much grass and undergrowth.  “I don’t love it,” said Keith and I agreed.  While we were discussing I noticed a great looking stand of trees on the riverbank across from us.  The trees looked big and since cattle had been through there it was also little undergrowth.  The only issue was trying to cross.  The current was strong and I had no stabilizer fin.   We decided to risk trying and if we couldn’t make it, we’d meet past the island and find something else.  I got out in the current as far as I could and then pushed off – and paddled like mad.  Somehow, exhausted I managed to make the other side.  This spot was perfect for us because there was a beautiful cliff nearby that could be scrambled up.  I hoped that after supper we could climb up and maybe even get cell phone service to let our families know where we were. The black marks that you can see in the cliffs are apparently coal deposits: 

Soon after we started to unload a massive wind storm hit us – strong enough to flip over one of the boards! We immediately moved all of our gear to safe spots so it wouldn’t blow away but after about 15 minutes when the wind died down and we set up our hammocks.  Modern hammocks like the ones we have from Hennessy are great.  With bug nets and a full fly, they are comfortable, light, and safe from the elements.  Being off the ground is also nice.  They do take a while to learn how to set up well.  Here's a pic of my hammock partially set up - with the fly not quite tied down yet.

Once the hammocks were up, we opened up our food, got the stove going and Keith made us a delicious pasta dinner. 

Later, after cleaning our dishes and putting things away, we hung up our dry bags on some branches and hiked up the nearby large hill.  For Manitobans like us, this hill felt like mountains but it was probably only about 8-10 stories tall.  At the top we had stellar views:

Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite get cell phone reception so since we were so high up already we found a hill that was only a little higher and hiked up it.  Success!  With a few bars of service, we messaged our families letting them know that we were safe and sent them a few pics.  Then we headed down, hung out for a while in our camp chairs, and hit the hay a little after 10 pm.  A great first day.

 

Day 2 

We woke snug in our hammocks - to fair conditions and sun – and had a hearty oatmeal breakfast.  We had paddled a little over 35 km the first day so we took our time packing up.   But it doesn’t take too long before the itch to be on the water and exploring again got strong.  Keith noticed that water levels had risen half an inch or so overnight – so the runoff from the mountains must be continuing.  We loaded up the boards, experimenting with stowing our bags differently and then pushed off.

 

Again, much beautiful scenery, many beautiful canyons with strong current again.  Our first stop of the day was at an old pump house.

There are many of these old pumphouses along the river.  As you can see from the pictures, some farmer or rancher put a lot of time, energy, and money establishing them but then abandoned it.  This is a common sight but always makes me feel a little sad.  Maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm and realized that these broken down pumphouses were all a calculated investment and gamble by some hard-working farmer – a gamble then eventually didn’t pay off.

A geological feature that we noted – if one side of the river had high hill or cliffs (some quite high) the other didn’t.  Keith and I would usually paddle near the higher side of the river – and often I’d notice we’d both just be gazing at the cliffs and quietly enjoying the grandeur. Occasionally we’d paddle past cattle and a few times we saw antelope scaling the steep hills – an impressive sight.  The nice thing about a paddle board is you can stand, sit, kneel, and yes, even fully recline...

As the day wore on, the sky darkened and we could see it was raining off in the distance.  Somehow the winding river seemed to keep us out of the precipitation and just as we were contemplating stopping for a late lunch, we came around a bend and saw a really cool old house in the distance. 

As we got closer the homestead seemed to be in amazing condition and Keith and I debated on whether it was inhabited or not (I argued it was not).  There were no cars but interestingly there seemed to be a Canadian flag flying and flowers on the porch.

We landed at the base of the property and I suggested we go up and take a look.  Keith was somewhat hesitant, with a darkened sky it did look a little “Hitchcocky” and rather foreboding and he was worried that maybe there were inhabitants - the type that maybe they would not take kindly to people poking around. Perhaps they had firearms?  This seemed plausible to me, but I was really curious to look around so I suggested we take our big water container and go up. If there were inhabitants around we could ask for water.  If there weren’t, we could look around.  Surprisingly Keith agreed to this.  It was a long way up to the top of the hill to the house and along the way, Keith was feeling apprehensive and said something about how this was his first time doing something like this.  I told him it was my first time too!  This did not reassure him in the least but since we’d already made it halfway up he grudgingly kept going to the top.

