Blog » Paddling the North Saskatchewan River – Nordegg to Rocky Mountain House

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Paddling the North Saskatchewan River – Nordegg to Rocky Mountain House

Having been a couple years since my last multi-day canoe trip, I was super stoked when the opportunity arose to plan one with a great group of friends this summer.  As most of the people in the group were novice canoeists we opted for a river that could both combine ease and excitement into one.  The North Saskatchewan River achieves both; the run between Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House has a mix of class I and II rapids (depending on the level of the river and time of year) that can be easily avoided if desired.  Wanting to have a full weekend of paddling, we chose to put-in at Nordegg as that gave us just over 100km to flotilla, charge rapids and sing songs by the campfire with or without driftwood masks on our heads.

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With our canoes loaded with beer and gourmet food, the twelve of us set out on a glamping weekend on the river, that I’m sure will be repeated next year.

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As evidence of how enjoyable multiday canoeing can be, as well as this river route, we attended a wedding “reception” of two people that were part of a group that have been doing this route for 28 years now! In voyager costumes serving soggy cake (the cake trustee capsized), these seasoned canoeists passed on the torch so to speak, seeing themselves, 25 years ago, in us.

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I would highly recommend a multiday canoe trip for those who want a break from the backpacking grind but also want something a little more rustic than car camping.  If you’re new to canoeing then start with a lake paddle before a river route, as canoeing with a current can be quite different.  Or take a quick course. The University of Calgary Outdoors Centre offers a variety of courses from beginner day classes to multi-day trips.

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Planning a canoe trip is the same as planning a camping trip except you also have to include the following logistics.

Gear

  • Canoe + Accessories – Most people don’t own all the required gear to go canoeing.  The good news is that everything you need can be rented easily; canoe, paddles (including a required spare paddle), personal flotation devices (PFD), throw bags and bailers can all be rented at the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre. It is important to note that Canadian Coast Guard Regulations require everyone to wear PFD’s and have a  whistle, as well as have a spare paddle, a throw bag and bailer in the boat.
  • Dry Barrel & Dry Bags – Nothing sucks more than having a wet sleeping bag! Dry bags and barrels will protect your clothes and equipment (stove, tent, sleeping bag) in the event you capsize or take on some water. Both can be rented from most outdoors stores where you can rent canoes.
  • Canoe Trailer – Hauling canoes can be pretty difficult if you don’t have an appropriate vehicle, as was the case in our group.  Solution; rent a canoe trailer.  Luckily the place where we rented our canoes also rented out trailers to haul them.  We rented a trailer capable of hauling eight canoes.  This also makes shuffling cars between the put-in and take-out much easier.

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Route

  • River Experience – Take into consideration the paddling experience of your group.  If you’re picking a more difficult route where capsizing is a possibility, make sure everyone is well versed in what to do in this situation as well as how to perform a river rescue.  I found that the website Paddling ABC had a good overview of river routes in Western Canada.  As well as this book, Mark’s Guide For Alberta Paddlers, seems to be loaded with great trips.

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  • Daily Distance – The camping part is just as much fun as the canoeing part, so plan achievable distances to paddle each day, ensuring there is still time to relax. A good daily distance to aim for is 25-30km, 70km is too much but is achievable with a determined group (we were hella determined)
  • River Map – Have a map of the route, a river map preferably.  A river map will have rapids and other hazards marked and tips on how to approach them.  It will also help you determine where to camp each night and keep track of your progress. Check your local outdoors or canoeing specific stores. The Alberta Recreational Canoe Association (aka Paddle Alberta) publishes some great maps that can be downloaded for free or ordered for a small price.

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  • Car Shuffle – Once you determine your put-in and take-out locations, you will need to determine how you are going to execute the car shuffle.  Unless you arrange for a pick-up service, you will need to leave at least one car at the take-out point that will be able to shuffle all the drivers back to the put-in spot to pick up their cars.

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The good thing about canoeing is that you have a bit more wiggle room when it comes to weight (unless you are portaging).  This means ditch the dehydrated meals, bring fresh ingredients, beverages of choice and if you dare, a guitar! Just remember the age old rules “pack out what you pack in” and “leave the site better then how you found it”.

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Here are some tips that will make your canoeing trip more enjoyable:

  • Waterproof EVERYTHING
  • Tie everything into the canoe. In the off chance that you capsize, you won’t be chasing things down the river
  • Bring knee pads and butt pads, if your canoe isn’t equipped with them already
  • Hat and glasses to deal with the sun’s glare off the water
  • SUNSCREEN, when you’re playing on the water your sun exposure is increased significantly (as I posted before)
  • Wear sandals, not flip flops.  You need to be able to step into the river on who knows what is under there and maneuver the canoe.  Flip flops tend to fall off and float away, leaving your feet desperately uncomfortable and sore. It goes without saying that my ECCO Terrain Sandals failed to disappoint again. Another adventure under these soles!
  • Take a break on the calm parts and flotilla (join the canoes together and float down leisurely)

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Summer is not over yet and most rivers are calming down from the initial spring thaw and rush, so now is as good a time as ever to give multiday canoeing a try!

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