Paddling: Fort Assiniboine-Vega Ferry

I have been very interested in the area around Fort Assiniboine, Alberta since 1995, when I learned about the trails there from a Backroads Mapbook:

There are several wildlands recreation areas surrounding Fort Assiniboine, and the terrain in the Sandhills park is very different from other areas of Alberta.  After hiking there, I saw that there was a very nice stretch of the Athabasca River, with good road and canoe access just southwest of the town, and at Vega Ferry, to the Northeast.  I’ve wanted to paddle this stretch ever since, and finally had the chance to do that on the weekend.  Although I posted the trip on the Ceyana Canoe Club site at the beginning of the season, I got very few responses, and I was afraid that I’d have to cancel the trip.  Fortunately, 2 other paddlers came through, one of whom was prepared to solo the trip.

Local paddlers advised that there was camping available just south of town at Holmes Crossing Recreation Area.  Unfortunately, this is no longer run by the province and there is no marking at all on the highway for this campground.  Fortunately, we all found people to ask for directions.  You can turn north off highway 33 at the intersection with Secondary Highway 763 to reach the campground.  It’s a nice, protected area, with a cook shelter, picnic tables and firepits and an outhouse.  There’s no water available.  Because there aren’t any staff, there may be people staying there for the purpose of partying, and it can be noisy after dark.  Since I always wear earbuds when I travel, that didn’t really keep me awake.  The mosquitoes are still pretty hungry around sunset, but it’s getting easier to survive them.  Both nights were very warm.

We wanted to make an early start on Saturday, so we got onto the river by 8:30 am.  The whole stretch of river was perfect for someone like me, who isn’t very comfortable with rapids and other river risks.  The flow was steady, and there were a few shallow areas, but there were no significant hazards to worry about.  The day was absolutely beautiful.  We saw a moose mother and calf swimming out of the river, and an eagle.  Geese are beginning to prepare for their long trip south, and leaves are beginning to turn yellow on the poplars.  There is mixed forest along both sides of the river, and it’s unpopulated by humans.  We saw a few motor boats along our way, but not many.  We took several breaks to eat and dip in the river.  6 1/2 hours later, we arrived at the Vega Ferry, one of the few operating ferries left in the province.  The ferry operator was very friendly and helpful.  There is a nice camping area on the east side of the river, immediately above the ferry, and there’s excellent river access on both sides of the river here.

In the town of Fort Assiniboine, the rodeo was in full swing, and a roast beef dinner was about to begin.  We stopped to check out the garter snake den, which was pretty quiet, but is apparently quite busy in May. We saw a strange phenomena with about 4-6 juvenile sandhill cranes grazing and flying with a flock of Canada Geese.  I saw them grazing, and one of the others saw them flying.  Their colouring was similar to the geese, but their shape and posture was quite a bit different!

After a beautiful, sunny day, there were distant thunder storms.  In the morning, I woke up to see that it had rained heavily in the night.  Everywhere in my tent was nice and dry except for underneath my thermarest.  I realized that I had left some of my groundsheet exposed, without tarp covering it, so that provided a channel for the water to come under the tent.  I’m still learning, but I’m definitely happy with having the tarp extend out above the front door of my tent.  When it’s rainy or too sunny, it makes a nice area to sit.

There will be a group paddling the next stretch of the Athabasca River in September.  I’m looking forward to that, and I’d definitely do this stretch again and again.  The shuttle took about 1 hour total, which isn’t bad at all for such a long day of paddling.  The distance on the river was just under 45 kilometres.

2 comments on “Paddling: Fort Assiniboine-Vega Ferry

  1. I just finished a solo trip on this stretch (4pm Thursday – 4pm Saturday). Total time spent on the river was 19 hours. Hard paddle time was no less than 14 hours with roughly 5 hours of light paddling / free-floating. I was running a Metzler brand inflatable canoe which has MUCH more drag than a traditional style canoe. As water levels were average, the factor that seemed to delay me the most was wind. Very strong headwinds both days. Enough to stall the canoe completely. At times it was everything I had to keep from being pushed to the side by crosswind. I was astonished, and a little worried to find that after the first full day of steady paddling (8 hours) I had only covered 15% of the distance. I made up 60-70% during a relatively calm period between 8am and 1pm on the final day. The last stretch, between 1 and 3:30pm was an intense upper body workout, but I made it to the ferry with a 1/2 hour to spare, and my ride was already there waiting. So, I can attest to your 6-1/2 hour estimated float time as being highly variable. Gear, weather conditions, and water levels are all major factors. Other than that, your post was accurate and informative. Thanks and kind regards.
    Fellow river rat.

    • Wow!! That sounds like quite the challenge! 8 of us did that stretch 2 weeks ago in tandem canoes, in a bit over 5 hours paddling time. The river was higher & faster than average, due to the recent rains. We also faced some really challenging headwinds, as we drew nearer to the ferry, but only for a 1/2 hour or so. That was pretty draining. Otherwise it was smooth sailing, and a lovely day. We camped both nights at Vega, which made the shuttle pretty easy. I’m curious about the camping along that stretch. Looks like lots of good islands for it.

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