Michael’s Story – Southern Waterways

Coyotes & Coulees – September 2002

Michael Oelck

Weird weather, hiking for a day and group bonding all combine to make a fall trip on the North Saskatchewan River a memorable experience. Coming from Germany, Michael gets re-acquainted with the Canadian way, another surprise to add to his canoe trip. “We had hiked through a fall-coloured coulee, we heard the howling coyotes, met wonderful people and we did the paddling, all in a short weekend – what more could you want?”, he concludes.

Coyotes & Coulees: A Trip of Surprises!

By Michael Oelck

A German Gets Ready to Roll

“Been there, done that,” I said to Cliff when I phoned him from Germany to register for his fall North Saskatchewan River trip. I had gone on enough canoe trips to know what to expect, so this was just going to be a little treat after my biotech conference in Saskatoon. I knew there was hardly anything to worry about. Well, it was not going to be quite that easy!

Three weeks later, I arrived in Saskatoon from Frankfurt. The conference was a success, and on the last day I started thinking about this little weekend trip again. I grabbed the packing list which Cliff had e-mailed and checked what I had not brought on the plane. Most of the items on the list were o.k. Only one thing was missing — rubber boots — important for pushing the canoe off wet riverbanks. I had not packed any with the business wardrobe for the conference! I picked up a pair of boots at the Midtown Plaza and then I was ready to roll.

Next day, my friend Jürgen, another Canadianized German biotechnologist like me, drove us both to Cliff’s place. It was not a bad morning: chatting people standing around in gender clusters; canoes all loaded; not too cold, just the wind blowing. I knew this kind of wind could blow a canoeing party off the water. We introduced ourselves. “I’m Michael, and this is Jürgen, and who are you?”

“Hey”, giggle giggle, “I’m Karen and this is a Karen too, and this is Caroline, and here we have another Karen. You see, you’ll just have to memorize us!” More giggling started and stayed with us for the next two days!

After loading to the rooftops, our two vans full of people, plus two cars headed westbound towards Borden Bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. So many participants! I had never been with such a big group on a canoe trip before; 17 people, including one boat with three people — mother and father and their 8-year old son. And the women were really humorous! Somehow, the giggly group had gathered in the other van. Jürgen and I were with the serious people. We had a real Saskatchewan politician with us and important things to talk about like the provincial economy!

It Does Not Look Good

Sunrise over the North Saskatchewan River

Sunrise over the North Saskatchewan River before the rain!

Our first coffee stop was at the “Red Bull” in Radisson. The giggling faction had hot chocolate; Jürgen and I had Canadian coffee — good coffee, the kind you will never get a heart attack from — you could see the bottom of the cup! At Radisson we left the Yellow Head highway and headed towards the take-out on the river bank to drop a vehicle there. It had started to rain! Rain and canoeing do not go together well at the best of times, but this rain came down in gusts, blustery and ugly. Well, perhaps it only looked that way from my coddled German viewpoint. Suddenly a feeling started creeping up in me as if something was attacking my good spirits.

Finally, the vans stopped and the giggles became quieter. We grabbed our hoods and caps and stepped out into the threatening weather. “Wait a sec,” Cliff instructed the group, “Let’s all get together in a circle.” (Aha, I recalled another time — this happened years ago on a trip with Cliff at Missinipe on the Churchill River, when it rained harder than today). “It does not look good,” Cliff said. “I think”, he paused and watched the sky full of geese; “I think the geese are having trouble flying today. Take a look.”

Somebody’s cap blew off and a Karen ran to catch it. “These geese know that it’s too windy today,” Cliff continued. Nobody said anything. “We can’t put the canoes on the river now, it’s too dangerous”. He paused. “Also, considering that we have a number of beginners, we’d better not risk upsetting a boat and getting the paddlers hypothermic.”

Then he looked around. Still nobody wanted to say anything. He asked, “Is everybody o.k. with not canoeing today? Tell me,” he asked, “On a scale from 1 to 10, where are your spirits now?” The giggle-group giggled. Somebody grinned; everyone knew this game. By the way, nobody in Germany would ever do this. In Germany, people would say there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Or they might say anything that does not kill us will make us harder, and then they would start complaining about the weather, pack their stuff and drink good, strong coffee (where you can’t see the bottom of the cup)!

