Family and fun in Jasper National Park

After more than 15 months of life limited by Covid-19, Alberta lifted all restrictions on July 1 and declared the province “open for summer”. With barely over 50% of the eligible population (those age 12 and over) fully vaccinated, we’re skeptical that this will last, but in the meantime we’ve made spending time with family our first priority this summer. Since the beginning of July, we’ve enjoyed visits with both our Alberta kids and their families and last week we headed off to Jasper to spend some time with the oldest member of the family. My aunt, the last remaining member of my parents’ generation, is 97 years old and is very special to me. After spending much of the last year alone in her own home, she recently moved into a seniors lodge and is absolutely loving it!

While in Jasper, we were also able to enjoy two of our favourite summertime activities, kayaking and hiking. With hundreds of wildfires burning across western Canada, smoke hung heavily in the air partially obscuring views of the mountains, but there was still much beauty to be seen. 

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A quiet paddle on Pyramid Lake


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Pyramid Island

While enjoying our peaceful morning paddle, we saw an elk grazing in bushes alongside the shore and had the opportunity to observe a pair of loons feeding their half-grown chick. Unlike the air above, the water was so clear that we were actually able to watch the birds swimming below it’s surface! I wasn’t able to get a clear photo of the youngster, but one of the adults stationed itself between us and its offspring providing me with great opportunity to photograph it at close range.

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There are many, many hiking trails in the Jasper area, but we decided to do the Valley of the Five Lakes again. We first hiked it four years ago with our oldest son and his family. While I remembered the spectacular views of the lakes, I’d forgotten that the trail is quite steep in places. With roots criss-crossing it and many rocky outcrops, good footwear is advised. 

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First Lake

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Second Lake

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Third Lake

We enjoyed the view of Third Lake, my favourite of the five, from a pair of iconic Parks Canada red chairs. Read more about these chairs, found in national parks across the country, here

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Fourth Lake

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Fifth Lake

For clearer smoke-free views of the lakes with mountains in the background, take a look at this post from our previous hike. 

There’s also plenty of beauty in Jasper National Park that can be seen from a vehicle. We spent an entire afternoon on a sightseeing drive with my aunt as our guide. She toured us around Lakes Edith and Annette close to town and then decided that we should head up the longer road toward Maligne Lake. The air was a little clearer up that way which was nice. I especially enjoyed the views of Medicine Lake. 

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Medicine Lake

At Maligne Lake, we enjoyed a coffee/tea break on a patio overlooking the lake where we could watch tour boats come and go. 

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Maligne Lake

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Auntie Norma, an avid hiker into her 80s, handled the short trail from the parking lot like a pro! I’m sure no one who saw us would have believed that she’s 97. On our way back to town, she had no sooner expressed her disappointment over not seeing any wildlife when we came upon some Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. IMG_2693

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The icing on the cake, however, was a mama black bear and her very young cub! Unlike many tourists who threw caution to the wind trying to get a perfect photo, I took mine from the window of the vehicle!

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On the river again…

There isn’t going to be a Fashion Friday post today. We spent the last few days camping at Big Knife Provincial Park and when I’m camping, fashion is the furthest thing from my mind! Instead, I’m going to share a couple of kayaking experiences with you.

The weather forecast for Monday called for extreme heat, so after a leisurely breakfast we decided to head for the river before the day got too hot. The sun was shining, the air was almost still, and everything was so fresh and green!

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At this time of year the water is high, so we were able to leave the Battle River for a bit and paddle up the much shallower Big Knife Creek. It was like entering another world; a world of untouched and incredibly peaceful wilderness. Unlike last year, we spotted just one beaver and heard only one mighty tail slap. The rest of the time, the water was like a mirror and the reflections were amazing. 

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Returning to the main river, we continued upstream. On the way, we chose a spot where we’d pull ashore for a picnic lunch on our way back. 

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It was there that we had the most amazing experience. We were just returning to the boat when we heard a loud splash just upstream from us. A moose was swimming across the river and I had the camera in my hand!

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She even stopped on the hillside and posed for me before heading into the bush!

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When we started kayaking four years ago, I could only paddle for about an hour and a half before feeling like my arms were going to fall off. On Monday we paddled for almost four and the GPS told us that we’d travelled 10.5 miles (16.9 km). We were pretty impressed with ourselves, but also glad to be back in camp by the time the temperature rose to 35ºC (95ºF) later in the afternoon! 

