It started as one of many suggestions at a scout planning meeting in the early fall of 2015, someone threw out there that we should do a multi-day canoe trip. This isn’t completely new for our scout troop, we did a similar trip a few years ago on an upper section of the Red Deer river and it was pretty awesome.
A week or so later, our leaders were talking about our schedule for the year and decided that a canoe trip would be a pretty cool trip for our troop…..and then the planning started!
Where exactly to go?
When to fit in into all our schedules?
Who would actually be going on this trip?
Would we canoe with the gear or truck it from camp to camp?
Would we camp at designated campgrounds or on islands on the river?
So many details to figure out, but there was lots of time….
In early June, after a long few weeks of organizing dry barrels, canoes, paddles, life jackets, camping gear, food and even a modified canoe session to evaluate the scouts paddling skill level, we were ready to roll for our mid-June paddle down the Red Deer river from Dorothy to Steveville.
We met very early on a Friday morning to load up all the vehicles and make sure everyone had what they needed for the trip, you know that “Be Prepared” thing. With all the canoes strapped on and gear loaded up, we started our trek to the put-in spot and after a relatively short drive and a minimum amount of fuss, we had our gear packed into our canoes, our paddling tandems for the day set and even a few fishing rods lined up.
10:30 on a Friday morning and with the first stroke of the paddle hitting the water, all the stress started to melt away with the sun beaming down on us signaling an awesome day ahead of us. Going with the flow of the river and a gentle breeze behind us, the 25km route for day 1 seemed well within our reach and our canoe pairings were working well so far. We even had enough time to do some fishing along the way and were lucky (skilled?) enough to catch a small walleye and a couple goldeye.
Early evening and after a thankfully uneventful but long day paddling, we pulled off the river onto our planned campsite on a random island at the planned stopping point. Everyone was tired and happy to get off the river for the day and we got to work setting up camp for the night. Tents were set, fire was started and our pre-made foil pack dinners were set to cooking on the coals…then the rain set in! Fortunately by this point, everyone had eaten, well except for me (my fish was still over the fire), and most everyone had settled into their tents for the night. I would love to say that it was a short burst that dissipated after a bit, but the rain lasted off and on well into the early morning and save for one tent that somehow managed to have the wrong fly packed into it, we had dry gear in the morning.
Breakfast done, campsite cleaned and gear packed back into the canoes and with a little shuffling of our partners we were ready to hit the river again. Only problem now was that no one told mother nature that having gale force winds blowing into us was going to make our day a lot harder, but; hey!, how long could the wind blow against us??? 10 hours and 25 long and hard kilometers of zigzagging, grounding, back breaking paddling later and we had our answer….ALL DAY LONG!!!
After close to 40 years of paddling and many kilometers under my belt, that second day was by far the hardest day on the water I have ever had and only the fact that it wasn’t raining or cold made it even bearable. I do have to say though that nothing in all my years of scouting was more impressive than how well the scouts stepped up to the plate on such a hard day. Complaining was at all time low, teamwork and motivation were at an all-time high and at the end of the day we were all tired but everyone was wearing a smile of pride and sense of accomplishment.
Day three started off a little later than planned, but with everyone well rested and eager for an easier day of paddling. Lucky for us, the wind shifted overnight and it was a little overcast to keep us cool from the blazing sun.
With all the heavy work from the day before, not too many of us were too enthusiastic to do any fishing, however we were able to see quite a bit of wildlife when we took the time to look around. Over day 3 and 4 we spotted moose, deer, bald eagles, ducks, geese, hawks, cows, pelicans, coyotes, a pack of horses, herons and even a beaver that sat out in the water just off a sandbar while he let us pull our canoes up to within 15 feet of him. For four days on the river, we actually got to see quite a bit. I heard one scout say, “I have never seen a live beaver before!”. In Canada, pity!
Day three was a little easier, but I wouldn’t say it was easy by any means. We still had to maintain our 25 km per day quota and even on a good day that is a lot of distance for novice paddlers, not to mention that we already had 50 km under our belts already. The chatter from canoe to canoe was significantly less than the previous days but there were still smiles on faces and the scouts were still putting their backs into it.
Lunch on the river today was somewhat of a treat as we made pizza quesadillas on the sandy shore. A bit of a change from the Wow Butter and jam on pitas that we had the second day. Overall the food was pretty good and after a bit of gentle persuasion the scouts started to take on the cooking.
With our third day behind us, we found a beautiful spot to camp with a sandy beach and river section for swimming right off the shore. With the heat of the day, everyone was ready for a cooling dip (bath?) in the river and it made for an easy way to convince the scouts that they needed to get camp set up before they could swim. We even had to leave the “Dad” part of us behind after the swim so we could leave the kids the task of getting dinner ready. Sometimes it is just easier to actually just do the tasks as leaders rather than let the scouts do them, but the learning process that takes place when the scouts have to do them is invaluable and a strong part of the scouting program.
With a long last day ahead of us, we got an early start to the day, packed up our gear and after a hearty oatmeal breakfast, got on our way to try and make it to our designated pull out spot by 4pm to give us time to get back to Calgary before it got too late.
Even with the beautiful weather, the slightly overcast skies, the gentle breeze and plenty of snacks and water to keep us fueled for the day, it was still a long haul down the river.
I ended up spending a fair bit of the last two days towards the back of our band of canoes. Sometimes nothing can be more disheartening while canoeing in a big group than to be at the back of the pack and seemingly never able to catch up. I was hoping to help keep the scouts a bit motivated by being back there with them. Then I came to the realization that maybe the scouts in the front should be the ones keeping the guys at the back company. After a brief rest stop, we adjusted the order a bit and all seemed well, so much so that two canoes at the back tied themselves together side by side and did the rest of the trip like that. I guess it is a lot easier to stay positive as a group of four rather than just two people in a canoe. Granted they were still mostly towards the back, but, they were having a blast!
As usual, at least for me, the last day of the trip is always a little bittersweet. Yes, we will soon be done, the hard work is almost over, we are so close to having a shower and a nice comfortable bed to sleep on, but on the flip side, the trip we planned so long and hard for is almost done. The fun times we are having on the river are coming to a close, sleeping under the stars on a comfy sand bed is done for now and the camaraderie that we have built even stronger over the last four days although not ending permanently is coming to a temporary end as this also marks the end of our scouting season.
A few things we leaders took away from this trip.
- even though the scouts are only 11-13 years old, they can accomplish almost anything when properly motivated and they put their minds and bodies to it.
- given some space, the scouts will work out almost any problem on their own.
- as leaders we might be a little disappointed the way some part of a trip or event works out, but we always need to remind ourselves that this is for the scouts and what we see as an issue may be nothing for them.
- as kids, 30 minutes of a fun activity like swimming in a river can supersede everything else about a 4 day trip.
- we have a lot of beautiful country and wildlife in our own backyard that many kids would never see if not for a trip like this.
- this may be a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip for some youth!
- A super supportive group of leaders and an awesome bunch of scouts can make all the hard work through the year worth it in the end.
If anyone out there has even the smallest inkling to register their kids or themselves in the scouting program, don’t wait, don’t second guess it, you won’t regret it. The benefits of the program to the youth, and adults as well, are huge and the lessons they will learn will last them and benefit them for a lifetime.