Standing at the riverbank, huddling against the wind and drizzle, a couple of women volunteered, “I’m at 5 now!” and “I’m a good seven!” One of the men countered with “four and a half!” Finally, Cliff told everyone to jump back in the vans, so we could head back to the Red Bull and formulate plan B for the day.

Plan B: Hiking the Coulees

Our revised plan landed us at the regional park near Maymont Bridge where we would eventually camp. After dropping the canoe trailer, we motored along a winding back road to a lunch spot near the river bank, but nicely protected from the wind. Our countryside tour eventually led us to a local farm, whose owner was an acquaintance of Cliff’s. The farm had all kinds of animals and lots of attractions, in particular the location itself on a creek flowing through a deep coulee. We took a long hike through the coulee, enjoying the fall colours, which were almost at their peak. Sunshine finally! It was wonderful, particularly when you come from Europe; it felt like Indian Summer in New England.

In the evening, back at the Glenburn Regional Park, we set up tents and lit a fire. The heavy coats came out and the caps and toques when darkness sank over us. It dipped below zero with a clear moon, but the wind was gone completely. Cooking skills in the group were well developed. We had a good time roasting corn, eating, socializing and telling stories around the campfire. And then one Karen found a stone, wrapped it in aluminium foil and put it close to the fire to use as a heat source for her sleeping bag. Yes, I did hear the coyotes later that night; they did howl!

The next morning, the clouds had returned. Out of the sleeping bag, I opened the tent. “Uuuuh, cold, isn’t it?” I remarked to my tent mate. The fire was going early and tea was ready before me.

“Hi Karen, how did you sleep? How was your hot stone, was it fun?” I asked.

“No, it melted my sleeping bag; it was too hot!”

Then we dug into a big breakfast with lots of calories. Afterwards we packed and drove to the river launch point not far from the Maymont Bridge.

Canoeing Finally, In the Rain

A damp lunch site on the North Saskatchewan River

That miraculous lunch fire is glowing, but the blazing rainwear is overpowering!

Cliff gave the group some paddling lessons, the speedy way (on dry land), and off we went. It went well; we were having a good time. Everybody felt happy. After an hour of paddling, the rain set in, slowly at first. It continued. I expected that Cliff would call the boats to form a raft, and he did, but he did not ask how we felt this time! Some people got out their gorp and shared it around the group (another one of those non-German traits). But it was nice in the rain, not that we didn’t miss the sun, but we got used to it. There was no wind, but lots of birds — Canada geese, snow geese, sand hill cranes, and a number of eagles, ducks, and blue herons — lots to watch. So, we continued paddling for another hour until lunch time.

Then a miracle happened; it stopped raining. We found a nice dip in the river bank, protected and full of cow pies! They were too soaked to be used for the fire, but now I got a surprise. Some people in the group were amazing — they got the fire going with wet wood, using just the thorny sticks from a bush! They blew the fire to life; I was very impressed. Lunch was a success – no rain luckily! Some of the giggles came back to life. The afternoon came with some sunshine, but in between, the showers were heavy and many, and then came the rain, the continuous kind, when you know it will not stop.

But I was wrong; it did stop. The last half hour of paddling was nice; the sun came out, and we landed finally at the take-out close to Radisson. It was a very nice spot. We lit a bonfire to warm up and dry out and told lots of jokes in the company of muddy canoes, muddy boots and muddy everything else! Some women dropped their pants in front of the fire (only the first layer!) to dry their bottoms. The shuttle vehicle that we had left, took Carla and Cliff back to retrieve the vans while the rest of us wandered through the pretty country side. Nice country and sunshine! Great views over the river valley. When the vans returned, we packed everything very quickly. Back to Radisson to see the Red Bull, get coffee, and finally we turned homeward.

Final Surprises

Back in Saskatoon we unpacked, and then came the farewells. I was so surprised! What had happened on this trip? Was it my prejudice, or had Canadians changed in the five years since I had left Canada? All the women hugged me! It was wonderful! I got some kisses, too — on the cheek, though. Jürgen said he enjoyed the farewells too.

It was a great trip, not as easy as I had expected. But it wasn’t only the farewell hugs & kisses that were special. We had hiked through a fall-coloured coulee, we heard the howling coyotes, met wonderful people and we did the paddling, all in a short weekend — what more could you want?