Paddling the South Saskatchewan River: Old Bindloss Ferry to Estuary

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

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Close encounter of the rattler kind and storm of the sesquicentennial behind us – Ma Nature went all out with a noisy and bright light show for Canada’s 150th – we launched two canoes and a single kayak at an old ferry site on the South Saskatchewan River. Heading downstream, we were searching for a little r’n’r – with a dash of history on the side.

Paddling the South Saskatchewan River

In honour of Canada’s 150th year, we decided to forgo modern forms of transport for a couple of days and paddle our way back into history – before planes, trains and automobiles – back to a time even before this great country called Canada came into existence.

Our starting place was the old Bindloss Ferry site, five kilometres (3 miles) downstream of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield. The crumbling remains of a concrete approach for the ferry crossing was perfect for sorting gear away from the mud. It’s early July. River levels are dropping. The spring melt is pretty much done, making canoeing and gravel bar camping a little easier.

Boats ready to launch for our 3-day river adventure. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Day one’s route would take us on a gentle, approximately 21 km (13 mi) float down through the coulees of the Middle Sand Hills, past deer grazing along the still-green grasslands, beaver plying the waterways, and cliff swallows dipping into the mud on the riverbank to build their clay castles in rocky outcrops.

Sandy Point Bridge over the South Saskatchewan River. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

We continued to a point just below Sandy Point bridge and its established, but busy campground, where an open sand and gravel and rattlesnake-free shoreline became home for the night. Nighthawks serenade from above as we sit riverside, watching the sky turn golden.

Sunset on the river. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

River Day Two

The second day – with almost 32 km (20 mi) of river travel – should have felt a little more difficult. The light push of the wind, the warmth of the sun and the catch and release of sauger – tiny fish in comparison to the massive sturgeon that inhabit the South Saskatchewan River – had us drifting along without much of a worry. Popping back and forth along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, the river meandered effortlessly in a northeastly direction.

A gaggle of geese pulled up onshore as we drifted by. Three young owls took practice flights in the low trees along the bank. Sandpipers ran along the mudflats. A great blue heron flew effortlessly downstream.

Ma Nature held true to course and gave us a little test of wind in our faces for a short stretch of the journey. She relented, came back in from behind and allowed us to drift down using umbrellas as sails. The ghostly abutments of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) bridge that spanned the river in 1914 came into sight.

Canoe hounds could care less about the ghostly railway abutments in the distance! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Long abandoned, the concrete pillars on a midstream island provided the perfect backdrop for camp – with ready-built shade. Unloading quickly, it was all hands in the cooler for happy hour. Deer crisscross the river up and downstream. Beavers swim around us. White pelicans bob in slow upstream eddies. Relaxed? Oh yeah – nature’s medicine is working its magic!

Camp perfection! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Final Float to the Pullout

We can hear the meal bell from the nearby Hutterite colony as we prep for a leisurely breakfast. Reluctantly, we load up and drift down past the flood-blasted muddy confluence with Red Deer River. The channel becomes a wide flat lake for a short stretch. Tip: stay river right to avoid having to walk on water across the shallow sections.

After the confluence of the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan, the river stretches across like a lake. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It is somewhere right in here, on river left, that Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) explorer, surveyor and trader Peter Fidler built Chesterfield House in the fall of 1800. HBC established the trading post on the South Saskatchewan River to provide competition for the Northwest Company (NWC) and other Canadians trading for fox, wolf, badger and beaver pelts with the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Gros Ventre in southern Alberta.

It is also somewhere right in here that his First Nations wife, Mary Mackegonne, gave birth to their third son George on November 10th of that same year. Fidler and his family would spent two seasons at the original post before it was abandoned due to increasing tensions with the Gros Ventre.

The post was resurrected in the winter of 1804/05, left for almost another two decades and then rebuilt as a temporary trading post and palisade about seven km (4 mi) downstream of the confluence in 1822 – the same year Peter Fidler passed away in his post at Fort Dauphin. In April of 1823, Chesterfield House was abandoned for good.

Sadly, there are no visible remains of either trading post, but the fact that we were paddling alongside the past was some kind of Canada cool.

