South Saskatchewan River Trips by Request – August 2006
“Youth Adventure Training” was the official description: a lively group of teenagers from Saskatchewan’s 15 Wing Moose Jaw Air Base having a whole pile of fun on a 4-day canoe trip from Outlook to Saskatoon. We had a California style summer in Saskatchewan, so hot sunny weather and lots of stops for sandbar swimming were the order of the day. In the words of Laurence, a 14-year old Quebecois girl, “The canoe trip was AWESOME! I had plenty of fun! My favorite part was when we slept outside with no tent and the swimming was also great!…finally, the food was GREAT!”
15 Wing Cruises the South Saskatchewan River
By Cliff Speer
Laying Out the Logistics
When Paul McNutt, Youth Recreation Supervisor at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, emailed me a request to arrange a trip for his group, I could tell there would be a bit of work to do before putting canoes on the water. He had a lot of questions about the logistics of a wilderness canoe trip. He was interested in a guided and fully outfitted river trip not too far from the air force base, so we settled on a 4-day trip on the South Saskatchewan River. I’ve guided school trips on the river and family trips and church youth trips, but this was a military youth group looking for “leadership adventure training “. I assumed it would be a different group, but how different I was about to discover!
After many back and forth emails with Paul on pre-trip details, I turned my attention to our proposed venue, the South Saskatchewan. A 4-day trip on this great prairie river presented me with some planning challenges right off the start. The projected trip date was late in August, but early in the season we were already experiencing very low flows in the river. This pretty well necessitated doing a full reconnaissance of the route to pin point campsites, rest stops and good swimming beaches at current flow rates. All of these things change, become inaccessible or even obliterated with fluctuations in water level.
A River Reconnaissance
Meewasin’s South Saskatchewan River EcoCanoe Guide is a handy reference when planning river trips. Even though I helped produce the guide years ago, I still refer to it when I want to combine its day trip descriptions into a longer trip. I checked over the Outlook to Saskatoon run, tallied up the distance and divided by 4. This produced a total paddling distance of about 100 km split into 25 km segments. Over the years I’ve canoed various parts of this run numerous times solo and in groups, mostly on weekend and day trips, but putting it all together to run smoothly on a 4-day itinerary was the task. Nothing can answer all the logistical questions like an on-site visit, so I rounded up a friend and split the route into one weekend trip and another day trip. On our first trip, I had to eliminate 2 campsites that I’ve used on previous trips, one being inaccessible as the deep water channel bypassed it, and the other having been overgrown and then overrun by cattle with too much fresh evidence left behind.
As we continued our exploratory run, we discovered a fine beachfront campsite, accessed by a 6″ deep channel; okay, of course, if the water didn’t drop any further! I hadn’t camped here before and had to blaze a path behind the beach and clear out a kitchen area with my handy dandy grass whip. It fit into the itinerary perfectly, so I decided to take my chances on the water not dropping. The final riverbank campsite had a fast water channel to negotiate upstream to get to the landing, presenting a bit of paddling effort for novices. The narrow landing at this campsite would be wiped out if the water rose significantly; again I had to take my chances, as this was it for decent riverbank sites anywhere for several kilometres. It was also a new site for me. With the reconnoitering done, I had secured important intelligence on water levels and marked new positions on my route map for our evening camps. The logistics were now confirmed. This was a military mission, after all!
For the next few weeks, I kept an eye on the Sask Water website for flow rates in Saskatoon. I was curious about the strange daily fluctuations in water levels on the river, so I spoke to a Sask Water official. He explained that differential power demand between night and day for air conditioning results in corresponding fluctuating outflows from the generating station at Gardiner Dam. Then he mentioned, by the way, they would be “draining down” the river to below minimum flow to do some engineering investigations at the Pike Lake intake. However, this would be a couple of days before our trip departure. Things should be back up to “normal” by the time we would be leaving, he said. Whew! I figuratively wiped the sweat off my brow, knowing that any less water than what we now had would present serious navigational problems!
