Trip Guiding

For the first part of this summer, I put my outdoor experience to work guiding groups of students in our beautiful Rocky Mountains. I loved the opportunity to share the challenges and beauty of the outdoors with these students. The people I was working with are amazing and made the whole experience a lot of fun! But guiding is busy and constant work and helping others enjoy nature is not conducive to finding peaceful moments myself. As guides we are always the last to bed and the first to wake up, and these are the times when we’re most likely to be able to take a little bit of time to just enjoy being.

This is one moment, early in the morning beside the North Saskatchewan River between Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House. It may look like a peaceful moment, but really I was sprinting around with my camera because the light was so amazing and I had to start making breakfast and pack up before the students woke up.

25mm, f6.3, 1/400 of a second

Adventures on the Brazeau

The Brazeau River

The middle part of August was spent on the Brazeau River. The trip started with a drive to the put-in and a portage to get the boats and gear down to the river. It was supposed to be a roughly 2km portage, but it turned out the river had moved and there was no good place to put in where we had planned. This required a short planning session, a bit of exploration, and eventually a longer portage.

Portage to the Brazeau River

To get the boats down the steep bank to our new campsite and put-in, we built a pulley system to lower the canoes with gear in them. The portage and lowering took until after 9pm, at which point we were all hungry and tired.

Lowering Canoes Down a Steep Bank

But we were finally at the river. We had canoes and gear and could start our trip. Despite being tired, I couldn’t resist staying up a little later to see the stars come out, watch the moon rise, and listen to the river rushing by. Tomorrow we would be canoeing this beauty, and that was exciting!

Brazeau Put In at Night

The next day dawned clear and bright. After a breakfast of toast and beans warmed over a fire, we packed up our tents and sleeping bags, loaded the canoes, and started paddling.

Starting Off Down the Brazeau River

At almost every corner there were significant rapids and we would stop to scout them. Often they were not a big deal, but every once in a while there would be some high-consequence rocks to avoid.

Scouting RapidsHigh Consequence RocksHuge Pillow in Front of a Rock

Sometimes they were just fun!

Fun Rapids on the Brazeau

We were canoeing into two groups. I was near the back of the second group. Then there was a fairly long section of big waves followed by a tricky corner with no place to stop and scout from. A lot of the canoes had been taking on a bit of water in the long section of whitewater. I didn’t see what happened to the first group at the corner, but I saw the leader in my group flip over. The next canoe got pushed into a rock and dumped. Then the canoe right in front of me dumped. At that point I knew there was a good chance of me and Bjarke going over, so we just focused on picking a good line, not pushing through the big waves (to get less water in the boat) but having enough power to get through the current to the other side before getting pushed into the rock, and just getting through so we could help people out on the other side. We made it, but had quite a bit of water in our canoe. We eddied out on the other side of the turn, but it wasn’t much of an eddy and was trying to push us further downstream. We saw a beach on the other side and ferried across in our now-tippy canoe to assess the situation. There was one other canoe and five other people there. Across the river we could see one canoe and four people.

Warming Up Around a FireFerrying Across to Rescue People

There were 21 in our group. Eventually, we heard that the leader of the first group had been able to keep 5 canoes from getting too far downstream and people were scattered along both shores, separated by water and cliffs. Eventually we accounted for everyone and all the canoes. Amazingly, the only damage was one broken yoke and a lot of cold, wet people. Duct tape “fixed” the first problem and lots of fires, shared warm clothes from accessible canoes, and movement fixed the second one. After a few hours (including a thunderstorm that stalled our efforts for a bit) we managed to collect everybody and everything in one spot and set off to find a place we could stop and camp. The corner is now affectionately named “Carnage Corner” by our group.

Mostly Collected DownstreamEmptying a Loaded Canoe

Collecting People

Exhausted and hungry, we pulled into our new campsite on a sandy island. Unloading, setting up camp, changeing out of wet clothes, and making supper took a long time, but we all had lots of stories to tell and listen to and the time flew by.

Second Camp on the BrazeauCooking Supper

We had a good few days on the island, learning all kinds of plant identification, wilderness skills, and enjoying being completely immersed in nature.