Our second kayaking adventure was quite different and I didn’t even think to take any photos. We’d done some hiking on Tuesday and left camp for much of the day on Wednesday to go to Camrose for medical appointments, so we decided that we’d go for a short paddle yesterday morning before packing up and heading for home. There’s a bridge not too far downstream from the campground where Secondary Highway 855 crosses the river, so we decided to kayak there and back. The river widens in that area and when we got out on the water, we realized that the wind was MUCH stronger than it had appeared back in the campground which is quite sheltered. It was at our back, so we had no problem getting to the bridge, but when we turned around we quickly realized that there was no way that we were going to be able to battle our way back to the boat launch. Paddling as hard as we could, we were barely able to move forward. Water was splashing over the bow and I was immediately soaked from the waist down. Thankfully, we knew that there was a small road down to the riverside by the bridge that people use to go fishing, so we found a spot to land the kayak nearby and only had to carry it a short distance to that road. Of course, the vehicle was still at the boat launch and now one of us had to walk back to get it! Since I’m trying to walk lots anyway, I volunteered. Richard waited with the kayak while I walked almost 3.5 km (2.16 miles) back to the vehicle. That’s not a lot farther than I walk most days, but much of it was uphill and that horrendous wind was trying to blow me off my feet; the feet that were wearing only water shoes! That definitely wasn’t a fashion statement, but I can say that I’m very thankful that I don’t kayak barefoot! 

 

Kayaking, hiking, and bridge building

We kayaked to Saskatchewan yesterday. That might sound like an amazing feat, but only until I tell you that we were camping on the Alberta side of Dillberry Lake which straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. We were across the provincial boundary within 5 minutes of leaving the boat launch!

Camping, hiking, and kayaking are my favourite summertime activities and we chose Dillberry Lake Provincial Park for a short getaway this week because there we could enjoy all three. Though it’s less than two hours from home, we hadn’t been there since the early 1980s! The lake was much smaller than we remembered and we were able to paddle all the way around it in less than an hour.

We spent several hours out on the hiking trails the day before though. The “knob and kettle” topography of the area consists of hummocky mounds (the knobs) and water-filled depressions (the kettles) that form a series of small lakes. We hiked the entire trail system (8.93 km) which is made up of several loops alongside and around some of these lakes. With the exception of bazillions of birds, butterflies, and dragonflies, we didn’t see any wildlife, but we saw plenty of evidence along the trail to suggest that they were there.

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At one point, where a tiny wooden bridge should have taken us across the water exiting one of the lakes, industrious beaver had built a dam and flooded the trail. A temporary floating bridge had been brought in to enable hikers to cross, but clearly that wasn’t enough. Would we have to turn back?

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Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. With a little temporary bridge building on Richard’s part, we were soon on our way again! The beaver had built themselves a fine home in the flooded end of the lake.

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A little further along, we ate our picnic lunch at a lovely rest spot overlooking one of the lakes.

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We were back on the trails for a short jaunt this morning before packing up to come home. This time we saw two majestic moose at fairly short range, but unfortunately neither one waited around long enough to have it’s picture taken!

My kind of birthday

If the weather permits and we’re not travelling, I usually like to play a round of golf on my birthday, but today I decided that I wanted to spend some more time hiking and kayaking instead. I just can’t get enough of the glorious fall weather that we’ve been enjoying and what could be better than spending it out in nature?

Big Knife Provincial Park on the Battle River is one of our favourite places within an hour of home, especially at this time of year. The campground closed in early September, but the park gates are still open which means that the hiking trails and boat launch are still accessible.

For today’s hike we decided to take a path less travelled. In fact, the trail that we chose doesn’t even appear on the park maps. I think it’s really just an animal trail that is occasionally used by humans. We first discovered it several years ago when we were doing some geocaching in the park, but we hadn’t hiked it again since then.

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The trail begins with a fairly steep climb to the top of the bluff shown above and then follows along the ridge. 

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Apparently, I took more photos looking back than ahead!

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The path eventually leads to The Hoodoos, a mini badlands area, and then joins the River Flats trail system . 

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If this is what 68 looks like, I’m good with it!

After hiking part of the River Flats trails and having our picnic lunch along the way, we headed for the river and launched the kayak. When you’re on a hiking trail, a river, or a lake, there’s no Covid, no politics, no racism, no hoaxes or conspiracies. There’s just you and nature; just beautiful peace and quiet!