We walked carefully up to the house, trying to present ourselves as innocently and non-threateningly as possible.  We sighed relief – the house was indeed locked up and empty.  It was just painted nicely with a flag and had some nice plastic flowers – making it indeed look inhabited.  Here’s a picture of Keith knocking politely on the padlocked door and not getting an answer.

The homestead was truly a beautiful site – the house kept up and the outbuildings with a much more weathered look.  

We could tell that the land was still used based on the evidence of cattle being there recently.  We spent a few minutes looking around this incredible property and then ate lunch down at the river’s edge.  As we did it began to lightly rain.

After lunch, we pushed off and soon after did our only run of rapids – tons of fun!  We almost turned back to do it again but going against the current without my fin made it too difficult.

We spent some time relaxing. The nice thing about a paddle board is that you can stand, kneel, or just lay back and relax.  With such a strong current, you can relax and know that you are still making pretty good time.  I love this river!  For the next few hours, it rained off and on but not too badly.  We saw lightning once or twice but it was a few miles away and didn’t repeat.  At one point though the wind changed and instead of being at our back it was against us – this made for a good hour of tougher paddling but it didn’t last for too long so we were content.

 

Around 5 pm we were coming up on Galt Island, a large island south of Redcliffe and since I had really wanted to camp on an island we headed to the more private west side (the east side of the river had cottages).  Landing here was not easy as the current increases in strength around both sides of the island.  Finally, we found a place to make landfall and then we scrambled up and explored the island – which ended up being much larger than we anticipated.  Soon after landing we sensed that we had disturbed some hawks who screamed at us incessantly.  Finally, we set up camp and I decided to try using my tent while Keith sent up his hammock.  It was a beautiful campsite with a nice view of some huge cliffs across the river. The hawks kept screaming at us and then finally left to hunt prey across the river – which is when I noticed a large nest only a few meters away in a large tree.  Ah, that is why they seemed so upset by us!

In spite of the hawks screeching at us, we set up camp. Here's what Keith's Hennessy hammock looks like without the rain fly:

Time to eat.  I rate Chicken Vindaloo a solid 8.5 out of 10.

We had a great supper of rehydrated food packs from MEC and were just hanging out when all of a sudden I heard a strange noise.  It was hard to hear but almost sounded like air or gas escaping.  I looked over at my drybag a few feet away from me but couldn’t seem to locate where the sound was coming from.  Keith wasn’t hearing anything.  Suddenly there was a slight movement and I saw a snake – perfectly camouflaged in the dry leaves.  The sound I had heard was the sound of its body moving over the leaves.  “Keith, it’s a snake!” I said, excited by the uninvited guest a few feet away from me.  “Whoa – look at its tail.” he said, “It’s a rattler!”

Now suddenly I wasn’t as excited.  My father-in-law is a retired doctor and had let me know that the nearest hospital did not stock anti-venom.  Being bitten by a rattlesnake could be a huge problem.  The rattler did not seem put off by our concerns – instead, he slowly slithered closer.  Yelling at it and making noise did little to deter it.  We debated using my machete to end its life but as I felt bad killing it and Keith wasn’t sure I could get close enough to deliver a decent blow without it attacking me, we opted instead to get a long stick and gently move it away from the camp.  This worked well and eventually it disappeared into the long grass close to the river’s edge.  Since we were now close enough to civilization that I could get cell service, I quickly looked up how deadly a rattler’s bite could be.  This was a mistake – and I was rather on edge the rest of the evening. Luckily the excitement ended there and the snake did not return and we retired for the night.  Ironically, I had left my tent door open a little so I made a thorough check inside before going to sleep.  Another 35 km day, here's the view from my tent door:

Day 3

Woke up to the sound of some large animal (probably a deer) running past my tent.   Definitely a lot of wildlife on Galt island!  We broke camp and loaded up the boards.  Keith had offered to switch to my finless board but I had declined. 

When we got to the water’s edge I asked him which board was mine and he pointed to the one on the left.  A few seconds as we pushed off our fully loaded boards, Keith remarked that he was spinning around a lot.  “Oh, no - you’ve lost your fin too!” I said.  Technically I was incorrect, Keith had just accidentally taken my board and I now had his.  I felt bad for him (and secretly pleased as he had ribbed me a bit the past few days) and immediately I offered to switch boards. He, of course, was too much of a gentleman.  A few minutes later as we went past the island he hit some cross-currents and I heard a splash – and he took the first (and only) dunk of the trip.  No problems balancing after that though.