Empressive – packing five adults, two dogs, two canoes & a kayak into one return shuttle vehicle! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

If You Go:

  • Our trip ran from the Old Bindloss Ferry in Alberta at Km 255 (5 km east of the CFB Suffield boundary) to the Estuary Ferry in Saskatchewan, just past Km 320. We covered 65 km distance on the South Saskatchewan River easily in 2 ½ days.
  • We accessed the put-in point at the Old Bindloss Ferry landing on the north side of the river. Range Road 2-3 is graveled down to a band of willows just above the river, but be aware the lower section is not maintained and may have washouts in wet weather.
  • A second vehicle was left at the take-out point at the Estuary Ferry (talked with ferry operator to ensure that where it was parked was okay before leaving)
  • Buy a copy of Prairie River, by Dawn Dickinson and Dennis Baresco. It may be dated, but the cultural and natural history information and maps inside this small volume are still valuable. You can find it online in books at Paddle Alberta’s store.
  • You can access additional maps online at Alberta River Basins. Flow levels can be monitored by accessing the Alberta Rivers: Data and Advisories Mobile App on this same page.

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Path of the Paddle: Canoeing Bowron Lakes

At first glance, my notebook tells a rather negative tale of wind and rain and mud-sucking portages. A closer look suggests that canoeing the twelve lake, 116.4 kilometre (72 mile) Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit might just be for the birds.

Did I mention I like birds?

The world-renowned canoe circuit is home to loons, osprey, bald eagles, kingfishers, common mergansers, harlequin ducks, nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers, chickadees, white-throated sparrows – the list goes on. There are also black bears, moose and mink in this rugged wilderness area. It is situated on the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountain Range, about 120 km (75 mi) east of Quesnel, B.C.

Getting Set to Paddle

Rather than hauling boats from Alberta, we rented from Bear River Mercantile. It is perfectly situated at the head of the Bowron River for our takeout at the end of the circuit.

Sandy and Dick own the business and are knowledgable outfitters. They are also keepers of history. The mercantile is also a museum, devoted to the history of Wells, Barkerville and the Bowron Lake area. It has a diverse collection of artifacts, as well as an impressive collection of old Bowron Lake photographs.

A Touch of History

During the heydays of the gold rush, Bowron Lake supplied fish to feed hungry miners. Bowron Lake was named after John Bowron, the first Gold Commissioner in nearby Barkerville. In the early 1900s, locals trapped and guided to make a living. Frank Kibbee was one of the first settlers to build a home on the shores of Bowron Lake in 1907. Other families began farming along the Bowron River. Lodges were built around the lake.

Old cabin/shelter on McCleary Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

By the early 1920s, there was growing concern for the health of wildlife populations in the region. A 620 square kilometre (240 square mile) wildlife sanctuary was established. The protected area increased in size over the years and eventually became the 139,700 hectare Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in 1961.

The Path of the Paddle

Weighing in! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We sat through the park staff orientation talk about weather, safety, leave no trace ethics and then set about sorting gear for the weigh in. Only 27 kilograms (60 lbs) of gear is allowed in the canoes on portages in order to keep the trails in somewhat good shape. Anything else goes on your back.

The canoe circuit runs counter-clockwise in a roughly rectangular shape. It starts with Kibble Lake and goes onto Indianpoint, Isaac, McCleary, Lanezi, Sandy, Unna, Babcock, Skoi, Spectacle, Swan before ending on Bowron Lake. Beyond the lakes, the circuit includes about 10 kilometres (6 mi) of portages and a short paddle down the swift Cariboo River.

Setting Off

It’s uphill right off the get go – and we push, pull and find our rhythm on our way to Kibbee. Loons are everywhere – nesting, calling, fishing, flying. A short paddle, another portage, a little help to a young family of canoe trippers to manouver their load up and over a bridge and we’re back in the water on Indianpoint Lake.

Campsite on Indianpoint Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It’s a short paddle to our first campsite – in time for Happy Hour, dinner, a couple of card games and a crackling fire. We head tuck into sleeping bags listening to one final song from a Swainson’s Thrush before darkness descends.

The next five nights and six days would find us alternately setting up and taking down rain tarps. It would find us drifting by thundering waterfalls, grunting as we pull the boats through another portage, and uttering sighs of content as we sit by the evening fire listening to the call of the loons.

Common Loons on Isaac Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We angled for trout and kokanee, caught glimpses of mink cavorting on the shoreline, discovered bear tracks, and saw osprey dive into the lake.

Nothing beat the experience of watching a kingfisher play whack-a-mole with its catch, hearing a mother moose and her calf stroll by our campsite in shallow waters just offshore and counting the endless parade of young mergansers tagging along behind mom.

The Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit is an ultimate wilderness experience.

If You Go:

Additional information about the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit can be found on the BC Parks site.

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