July 24th, 2024

Untitled: Milk River a hidden treasure in our own backyard

By Medicine Hat News on July 21, 2017.

The beauty of the Prairies has always been underrated. That is understandable. It’s subtle compared to the Rockies. Saying the Rockies are beautiful is like saying Cindy Crawford is beautiful. It’s obvious. The real connoisseur seeks out the underappreciated and hard to find.

To be sure there is obvious beauty in the prairies. The soft slopes of prairie hills surrounding our homes. The blue domed sky. A city dweller visiting the prairies will find their necks craned to the sky and its unimaginable size. No different than when we visit big cities and strain to see the tops of skyscrapers.

The prairie hides other treasures by cutting them into the earth. The Rockies rise up, calling to you from hundreds of kilometres away, but you can be a kilometre away from Writing-on-Stone or Red Rock Coulee and be unaware of the natural wonders so close to you.

The Milk River is one of those gems and right in our backyard. The float from Gold Springs Campground to Writing-On-Stone takes two days and one night. Safira and I made this trip with two friends recently. It was her introduction to backcountry travel and it is a perfect weekend trip destined to become a classic of southern Alberta backcountry travel.

The southern most river in Alberta, the Milk is a shallow, but lively river. I always have some anxiety with river canoeing — especially with someone new to canoeing. As we’ve seen this season rivers can be dangerous things. It is a powerful force that can’t always be controlled. Because the Milk River is so shallow any change in water levels is easily felt. The river was at 16 m3/s during our trip. I’m not sure if the Milk could be paddled with much less water than we had. It was difficult at times to find a deep channel of water.

Higher water levels would cover more rocks removing some dangers, but the speed of the water would increase and create other hazards. And the trickiest parts were not the rock gardens, but the occasional sharp turns where fast moving water threw our canoes against the sandstone cliffs and under rock ledges. Speaking of rock gardens. You are guaranteed to get hung up on a rock or two. Just remember to lean into the rock. Leaning away will only make it easier to swamp your canoe.

The trip is a great introduction to whitewater. At our water levels the frequent rapids never exceeded Class II and each section of rapids are short with calm waters immediately before and after. But make no mistake: The Milk River can be a tricky river to navigate and you should have some experience to do this trip.

Poverty Rock is the natural campsite between Gold Springs and Writing-On-Stone and is one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve seen anywhere. Here the river has carved a secluded circular valley, in the process abandoning a building-sized tongue of sandstone smack dab in the centre. There is a small beach with a sandy riverbed perfect for swimming. Cottontail rabbits everywhere. A kingdom to make the rabbits of Watership Down jealous. The river zigs and zags between the sandstone cliffs ringed with hoodoos. Above them the Sweetgrass Hills rise. It’s stunning and accessible only by river.

We paddled through fields and dodged Black Angus and Herefords wandering across. Hundreds of cliff swallows flew around us when we disturbed them out of their mud nests on picturesque cliffs. The trip ends after a lazy section between Weir Bridge and Writing-On-Stone. A perfect ending to the trip. Writing-On-Stone never fails to impress.

Keep in mind the heat can be brutal with highs of 37 during our trip and nary a tree. Shade impossible to find. But this trip is a treasure of prairie life.

A Paddler’s Guide to the Milk River ($9) by the Alberta Recreational Canoe Association is indispensible. Safira and I are always happy to share our canoe if that’s the only thing stopping you from getting out there.

@KrisSamraj is a writer. He’s going to favour us with some words from time to time.

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