 

The weather was nice and warm as we paddled to our next destination – Echo Dale Park.  As we got closer to where I was sure it was we began to see some boat traffic and I pulled over to the south side of the river to chat with some guys fishing off the side.  They seemed quite friendly but didn’t seem to have any idea where Echo Dale Park was (or couldn’t understand me).  Ironically, we were almost on top of it and somehow missed it.  There is a boat launch on the map but it was so small and tiny that though there was a large group of people launching from it, I didn’t believe it was the Park so we didn’t stop.

 

We did pause long enough to talk to some people who seemed to be doing a float down to Medicine Hat. When they saw our gear and dishevelled appearances, they seemed quite awed and asked us all kind of questions about our trip.  This group was mostly staff at a high school and a few families and tourists as well.  Floating or paddling from Echo Dale to Medicine Hat is a pleasant trip on a cool day – something I’d recommend for anyone visiting the area.  The teachers were not only curious about us but generous – inviting us to their BBQ at the Strathcona Island Park take out.  We thanked them and pulled away to explore the other side of the river.

Shortly after this, I noticed a little creek at the base of some very high hills.  This was exciting since in the last 75km this was the first true creek we’d seen coming off this river.  I convinced Keith that this would be a good place to safely park the SUPs and so we eased them into the shallow and muddy creek.  Keith, of course, bugged me about how he could go further in since he had no fin.  Here’s what it looked like when we’d scrambled up above the creek:

I really enjoy climbing these hills (nothing of the sort exists in Manitoba) so we decided to hike to the top of a very high hill nearby.  Along the way, we found some cool looking cave-like holes which we were tempted to drop into but since our headlamps were back at our boards we reluctantly moved on.

As we climbed up, we noticed some trails.  We followed one for a while and saw signs like these:

Apparently, there are mountain bike trails in this area.  Sadly none of them went to the top of our target hill but I’m guessing they would be very fun single-track to ride. So we continued our climb:

With no clear path to the top Keith put us out on a good route and we were scrambling up close to the top when I heard a yell – Keith put his hand down onto a cactus. Technically he grabbed at it which did not help him pain-wise.  This put Keith into a decidedly foul mood for a few minutes but after some time spent drinking Gatorade and eating jerky at the top of the hill he recovered. Here is a picture of him nursing his poor hand (which I took for posterity):

 

The views from the top were worth it, and we could now confirm that we had passed Echo Dale.  I didn’t feel too bad, while it is a nice park (and I had told Keith I’d buy him lunch so I saved a few bucks) I much preferred our current lunch spot:

We made our way down to the SUPs and started paddling the final leg of the trip into Medicine Hat. Slowly more and more signs of civilization greeted us until we could see off in the distance the big bridge that marks the Trans-Canada Highway.  As we got closer I suddenly saw two people waving at us on the shore close to the bridge. At first, I just waved back – but something kind of looked familiar about them.  Ah, that is my in-laws!  They had gotten my text about our location and come out to cheer us on as we entered the city.  This was very encouraging and they took some good pics of us from above.  As we passed them they drove off and went to another bridge and took some more pics.

 

After we passed the 2ndbridge we started meeting up with some of the paddlers whom we’d met near Echo Dale – I guess we’d caught up with them. 

I chatted with one of the teachers on a paddleboard who was very inquisitive about our trip.  Finally, we reached the put-out point (a boat launch) at Strathcona Island Park, just as many of the paddlers and tour people were coming in at the same time. 

 

If people had been curious before, this time we were definitely the center of attention and as soon as we pulled in we were assailed on all sides by people asking us about our boards, our trip, and especially how far we’d come.  When we told them 85km over two days they seemed amazed and wanted to tell us all about their boards and adventures.  One nice guy showed me his quiver of SUPS (3 total!) and told me of his experiences paddle boarding in Hawaii.  My patient in-laws waited while we tried to pack up everything and talk with people at the same time.  Lots of fun – we kind of felt like rock stars!  It’s funny the instant cred you get with people just by doing something a little out of the ordinary. 

After we finished chatting with everyone we drove away to a celebratory feast.  Both Keith and I felt quite content on our first multi-day SUP adventure - which was even better then we hoped!  Let us know if you have any questions and feel free to contact us if you want more details.