Navigation in Low Waters
On the morning of our departure, I surveyed the river as we descended at Outlook Regional Park. All I could see for miles was a lot of sand and the river looked drained all right – just a few meandering channels here and there. I assumed that my trusty Sask Water fellow knew his stuff and that the river must now be on the rise. We unloaded the canoes along a tiny channel near shore. By the time the rest of the gear was organized and taken down, it looked like our little canoeing channel was getting smaller, so I pushed a stick in at water’s edge to find out what was going on. A bit later, I observed that the level had dropped significantly. So, the river was dropping, not rising! I had an uneasy feeling that we would be encountering problems downstream if this trend continued. But everyone was primed to go, so after a paddling and safety briefing, we launched into the main channel. I had to stand up frequently to get an overview of the river and figure out where the bluest water was indicating the deepest channel. Fortunately, as lunch time approached, the deeper water took us close to the shoreline where I had noted a nice shady site on my reconnaissance map for a lunch stop.
The river must have started rising sometime in early afternoon, as we were managing to make headway without losing time wading canoes across barely submerged sandbars. We made it to our evening campsite in reasonable time and thanks to the river gods leaving enough water between shore and an intervening sandbar, we were able to land our boats and unload at shore. It was a bit of a grunt up to the ridge top, but once up, there was a natural campsite with well placed groves of green ash, aspen and willows for protection, and a fabulous view up and down the valley.
Campfires are Verboten!
A sombre looking man on horseback rode into our camp just as I was getting supper organized. Fortunately, I had set up the camp stove because it was too warm to cook over a fire. Our rancher visitor was adamant that there would be NO campfires on his property! I assured him that we were intending to use the stove; we would not light a fire. After he rode off, there was a faint murmur of discontent in camp about the prospect of no campfire. But I was more concerned about keeping a lone horseman happy and content to leave the idea of a campfire to smolder till a better time. Also, I was anxious to get supper on the go and it would go faster and be more comfortable using the stove in the late afternoon heat. Michelle, Paul’s co-leader, helped me get the veggies and hamburger ready and an ensuing hearty supper of burritos & brownies was wolfed down by eight hungry paddlers.
After the dishes were done, the idea of a campfire that had been smoldering, began to flicker. But where to have the fire? Ah, a couple of creative firebugs figured they could have a fire on the sandbar across the channel from our landing area. It meant wading across the channel with firewood gathered from the campsite, a couple of hundred metres distant. Well, not a problem when you have a bunch of highly motivated teenagers! They hauled a ton of firewood across the water to the big island sandbar, but try as they might they could not get that fire going. After a while Zach came tearing back to the campsite to request matches. I knew that wouldn’t solve the problem they were having with poor kindling, so I pulled a wad of birch bark out of my gear pack and off he flew with his new fire making tools. Soon I noticed in the growing dusk, a great blaze down on the river. Everyone was happy and the universe was now unfolding as it should, in spite of the fire ban at our campsite!
Sun, Sand, Swimming & Paddling
I was up early the next morning with my camera to try and capture sunrise over the river valley. The views upriver and downriver were spectacular from our camp perch near the top of the valley wall. Once the sun was up, it looked like another glorious calm but hot day on the water. I knew that stops to swim on the way to our next campsite would be a welcome diversion from paddling, but more importantly, give everyone a chance to get refreshed and cool off. So, we stopped mid-morning for a swim on a riverbank beach and again at lunch time on a sandbar island.
Despite low water, paddling was going really well as my canoe led the way through the deep water channel like a mother duck with the other boats following like ducklings. With no wind, paddling was like a breeze, so to speak. It was especially breeze-like for 12-year old Chris who being the odd man out, got tripled up with 16-year old Zach and 15-year old Hollis, brothers from Ontario, both strong, capable paddlers. This allowed Chris to go for a ride most of the time, which seemed to suit him just fine. He had a paddle in his hand occasionally, but probably not as often as he had his hand in his snack bag! Michelle, and 17-year old Jessica, also from Ontario, were another strong team, which left Paul, and 14-year old Laurence from Quebec as the 3rd team, and finally 14-year old Josh, also from Quebec, and myself were in the lead canoe.
Being paddling partners allowed me to get to know Josh a bit better than the rest of the paddlers. Josh is a perfectly affable guy and quite physically capable, but it was a small challenge to keep him focused on paddling. The monotony of this repetitive activity didn’t seem to be his style. Now, if you could get the canoe to sprout wings and make like an F-18, Josh would really be in his element! However, with gentle reminders, I did manage to bring him back down to earth and help him keep the paddle moving most of the time. I taught him some canoe racing lingo, so he really enjoyed calling “hut” to switch paddling sides, maybe more often than we needed to!