Starting a Fire with Flint

We had time to reflect on the different roles in emergency response, what our response was and what we wished it had been. It was decided that we would end the canoe trip early as there was a section further down the river where the consequences for a similar debacle would be much more severe. There was a canyon where, if someone dumped, they would be swimming for kilometers instead of meters. With water that cold, hypothermia would not only be possible but likely in such a situation. So we had time for chatting, campfires, and some much needed rest.

Campfire on the Brazeau

After a few days I was happy to get back on the water. As we went downstream there were still rapids but they seemed to get less constant and more easily avoidable. The cliffs on each side lowered a bit. Maybe it was just that I was well rested, but the canoeing seemed a lot easier and maybe a little less exciting.

Scouting Rapids on the BrazeauLining Canoes Past Rapids on the BrazeauTaking a Break

We got to our new take-out spot early in the afternoon and started the process of unloading canoes and loading up trailers. And we started thinking about the next section of our trip – backpacking.

Whitewater Instruction

Canoe Course on the Kananaskis River

During the first bit of August I was learning to be a better canoeist, canoe instructor, and whitewater rescuer. These were full, intense days mostly on the Kananaskis River. I’ve taken a Paddle Canada Moving Water course before, but it was a long time ago and even then my skills needed a lot of work. The skill development involved much ferrying (getting across the river without being pushed downstream) and many eddy turns and s-turns. Paddle Canada has changed some of their teaching methods recently so we learned the older PATS (Power, Angle, Tilt, Stroke) and got a taste of the newer MITH (Momentum, Initiate, Tilt, Hold) methods for eddy turns. I actually enjoyed seeing the difference between the two. I learned more by trying both than if I had just learned one. I’m sad they’re losing the angle of the canoe in the transition to MITH because I found that a very important factor to consider depending on the speed and angle of the current and where I wanted to end up. But the end result in either case is that you have to feel the canoe and water working together smoothly to get where you want to go. We worked on our form come rain or shine, on warm days and cold days.

Crossbow Draw Eddy Turn in the Rain

We also did a quick trip down the river from Canoe Meadows to Seebe to work on our river reading skills and have a bit of fun. There was one hole where a few people dumped, but it was an easy self rescue as the river was pretty calm for a while downstream.

Uncle Randy Pointing Out HazardsMorten and Randy Taking on Some WaterDump and Self Rescue

In the evenings we dried all the wet gear we could, made supper, washed dishes, filtered water, sometimes fixed and modified canoes, and then went to sleep in our tents in Canoe Meadows.

Having Fun Fixing CanoesWashing Dishes in the EveningTents in Canoe Meadows

Some days we switched it up and did some whitewater rescue work. This involved a lot of throw bag practice, rope system figuring, and learning to swim in rapids. One evening, to practice our z-drags, we set up a 9-1 rope system to pull a Suburban across the field. This was good practice for our test of pulling a kayak loaded with rocks up a 30 foot cliff the next day. This was to simulate the amount of force needed to pull a canoe off a rock. Once in my life I’ve had the misfortune of being in a group where a canoe got wrapped. I didn’t know about z-drags then and I didn’t have the equipment with me anyway. After trying to move the canoe for half an hour, we ended up getting a tree to use as a lever and with three of us pulling on the tree we eventually pried it off the rock. Water flowing at a good speed is not something to be taken lightly.

Throw Bag Practice and Partner Rescue

Swimming was the most fun though (at least for the people whose drysuits were not leaking). The combination of defensive swimming, aggressive swimming, and rolling across eddy lines was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and really effective education. It did involve a fair number of bruised knees, ripped nails, and jammed fingers, but we all survived and had a blast.

Swimming in WhitewaterSwimming in Whitewater

Although it was rare, we occasionally got a chance to chill. These times were filled with music, walks along the river, and campfires.

Playing Guitar in Canoe MeadowsKananaskis River at NightCampfire in Canoe Meadows

It was hard for me to fit photography into this intense schedule. It was great practice for me to take pictures of people in action without being too distracted from the learning I had to do along with everyone else. But my normal practice of meditative photography was pretty much impossible. Since August I’ve had the opportunity to lead a canoe trip and do a bit of teaching. Although there was still a lot to do and a lot of interaction, I found a lot more time for photography while leading. Hopefully I’ll eventually get to that story here too.