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We spent three hours paddling. Every time we’ve been on the river in the fall, we’ve seen a blue heron. I always hope that we’ll be able to get close enough to get a good photo, but they’re very elusive, taking flight as soon as we get anywhere near. Today, it was almost as if the heron was playing with us. Every time we got close, it flew a short distance upriver and then appeared to be waiting for us to catch up. We never did get close enough to get the picture I was hoping for though!

This muskrat, on the other hand, was quite unconcerned with our presence. He was sunning himself in this same spot when we passed by on our way up the river. He slipped into the water and disappeared, but when we returned, he’d obviously decided that we were no threat and continued to sunbathe while we stopped to take his picture. In fact, if you zoom in, you’ll see that his eyes are even closed! 

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We got back to town in time to clean up and go out for supper. That’s definitely my kind of birthday… a day in the great outdoors and no cooking! 

Sharing spaces

Big Knife Provincial park, less than an hour from home, has become one of our favourite places to get away from the busyness of life. We’re just back from enjoying three days of peace and quiet there. 72 hours without cell phone or internet. No news. No politics. Just us and nature!

We certainly weren’t alone, however. We shared our camp spot with a very busy pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I’m not an avid bird watcher, but these two piqued my curiosity and I had to do a bit of research as soon as we got home. Here’s what I learned.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that breeds in Canada and the north-northeastern United States. It makes two kinds of holes in trees to harvest sap. Round holes extend deep in the tree and are not enlarged. The sapsucker inserts its bill into the hole to probe for sap. Rectangular holes are shallower, and must be maintained continually for the sap to flow. The sapsucker  laps up the leaking sap and any trapped insects with its specialized, brush-tipped tongue, and eats the cambium of the tree too. New holes usually are made in a line with old holes, or in a new line above the old.

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That’s Mr Sapsucker in my photo. His Missus looks almost the same except her bib is grey instead of red. With thousands of trees in the area, why they chose one in the middle of the campground, I’ll never know, but they were clearly quite comfortable sharing space with us. Apparently, our trailer was in their flight path between this tree and the woods surrounding the campsite, but Mr quickly took to flying directly under our awning even when we were sitting there! Thankfully, there were no collisions as he went back and forth all day long!

We also shared our space with chipmunks and squirrels who checked the site from time to time to see if we’d left anything edible lying around, and a couple of rabbits who just passed on through.

One of the things that we love to do at Big Knife is kayak on the Battle River. Yesterday, we discovered the spot where Big Knife Creek feeds into the river, so of course we had to explore it. The slow moving creek was shallow in spots, but navigable. We went as far as we could (up the creek with a paddle!) until a huge fallen tree blocked our pathway and we had to turn around.

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Pristine, untouched wilderness!

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We quickly discovered that even here we weren’t alone. This time we were sharing space with beaver. Lots of beaver! They obviously weren’t as comfortable as the sapsuckers were with the idea of sharing space with us though. As soon as we got anywhere close, tails hit the water with thundering splashes and they disappeared below the surface. I managed to get a picture of this one just before he gave his warning shot and disappeared from sight.

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Lone kayaker

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Richard has had a back problem for most of his adult life. Usually when it flares up, it settles down again within a few days, but whatever he did in early July appears to be something different. After weeks of rest, he’s still in pain. When the doctor recently told him no more golf and no kayaking for the rest of the season (we hadn’t even been out in the kayak yet), I was very unhappy! I felt sorry for him, of course. Being inactive is very difficult for him, but I was also sorry for myself! Perhaps that sounds selfish. Maybe it was. After all, I could have shrugged and said, “There’ll always be other summers”, couldn’t I? Not really. I don’t have that luxury. I’m hoping that there will be many more summers, but when you’re walking around with two cancers that aren’t being treated, you really can’t count on next year. You have to live for the moment.

I could golf on my own, but our kayak is a tandem and there it hung in the garage gathering dust. Then I remembered the other kayak; the one we’ve been storing in the back corner of the garage for our son for the past couple of years! It’s so lightweight that I can carry it myself. I could go kayaking after all!

We spent the past four days camping at Camp Lake, less than an hour from home, and I spent many hours out on the water. Sometimes I paddled vigorously, sometimes slowly, and sometimes I simply lifted the paddles out of the water and listened to the silence of solitude.

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I spent lots of time playing with my camera too. I especially love to capture reflections on water.