On my pre-trip reconnaissance, I had selected a nice beach campsite on one of the Kennedy Islands. These old sandbar islands are forested with large mature cottonwoods. They are indeed scenic and also attract nesting bald eagles. Access to the island beach was dicey as the small channel could be wiped out in really low water, so I was a bit apprehensive as we approached, wondering if we would be able to paddle up to the landing. Fortunately, there was still about 4″ of water, just enough to float in. Downstream of the beach was a deeper backwater channel, great for swimming with only a gentle current. The low water had opened up a large expanse of beach, perfect for playing on and better still, the ultimate site for a roaring big bonfire!
Beaching & Bonfires
I had set up the kitchen behind the beach in a protected area overgrown with clover and willows. There I had a quiet working area removed from the activity and sand of the beach. Nothing worse than sand in your salad! After swimming and playing games on the beach, when it came time to pitch tents, somebody began to pitch the idea of sleeping outside without tents. I was consulted on the idea and replied that it was okay by me, but we would need to confirm that there was no rain in the forecast. Paul managed to phone his people in Moose Jaw who said no rain in the forecast (I’m wondering now if that was a Moose Jaw forecast?!). So, we both agreed that a tent-less night around the fire was on. The rest of the campers were ecstatic. Not only would they have their fabulous fire on the beach, they could even sleep around it, till it died right out! Heaven on earth!
However, the leaders decided a couple of tents should be put up on the beach, just in case. Of course, I located my tent in the clover patch, a short distance from the kitchen, for quietness and convenience. Everything went along smoothly that evening. Much driftwood had been industriously gathered after supper, so there was a humongous glow on the beach and the sound of much bonhomie around the fire later on when I hit the hay, or more precisely, hit the clover!
A Rude Awakening
I was rudely awakened at 3:30 in the morning by a loud roaring sound. As I lay listening and trying to clear the cobwebs out of my addled brain, the roaring noise got louder as it approached the campsite. Holy crap! I thought to myself, there must be some sort of tornado coming down! But then I thought tornados don’t usually strike at night, so it must be the front end of a violent storm approaching. Visions of the kids on the beach with no protection, the canoes like sitting ducks to be hurled down river and the 2 empty tents that would be blown to smithereens, prompted me to get up in a big hurry! When I poked my head out, there was an ominous black cloud being blown toward us by a very noisy wind. It did not look good, but there was no sign of an electrical storm.
I ran down to the beach. A cursory glance told me the campers and the canoes were okay. The next thing I saw was one of the tents billowing in the wind, looking like it would take off at any moment. I grabbed the tent and asked if anyone was inside. A frightened, subdued voice answered. It was Michelle. When she crawled out, I got her to help me pick up the tent and move it to the kitchen area where it was protected from the wind. Then I went back to the beach to do a double check on the kids. They all had their heads tucked into their sleeping bags like a collection of cocoons, dead to the wild world around them! Nobody stirred when I shone my headlamp on them. By this time the roaring had subsided somewhat, as the black cloud passed over us and moved northward. Good thing Michelle had opted to move into her tent instead of sleeping by the fire. Despite fearing that she was going to be hurled into the river by the wind, it was her body that prevented the tent from taking off! Paul had his tent staked down in the lee of a willow clump, and he slept like a log through it all!
So, that was it! No tornado, no storm, just a big roaring wind and a big black cloud moving very fast over our campsite. With my adrenalin now dropping, it was time to get a bit more shut-eye before daybreak. As I crawled back into my nice clean sleeping bag, I thought about the aftermath of a night on the beach “under the stars” with a big wind blowing sand into everything, and mused on how long it would take for the sand to slowly shake loose from all those sleeping bags!
Next morning, the sky looked unsettled and hinted at rain. By the time we were ready to launch, the skies cleared, the wind dropped and we headed off on another pleasant paddling jaunt. After lunch, Josh figured he’d had enough paddling experience to take the stern and try his hand at steering. It was calm and we were well on our way to our campsite, so I took the bow. We zigged and zagged for a while, but with a bit of prompting on the correct strokes, he was able to more or less keep the boat on track. But gradually, our lead boat became the tail boat and we had hardly covered a kilometre when Josh started complaining about the steering being too hard. So, we had to raft up with the other boats and switch places. I think that short stint in the stern was a momentary revelation that he had to keep paddling to keep the boat on course; a lot different than relaxing in the bow!
