Winter Roadtrip in the Prairies

Prairies are incredible. They’re more subtle than most landscapes, but they convey such a sense of freedom that they keep drawing me back. Last weekend I went on a roadtrip to south eastern Alberta. There were a number of places I was interested in seeing. Among them were Dinosaur Provincial Park, Red Rock Coulee, some sand dunes south of Wainwright, and a bunch of dried out salt lakes. Due to some unforseen vehicle trouble, I didn’t get to them all, but it was an amazing roadtrip none the less.

I took the scenic route on the way down from Edmonton. In this case that means almost random highways, secondary roads, and a fair number of gravel roads thrown in. The gravel roads are where you get to see the interesting stuff. You’re going slow enough that you can stop if you see something interesting and no one will mind if you’re stopped on the side of the road. In fact, probably no one will drive by. The day I drove down the weather was pretty bad. It was fog and freezing rain for much of the way, and gravel is less slippery than highways anyway in this case.

What people generally consider bad weather makes for great pictures though, so I stopped at an old farm to take some pictures.

I was heading roughly in the direction of Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park, and I had been looking around google maps for interesting places to stop on the way down. Sullivan Lake, east of Endiang, looked quite interesting, so, not really knowing the area, I drove as close as I could along one gravel road. The landscape was pretty interesting – it looked like the lakebed was pretty much dry, but I never got close enough to know for sure. There were lots of interesting hills surrounding the lake, and cattle were grazing in the area. I got out and hiked around for a bit. The cattle were interested in me, but seemed pretty scared of me. I mooed at them for a while, and they got quite curious. They slowly came closer and closer. When they started to encircle me, I got a little nervous, and headed back towards the car. Even if cows aren’t mean (and some of them are), stampeding cattle is just a bad thing all around, and something I definitely wanted to avoid being in the middle of.

Next I headed down towards Chain Lakes, which are a series of smaller alkali lakes.

Being December in Canada, it gets dark pretty early, and if I wanted to still see the Red Deer River valley I had to get going. I headed down towards Drumheller, stopped there for gas, and kept going down highway 10, which winds its way down the valley. This is a beautiful drive, and highly recommended. It continues as the 570, and eventually comes up out of the valley at Dorothy, a little hamlet that still has a standing wooden grain elevator. It looks pretty rickety though, and I don’t know how much longer it will be standing.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is actually quite a bit downstream from Drumheller. For some reason I thought they were pretty close, but this is not exactly the case. From the 570 I headed down the 36 to Brooks where I had supper and filled up. This was fairly late on a Sunday night, so everything in Duchess was closed. By this time I needed to start looking for a good place to sleep. Picking a place to sleep in a car is harder than it might sound. Theoretically you could park anywhere and sleep. However, there are a number of conditions that make it a little more complicated. First of all, you want to make sure you’re not blocking any driveway that someone is going to need to use at 5 in the morning. Second, you want a place to park that is not in a parking lot where people are either going to be driving or walking by. I don’t have tinted windows in my car, and I don’t want to either weird people out (I think sleeping in a car is generally considered to be weird) or be disturbed during the night. Despite precautions against these, its pretty much impossible to find a perfect place. Often I’ve had hunters or snowplows driving by early in the morning (in the case of snowplows they’re pretty loud and can give you a bit of a scare first thing in the morning). So around 8 I started looking for a good place. I also wanted it to be pretty close to the park, so I could photograph with the early morning light. Complicating things was a heavy snowfall warning and almost bald tires on my car. I found a driveway into a farmer’s field off of a gravel road that wasn’t to close to any farmhouse that did pretty well. I got a good 7 hours of sleep wrapped in a couple of sleeping bags. It went down to -13 C, so I woke up in the morning fairly cold. I started the car to get some heat going, and the car was rattling quite a bit. This was a little worrysome, as I was miles from any town and 6 hours from home. Interrupting my worries, the car lurched a bit. Strange, I was in neutral. Well, I tried putting the clutch in, and miraculously the rattling stopped. Uh oh, that means it’s my transmission. Well, I was about a 10 minute drive from the park, so that didn’t make much of a difference to whether I could get home or not. So I drove out to Dinosaur Provincial Park, and that went quite well. The car seemed to work fine. Maybe if I just avoided letting the clutch out while in neutral I’d be ok. I got to Dinosaur Provincial Park, and I was the only person there. It was first thing Monday morning, with fresh snow on the ground. Simply beautiful. I hiked around for quite a few hours, thoroughly enjoying myself.

OK, that’s probably enough pictures. Despite quite a bit of cloud cover, you can see it was amazing. There were cat tracks everywhere, and I’m curious what kind of cats frequent the park. They didn’t look big enough to be a cougar or anything – just slightly larger than housecat tracks. There were also rabbit, and many small rodent tracks. Fresh snow is cool. I never saw any animals though, despite all the tracks.

After getting back to the car, I decided to cut my roadtrip short. I had a couple energy bars for lunch, finished the can of cold chili I had for breakfast, and started the car. Good so far. I was really sorry to miss Red Rock Coulee, but really happy with what I did get to see. I drove north, along the icy highway 36, and all was well. Suddenly the engine revved, and the car started slowing down. That’s not good. I tried fourth gear. Ok, good. That was still catching. Back into fifth. It went in easily enough, but there’s nothing there. I had no fifth gear. Well, back into fourth gear.

I drove the whole way home in fourth gear at around 100km/hour. Yeah, that’s what the speed limit is, but everyone else was going so much faster and I held up quite a bit of traffic. I ended up taking a lot of gravel on the way home to avoid fast traffic, which ended up being good because the highways were icy and it was snowing too.

I got home, ate a bunch of warm food, had a warm shower, and fealt like going out on another road trip.