Fall paddling: Athabasca River, Vega Ferry-Smith, AB

What a fantastic summer I’ve enjoyed in 2014!  One of the members of Ceyana Canoe Club http://ceyana.ca/ is trying to canoe the whole length of the Athabasca River in Alberta.  He proposed a 95 kilometre trip between Vega Ferry and Smith, Alberta.  A few weeks ago, we paddled from Fort Assiniboine to Vega Ferry on the Athabasca, so this trip started where the last trip ended.  Most of us gathered near the Vega Ferry on Friday night, and camped in the county campground.  Last week’s weather was terrible, with huge snowstorms in a lot of the province, so it was hard to get excited about outdoor activities.  The rain continued in Edmonton on Friday, but it was dry by the time that we got to Vega.  The campsite has a covered cook shelter, and a fire was already burning when I started to set up my new tent in the dark.  It was easy to set up, and it was cozy and warm to sit and visit in the warm shelter.

Early the next morning, there was a lot of frost on our tents, because the temperature was around 0.  We packed up camp quickly, so that we could drop off our canoes at the river’s edge, and then take our cars to the end of our trip.  One of our group had the boring job of just waiting around for about 3 hours for our return.  Another group member drove straight to Smith with a nearly-empty car, and drove us back to Vega.

By the time that we actually got out on the water, it was about 1 in the afternoon.  After a couple of hours on the water, a motor boat stopped to chat with us.  They asked where we were staying and we asked if they had any recommendations.  They said that they had a camp at Bell Island, where they recently stayed for 10 days, and they said it was equipped with a picnic table, and freshly cut and split firewood.  According to them, we were already about halfway there.  When we arrived at the next island, we investigated along the shoreline, until we found a nicely equipped site.  It was marked with a canoe paddle, with a poem about the river written by Herb Bell, a prospector who lived on the island 100 years ago.  We found enough flat areas for all 5 of our tents, and we enjoyed cooking our meals and relaxing on the wide. rocky shore.  Our distance on day 1 was about 26 kilometres.

Our group had 2 different styles of canoe camping.  The 3 younger fellows were all accustomed to backpacking, and their gear pretty much fit into a backpack.  They shared one small stove, and ate everything on the trip out of bags, after pouring in the correct amount of boiling water, and waiting the correct amount of time.  The 2 (slightly) older females packed everything including a kitchen sink, and cooked corn on the cob, chicken breasts, quesadillas, pancakes, etc.  In spite of our different styles, everyone worked together very nicely, and the group size was pretty much perfect for a trip of this nature.  None of us had paddled this stretch before, but the river was very calm and easy, with a few quick patches of water on the final day.  We saw a lot of bird and animal evidence along the way.  On Sunday morning, we saw hundreds of sandhill cranes migrating south above us.  Bald and golden eagles, ospreys and sharp-shinned hawks were everywhere.  A mink swam by, and there were plenty of beaver lodges.  Deer and coyotes inspected us from the shore.  In one area, there was a profusion of animal tracks, of many varieties.

The second day, we had a long push to get to our destination.  We paddled 45 kilometres, and it took us 8 hours.  It was another very pleasant day on the water.  Our solo paddler was a little weary towards the end of the day, so she switched with one of the younger fellows, and enjoyed paddling “with a motor” for the last hour of our day.  We camped the second night by a quad track north of Chisholm, AB.  This was another homemade campsite with fire rings, seating, and flat spaces for our tents.

On our third day on the river, we were well-rested and feeling confident.  There were long, straight stretches on the river at times, and there were also more rapid stretches and shallows than the other day.  We finally began to see evidence of human life, passing under the Hondo bridge (Highway 2), and a railway bridge.  There was a huge island in the river near the end of our trip, which we didn’t explore.  The day went smoothly, and we completed our 29K paddle after 4 hours and 40 minutes.  The guys returned to Edmonton by way of Vega, picking up the remaining vehicle.  I drove home by way of Westlock.  There was plenty of harvesting occurring on all of the farms I passed.  We noticed that fall colour progressed quickly through our 3 days on the water, since everything was still pretty green on day 1.

This was a lovely stretch of river with no major challenges, plenty of lovely scenery, and some very nice camping options.  I’d recommend it to anyone who wants an extended trip.  The original plan was doing this trip over 5 days, which would be good if people wanted to take time to relax or to fish.  It was quite manageable as a 3-day trip, for people who want to push just a little.

Final arrival at Smith

2 comments on “Fall paddling: Athabasca River, Vega Ferry-Smith, AB

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