Sandbars & Supper Kudos
It was a short day and everyone was pleasantly surprised to arrive at our campsite so quickly. They didn’t waste any time getting tents up because there was a giant sand bar opposite the campsite with a nice drop for jumping off and swimming. To get to the sandbar, you had to do some energetic swimming across a fast water channel, too deep to wade. Some swam across and the rest piled into one canoe and paddled across. They must have spent over 2 hours running and jumping into the water and playing on the sandbar till they were pretty well tuckered out!
Before supper, the prospect of another grand bonfire inspired everyone to go on a search for firewood. Supper was spaghetti and meat sauce with oriental salad and pecan tarts for desert. All that went down pretty well. In fact, nobody turned up their nose at any of the items on the menu during the whole trip. Quite the opposite was true. Every time I turned around in “the kitchen”, I was getting glowing remarks on the cooking! I concluded this group of teenagers were quite a bit different than most of their peers. Adults normally have some appreciation for menu planning, but I did not expect to get such overwhelmingly positive feedback from teenagers! Also, I was reminded that a teenager’s appetite for rich, sweet food is almost insatiable, and guess who forgot the marshmallows?
After the campfire was blazing and darkness descended, we saw some strange lights glowing in the sky across the river. We concluded it must have been flares shot off by the Dundurn military folks. Nobody in the group was inclined toward alien explanations anyway! Later in the evening, Mother Nature put on a spectacular light & sound show that eventually put a damper on the fireside camaraderie and forced everyone to reluctantly head off to their tents. No sleeping outside this night!
In the morning, we were faced with a strong northwest head wind, so we had to put some muscle behind the paddle. We got a break whenever the river took a swing eastward, but it was pretty well a steady grind for the whole day. The temperature had dropped a bit, but was still pleasant enough to entice some of the paddlers to jump in for a swim at lunch time. After that, I lead the group in a steady pace against the wind, so as not to get too far behind schedule for our waiting drivers in Saskatoon. As the City skyline began to appear, I took the west channel around Yorath Island to avoid the main force of the wind. In the calm water, Chris somehow managed to create some excitement by almost tipping his canoe and forcing his paddling buddies to shore to empty out the water. Shortly after that we landed at the boathouse docks in Saskatoon’s Victoria Park and a glorious 4 days of paddling, swimming, camping, eating and socializing were over!
Cliff’s Trip Summary
I had written up a longer story version of the trip – sort of like a trip log, but everyone else on the trip submitted a trip summary. So, here’s my summary as well.
It was a great trip for lots of different reasons. We had superb weather, minus the headwind on our last day. The water was cool, refreshing and inviting every day. Our campsites were scenic, pristine and fun to explore. The meals were tasty and nutritious and well prepared (I’m told!). We had unexpected visitors and events like the big night wind that added excitement, but fortunately, no complications to our trip. A lot of pre-trip planning paid off with a smoothly running trip and no glitches (except for the marshmallows!). Last, but not least, we had a remarkable group of young people that made the trip unique and special for me. Everyone was cooperative and respectful and appreciative. I never heard any foul language or complaining from anyone (at least not within my earshot!). Everyone was looking out for each other and being considerate. When the paddling got tough, everybody dug in. There was lots of socializing and the group became a very cohesive unit. If this is typical of military operations, I’ll sign up at the next recruiting drive! Seriously, in many ways the 15 Wing youth were a model group; the kind that makes guiding a pleasure and keeps me paddling!
15 Wing Youth Trip Summaries
I had a blast on the canoe trip! It gave me a chance to be active and have a camping trip during the summer. I was given an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. The trip really made me push myself physically. There was lots of free time to swim, run around, and socialize, which made the trip really easy going and enjoyable. I loved the great scenery and amazing food! If there would be anything that I would change about the trip it would be to make it longer by a day or two. The trip gave me some great memories and thank you for the experience!
I thought the canoe trip was fantastic and I’d do it again in a heartbeat! I found that the actual canoeing part was not too difficult and that you did not have to be in excellent physical condition to enjoy it. I also thought that the food was great, I have never been camping when I was served food that good! I also enjoyed it when we were able to have fires at night and tell stories and do all those fun things. I especially enjoyed the lunch breaks on the sandy beaches where everyone ate lunch and then went for a nice refreshing swim afterwards! Thanks again for a great trip!
