The Rocky Mountains on the western edge of Alberta is all I’d paddled and known in this province: brisk glacial rivers skirting around towering mountain peaks. On the opposite but not so far away eastern edge of Alberta is the Badlands: a striking other-earthly landscape full of hoodoos, cacti, and twisting rivers forging through layers of sedimentary rock.
Like me, the Red Deer River starts its journey in the Rocky Mountains. It winds across the province, north of Calgary, where it drops through class two to class four rapids, and eventually widens and calms north of Drumheller in the Badlands. This area has been made famous for its geological and paleontological wonders and as such, is home of the world-famous Royal Tyrell Museum. But more on cool dinosaurs later.
My first trip to the Red Deer was on a brisk April weekend. Snow was still falling in the mountains, so eagerness to bring my packraft out of winter hibernation took over. I scoured maps to find ice-free rivers and the badlands desert caught my eye. I’d just torn my ACL and was awaiting surgery, and my friend Laura was also done skiing for the season due to a knee injury, so it didn’t take much convincing for her to come along for the knee-friendly spring adventure.
Sunset over the Red Deer from Horsethief Canyon look out
I packed up my bike and packraft and set off, leaving the peaks behind, rolling through the foothills, and watching the landscape flatten around me. I’m always amazed by the spectacular evening show the prairies put on; flocks of mesmerizing birds dance backlit by a sunset in every hue of orange and pink. Two and a half hours later, the ground dropped away. The Badlands feel like they come out of nowhere, an opening in the earth that can’t be seen until you stand on the precipice.
I camped that night while Laura drove out the following morning. The strong prairie winds hit the side of my van that I rather foolishly parked at a look out above instead of sheltered below in the canyon. The bitterly cold wind whipped my face as I stood bundled in layers, looking out across the canyon. It felt worth it, however, when I awoke to a frosty sunrise over the expansive desert maze, the Red Deer beckoning below. It’s a bizarre sight: cacti glittering in frost like a desert themed snow globe.
Resilient desert growth amidst the snow and Hoodoos, which are rock formations caused by erosion of softer layers of rock below harder sedimentary layers
Laura soon arrived and we spent our first day biking around Drumheller. The dinosaur themed town is famous for housing the world’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils at the Royal Tyrell Museum, including the aptly named local discovery, the Albertosaurus. The museum and town are well worth a visit to nerd out and pose in front of giant dinosaurs.
We then drove north along the Red Deer to our put in at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park and camped for the night, overlooking the river. The site is an important place for Cree peoples who used the steep walls to drive bison over the edge, a hunting method used in many sites by Indigenous peoples across North America.
Knee braces and packrafts all set for adventure
We set off in the morning, using our bikes to shuttle despite gusting cold prairie headwinds. Once we dropped down into the river valley, however, it was like stepping out of a storm. The water was perfectly calm, slowly moving over the smooth riverbed and winding away out of sight. We laughed at the absurdity of our outfits during transition, half in bike spandex but bundled for the river in dry tops. The hilarious part of multi-sport days.
Laura in transition time
The Red Deer in this section is wide and calm. My last adventure in packrafts with Laura had been a little spicy at times, so this mellow day of floating was a welcome change. Type 1 fun is still fun, we figured out.
Our chilled hands warmed up as the day went on, the sun shining down and our bodies warming up with each stroke. We weren’t in much of a rush which felt like the best way to experience this landscape. We floated past incredible rock formations, calling out shapes like cloud gazing as kids. “That one looks like a chicken!” “Do you see that massive red band? I wonder what formed that?” “Check out that super thin spire! How is it still standing?”
Laura in her Expedition Alpacka Raft
Rachel in her Wolverine Alpacka Raft
14kms down the river, we took off at Tolman Bridge. The provincial park campsite is a great spot for an overnight if you’re paddling a multi-day trip, or like us, an easy river access point for day trips. We shivered as we gorged ourselves on hot noodles and Oreos, cozied into all our warm dry clothes, and started the drive back to the mountains.
That little backyard adventure was a send off into ACL surgery. It was a perfect last huzzah before I knew I wouldn’t be doing much for the season. Fast forward exactly two months: I’d finally gotten the post-op green light for easy adventures and was moving with more mobility. I called up two friends to get back out on a river and knew exactly where I wanted to go.
Mike, Colin, and I hit the road heading east. I knew the Red Deer’s water would be friendly to my freshly healing knee and I was eager to explore more of the corridor. We put in where I’d left off at Tolman Bridge and spent a hot sunny summer day floating down with my packraft and Colin’s love – Sue the Canoe.
It was a perfect day of play. We took turns swapping around boats, holding onto the tiniest surf waves, and swimming to cool off. Mike, a highly skilled kayaker, was keen to try out my packraft to see its capabilities. He rolled it on the first shot and was immediately enamoured. Score for inflatables.
Colin, Rachel, and Sue the Canoe
Freshly healed and ready for adventure
Colin and I, meanwhile, baked in the sun and took in the twisting turning hills around us. Turkey vultures, eagles, and osprey circled overhead while the occasional prairie falcon darted along the shore. A muskrat played hide and seek with us, popping up near our boats and diving away as soon as we’d look over.
The river corridor has a deep history of Indigenous peoples’ livelihood and spiritual importance. This section of the Red Deer is part of the traditional territory of the Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy), Tsuut'ina, Stoney Nakoda, and Saulteaux, as well as a historic gathering site for Métis and other Indigenous peoples. When colonizers arrived in the late 1800s, the river was used for trade and agriculture and in the early 1900s, became instrumental in the “dinosaur rush” exploration of the area. The many provincial park sites along the river offer informative panels about the evolving roles and impacts humans have had in the corridor.
Mike taking in the dramatic pre-storm sunlight
Our adventure ended with perfect timing as massive prairie thunderclouds rolled across the horizon. We’d paddled 23km to Morrin Bridge in Starland Recreation Area, with yet another easy boat launch access. Our boats were packed just as the sky opened up a torrential downpour on us. We grabbed greasy fast food in a nearby small town and chattered about the day, laughing at our ridiculous sun burn lines. It felt so good to back, able to join in on last minute adventure plans with friends.
The Red Deer was my last huzzah before surgery and my first after. Its calm waters and stunning scenery are a vacation from the cold mountains, making it a welcoming place for an easy get away. I still don’t fully understand how I can drive only a few hours from my home surrounded by white capped peaks to an astonishing desert environment, but I’m sure to be back again.
In this story:
Dry Island Buffalo Jump to Tolman Bridge - 14km
Tolman Bridge to Morrin Bridge (Starland Recreation Area) - 23km
For a full guide to paddling the Canadian Badlands section of the Red Deer River, check out Paddle Alberta’s multi-day guide.
About the Author
Rachel Davies is an avid paddler, both professionally and personally. She has made home bases in the South Island of New Zealand and in the Canadian Rockies, where she has worked as a hiking, cycling, rafting and kayaking instructor. Packrafting came into her life to piece together her love of all these worlds while exploring new places through challenging, type-two fun adventures. Rachel aims to share this passion through her writing and artwork - follow along on IG @rachelmydavies and racheldaviesart.com.
(All photos courtesy of Rachel Davies)
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