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In some places the fall colours were beginning to show.

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One of the things that I love about kayaking is the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat. I didn’t see any larger animals this time, but there were many places like this one along the water’s edge where they obviously come down to drink.

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One end of the lake in particular is shallow and edged with reeds and that’s where the action was.

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I have no idea how many muskrats make Camp Lake their home, but clearly there are a lot of them! For every photo that I captured, many were missed. Even the ping of my camera turning on was enough to startle them. I learned to cover the speaker with my thumb to muffle the sound as I drifted close to them. I’m not sure who was the most surprised when one furry fellow popped up and swam beside the kayak for a couple of metres! Before I could grab the camera, he noticed me and dove beneath the surface immediately disappearing from sight. It was easier to capture the ones that were out of the water.

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I’m hoping for at least one more lone kayaker outing this year, and I really hope that we’re both well enough to paddle together again next year, but at least this summer didn’t go by without some time on the water.

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Drew’s special day

Our grandchildren have been blessed with an abundance of toys, games, and books so when two of them had birthdays this spring, we decided to be creative. Our gift to each of them was a special day on their own with Gram and Grandpa once school was out for the summer. Yesterday was 11-year-old Drew’s day.

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We left his Calgary home early in the morning and headed for Banff National Park where our day started with a hike in beautiful Johnson Canyon. Drew was beyond excited when we spotted a black bear crossing a hillside shortly before we arrived at the trailhead. The bear was too far away to get a good photo, but the entertaining little ground squirrels (like the one shown above) and red squirrels along the trail certainly weren’t!

Catwalks affixed to the limestone cliffs make the canyon easily accessible to everyone and the 1.1 km trail to the lower falls involves very little change in elevation.

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At the lower falls, a bridge crosses the creek allowing both an excellent spot from which to view the falls and access to a water-formed tunnel through the rock to a closer viewing platform.

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The crowd thinned out a little as we moved on toward the upper falls, another 1.5 km up the trail. Spectacular views continued to surround us as we climbed.

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We knew that the water level was much higher than when Richard and I did the same hike almost three years ago, but I didn’t realize how much until I compared photographs. Considering how much rain Alberta has been getting this season, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

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August 2016

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July 2019

After reaching the spectacular upper falls, we stopped to enjoy our picnic lunch before continuing our adventure.

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As we started back down the trail Drew announced, “This is the best birthday present ever!” It was then that I realized that the day was as much a gift to ourselves as it was to him! It definitely filled my heart to overflowing.

In addition to the hike, Drew had been eagerly looking forward to relaxing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. I love this photo of his “floating head”!

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After soaking our tired feet and muscles in the hot pool, we made a quick stop at the Bow Falls Viewpoint then ended our day with a delicious restaurant dinner and a browse through a few gift shops before bringing a very tired boy home!

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Tomorrow we have a completely different agenda planned for his 9-year-old sister’s special day.

Back to school week

I loved seeing all the back to school photos on Facebook earlier this week. Here are three of our littles.

photos: Melaina Graham

The campground attendant at Camp Lake Park near Kinsella, Alberta was happy to take our “what retired teachers do on the first day of school” photo shortly after we arrived there on Tuesday morning!

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We had the campground almost entirely to ourselves and we thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. We spent Tuesday to Friday relaxing, reading, going for walks, and exploring the lake by kayak.

Although the colours of fall aren’t as spectacular here as they are in eastern Canada, I still find them beautiful, especially when they’re reflected on the water.

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While we were out on one of our walks, we came across this critter sunning itself on the grass.

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It barely flinched even when I got up close and personal with my macro lens.

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Thankfully, it was a harmless garter snake, the only kind common to this area!

This little chipmunk was curious enough to stick around while I snapped a quick picture too.

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We saw plenty of wildlife while we were out on the water. The ducks ignored us unless we got too close, but the Canada Geese set up quite a squawk if they spotted our UFO (unidentified floating object) anywhere in their vicinity! The lake was calm on Tuesday and Wednesday, but there was a strong breeze blowing on Thursday so we stayed close to the sheltered edge of the lake and that’s when we saw the most wildlife. The muskrats and beavers didn’t stay still long enough for me to get any pictures, but these three white-tailed deer watched us approach and only started moving toward the bushes when we got quite close.

