Land of the Lost
In Edward Abbey’s collection of essays titled The Journey Home, the conservationist wrote: “Why … go walking into the desert? … [T]here [is] nothing out there … but the silent world.”
The world to which he refers is silent only in comparison to our noise-saturated urban world. Like the “peace and quiet” of any other natural place outside our urban landscapes, the desert’s solitude is far from silent. Spend any time within its environs, and you will hear a raucous chorus of natural sounds.
That certainly is the case if you paddle Alberta’s Red Deer River through the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park. It was never silent during a three-day canoe trip I took there late last May with members of Calgary’s Bow Waters Canoe Club. We never traveled far without hearing the “cooo-coooo-ah, coooo-coooo-ah!” of mourning doves. At night, the hoots of owls may decorate the air, while the yipping and howling of coyotes far off in the distance, high above the river valley’s coulees and cliffs, punctuate the owls’ songs. Sometimes, if you unknowingly step too close to the wrong spot, you may even hear the distinctive buzz of a prairie rattlesnake in the grass by your feet.
The only time you don’t hear wildlife sounds is when the wind blows hard, drowning out the wildlife. However, when the wind blows that strongly, it is anything but silent.
Paddling this portion of the Red Deer River resembles lake paddling, although there is a slight current. The river’s slow pace allows you to cruise along the shore, watching for birds and wildlife while taking in the desert scenery, an unusual beauty unlike that of many other canoe destinations. We stopped to embark on several short coulee hikes away from the riparian zone of cottonwoods and grasses into a world of cactus and sage.
Mourning doves and owls are not the only birds found here. American kestrel falcons, nighthawks, goldfinches, and brown thrashers are just a few of the other birds that call the park home. Several hours’ paddle down the river from our base campsite, we hiked up a coulee and discovered a number of cliff swallow nests, as well as a nest of Canada geese. Our presence distressed the goslings, so we quickly retreated.
Getting There: Fly into Calgary, rent a car, and then make the two-and-a-half-hour drive east on the Trans-Canada Highway, turn north on Secondary Highway 876, and follow it into the park.
Logistics: You have to obtain special permission for a backcountry canoe trip. On the river within the park, the only camping spot is on the north shore, eight miles downstream from Little Sandhill Creek put-in. It is private land, and permission is required to camp there. Contact the park for information at (403) 378-4342. You are in rattlesnake country, so you might want to purchase a snakebite kit.
While You’re There: There are several hiking trails in the park, some self-guided, some guided by a park interpreter. Guided trips must be booked in advance by calling (403) 378-4342. Visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum field station, located in the park.
Lodging: The park has 128 drive-in campsites. Reservations are advised. Call (403) 378-3700. Standard sites are $15 (Canadian) per night, and power sites are $18 per night. Reservation charge: $6. If Dinosaur Park is full, you can camp at nearby Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, a 45-minute drive away. The town of Brooks is a 30-minute drive southwest of the park. Contact the Brooks Chamber of Commerce, (403) 362-7641.
Outfitters/Resources: River Getaways services the area, offering self-guided two-day trips and the luxury of sleeping in cabins. Call (403) 235-5995. For a more complete list of outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory.
There is plenty of other wildlife, too. While much of the surrounding terrain is typical badlands-hoodoos, coulees, and cliffs-there is a flat, narrow strip of green along both sides of the river that offers shelter and food for a variety of animals.
During an early-morning walk along the riverbank, I gazed across the river at what appeared to be a beaver. It was shaped like a beaver, it had the same color as a beaver, but it was the size of a small bear cub! Borrowing a fellow paddler’s binoculars helped me determine that it was in fact a beaver-but the biggest example of Castor canadensis I’d ever seen! Of all the beavers I’d encountered while paddling across Canada, this one took the blue ribbon for size. We also saw deer at several spots along the river.
You can discover other unusual natural features during jaunts from the river. We found samples of petrified wood and fossils during backcountry hikes up into the coulees. We hiked into one section that featured an eerie moonscape of rock formations.
We camped for two nights at the same campsite-a piece of private land that juts into the park eight miles downstream from our put-in at Little Sandhill Creek-using it as a base for day hikes. On the third day, we took time for more side excursions and a mid-afternoon break along a stretch of sandy shore where we could wade into the river or just lie back and enjoy the sun.
We soon reached our take-out at Jenner Bridge and bid our “silent world” farewell, amidst the sounds of vehicles starting up to shuttle us back to our starting point, the world of urban noise.
John Geary is an outdoors writer and photographer who lives in Calgary, Alberta.