As if battling a stiff prairie wind and pushy current weren’t difficult enough, we had to outmaneuver a territorial cow smack-dab in the middle of Alberta’s Milk River. “We’re going left … no, right … no, left!” I yelled at my friend Anette. If she hadn’t already focused on the large bovine we were about to broadside, no doubt my chronic indecision would have fetched a dirty look from the bow. Suddenly, we shot past, and as we did, I stared deep into the animal’s curious dark eyes. I must admit, it was difficult to tell whether its gaze was one of confusion or contempt.
A few hours earlier, the two of us had shoved off from the town of Milk River with plans to spend the next three days paddling to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The spring forecast had called for blue skies, and our guidebook had promised plenty of spectacular scenery en route. Along the southern edge of Alberta, one might expect nothing but uninspired vistas and sagebrush surrounded by farmers’ fields. The guidebook had assured us, however, that there was much more: rolling green hills, sandstone canyons, and a plethora of hoodoos, coulees, and other peculiar rock formations.
That first day was a short one, and in the evening Anette and I found a choice campsite sprawled across a large meadow at Gold Springs Park, beside an oxbow that had separated itself from the silty current. It was William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, passing the river’s mouth in 1805, who observed that the water had a similar appearance to milk-laced tea. It’s from their journals that the river’s name was derived.
After falling asleep to the sound of crickets, we spent a restful night, until chased from our tent by the broiling sun at 8 a.m. So far, the paddling had been easy, but today we would face the Milk’s turbulent alter ego. You see, unlike most prairie rivers, the Milk is no lazy, meandering watercourse. We had been warned to expect whitewater. Lots of it. Not to mention plenty of tight corners that come with rocks and boulders, perfect for puncturing a wandering canoe hull. We soon found that the most difficult rapids were located in the river’s slot canyons.
Rounding a corner, we would come face-to-face with the current shredding like paper across broken glass. After choosing which side of the river we wanted to run, Anette and I would dig in with our paddles-drawing, side-slipping, and ferrying across riffles, around boulder gardens, and through standing waves. Apart from one close call where we nearly kissed an overhang, we managed to avoid any nasty encounters.