Josh McKinnon (14)
The trip was the coolest thing I have ever been on. I’ve been camping with my family before, but this was way cooler. At the beginning of the trip, I was tiring very often (my arms) but after a while I got used to it and it was fun. I loved the campfires; they were my favorite. I remember when we camped on the island with waist-high grass all over and we jumped off the cliff into the water! That was way cool. The entire trip was fun, so I hope we can do it again next year.:)
Zachary Johnson (16)
The canoe trip was great; it was a great way to finish off the summer with a bang. The canoeing part of the trip turned out to be more leisurely and relaxing than actual strenuous physical activity. The food was amazing, Cliff is a great cook and truly gifted at preparing meals without amenities. We were also able to have lovely campfires on the sand at night; I wish we had remembered the marshmallows. The days were great; they were broken up by many memorable swim and snack breaks. Overall it was a great trip and I would love to do it again sometime.
Laurence Brien (14)
The canoe trip was AWSOME! I had plenty of fun! I think my favourite time was when we slept outside with no tent and the swimming was also great! The trip was well organized for the fact that Cliff told us what we needed to know (how to paddle) and having maps and waterproof bags was smart too! And finally the food was GREAT! I think I never ate as healthy at home before (hehe)!!!
Christopher Cobb (12)
I had a wonderful time on the canoe trip. I loved the cooking; the egg salad sandwiches were fantastic. I also loved the pancakes; they were the best I’ve ever eaten. It was so much fun because we had campfires and lots of food. I even got hurt on our last night when we had spaghetti, I was collecting fire wood and I ran and slipped and cut my leg on a broken tree trunk. It was so much fun that I would like to go again, but if I do, I will bring more snacks. If we can do it again, please make sure there are some marshmallows next time. I had so much fun that I will tell my friends about the canoe trip and how good the cooking was.
15 Wing Leaders’ Trip Summaries
The Canoe trip was awesome. From a supervisor / chaperone’s perspective it was great. The whole trip from start to finish was well organized and Cliff provided more than enough information and guidance every step of the way. The trip was personally created by Cliff and was based on my input and requirements of time, cost, etc. Every detail was thought out ahead of time by Cliff and he provided us with all the equipment and personal leadership along the way. I would recommend anyone trying to put together a trip for a group to seriously consider Cliff Speer and his company CanoeSki as their guide.
Cliff was easy to get along with and he was always thinking of us (the customer) at all times. He took care of our every basic need. This made the trip simply fun and enjoyable. Every day was filled with just the right amount of time spent paddling with more than adequate food and rest breaks. We always enjoyed a nice swim at many of our beautiful and scenic stops. As well, the evenings were filled with the fun of swimming, laughing, hiking, exploring, campfires and wilderness adventure. What more could you ask for. You’ve got nature, friends, good times, great food and an amazing guide to reveal all of these things to you along the way. Thanks Cliff!
The canoe trip was quite an amazing experience and a perfect way to end the summer. We kicked the weekend off with a little lesson on how to paddle, packed our stuff into waterproof bags, and off we went down the river. I loved the feeling of getting away from the busy city life and traffic, not showering for days, wearing the same thing over and over again, not worrying about the smell, and being creative about choosing my own special place to go to the washroom! I got so used to it that, after the trip, I was still scouting out the best tree, bush, and patch of grass – whatever spot to name. Cliff was a wonderful, very organized guide, having everything mapped out, found all the best camping places, and prepared us incredibly delicious gourmet meals that one would never have thought possible in the wilderness.
This trip was one grand adventure. If you let the imagination run on its own it could have come up with all sorts of things, whether it was night or day. One night in particular was verrrrrrrrrrrry windy. The kids all decided to sleep out on the beach, so little me, alone in my tent had quite a hard time trying to stay put and not blow away. I was leaping from one side to the other, but the wind was still pushing me and I felt like it was dragging me across the beach. The wind stopped, and a coyote came, circled our camp area a few times, howling the whole way, and left! Of course the wind started again. I thought for sure I was going to wake up in OZ. I chuckled to myself. Honestly! I needed a hero. And then he came! Cliff! I was saved. Thank goodness the next day had nearly perfect canoeing conditions because I was one tired duck. The next day also held a perfect spot for a campsite. It was right across from a pretty cool sandbar which we got lots of amusement and playtime out of.
I enjoyed getting some exercise that required the use of muscles I don’t normally use, the sun was great, and it was nice being able to stop and swim in the river at any given time. It was a youth leadership adventure of a life time!