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Now we’re home and unpacking the trailer as this was the last time we’ll have it out this year. On Monday it goes to Camrose for repairs as a result of the golf ball sized hail that hit while we were camping at Bottrel on August 1st. The insurance adjuster found a bit more damage than we had noticed initially, but thankfully it wasn’t enough to keep us from being able to use it for the rest of the season!

Strong arms at the ready?

I lift weights every winter to keep in shape, but this past winter I had a more specific goal to spur me on. I wanted to be able to paddle our kayak longer than I could last summer without feeling like my arms were going to fall off! In particular, I wanted to be able to do a five or six hour trip on the North Saskatchewan River this summer. I started lifting earlier in the fall than I usually do and I continued later into the spring. By the time I quit, just before my May 23 cancer treatment, I was lifting more than I had for several years!

No, we haven’t done that kayak trip yet, but over the past three days, I’ve tested out those arms and shoulders and I think I can do it! On Wednesday we played 18 holes of golf in our local seniors tournament. That’s not a big deal, but then on Thursday we paddled the kayak for more than three hours. Last year that would have been more than I could handle and I must admit that by the time we finished, my arms were sore. I went to bed that night wondering if I really could handle the long river trip, but when I woke up the soreness was gone and I golfed another 18 holes!

Thursday’s excursion took us back to the Battle River, a tributary of the North Saskatchewan  that meanders through central Alberta and western Saskatchewan. Starting at Big Knife Provincial Park, we paddled upstream for an hour an a half. The river moves slowly, so paddling against the flow isn’t as challenging as it might sound.

Battle River

Other than waterfowl, we didn’t see any wildlife, but we were both reminded of Psalm 50:10 when we saw the cows grazing on the grassy hills overlooking parts of the river. “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.”

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Can you see the curious bovine faces peeking at us in this one?

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Holding the camera still enough in a moving kayak to get crisp photos with the zoom lens is virtually impossible, but I did manage to get this one of a very protective Mama duck and her offspring.

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We really weren’t very close, but she squawked and flapped about in quite a frenzy trying to warn us away from her lone duckling. I’m sure her poor heart was beating faster than any duck’s is meant to and I wished I could reassure her that we were no threat. As if scaring her once wasn’t enough, we met her again in exactly the same spot on our trip back down the river. This time Junior was hidden somewhere in the reeds, but once again she did her best to scare us away.

In spite of the fact that the Battle moves slowly, the trip downstream should have been a bit quicker, but we were bucking a stiff wind much of the way and it took a little longer than we expected. We were glad when the bright yellow buoy marking the location of the Big Knife boat launch came into view!

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There will be more kayaking and more golf before we tackle the North Saskatchewan, but campgrounds with decent wifi are few and far between, so it might be a little while before I can post again. Even this one took hours to put together!

 

Hidden gems

In addition to world renowned sites like some of the ones in Jasper and Banff National Parks, Canada is home to many hidden gems usually known only to local people. We also found some of those on our recent travels.

After saying good-bye to our son and his family and leaving the mountain parks behind, we spent another week in the nearby foothills where we camped at Bottrel, Alberta with our daughter’s family. There’s actually nothing at Bottrel except a general store and a small unserviced campground, but we heard about it because our son-in-law’s mother lives nearby.

The campground is only 40 minutes from our daughter’s home in northeast Calgary. As soon as we’d set up camp on the bank of the lovely little creek that runs through the campground, we drove into the city to pick up Drew, our oldest grandson, who enjoyed two days of camping with Gram and Grandpa before the rest of the family was able to join us.

One of the things that we wanted to do during that time was introduce Drew to kayaking, but the creek was too small for that and we didn’t know of any lakes in the area. Richard spoke to the storekeeper, who also runs the campground, and learned of a small fishing lake nearby that’s known only to the locals. The highlight of our outing to Winchell Lake was the rare opportunity to watch a loon and her chick close up!

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About 20 minutes from the campground, on our way into Calgary, we had also passed signs for Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. A quick online search revealed that its 2.3 km (1.4 miles) hiking trail with an elevation gain of only 20 metres (66 feet) was popular with young families. Not intending to do the hike until the rest of the family joined us, we decided to take a drive over to the park just to check it out. Drew was so enthusiastic, however, that we ended up hiking the entire trail that day! Of course, as little boys are inclined to do, he put in a few more steps than we did!

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Later in the week, we packed a picnic lunch and returned with the rest of the family. With Drew as our guide, we did the hike again.

An interesting geological feature in this small park, which is located in a beautiful coulee, are the mounds of unusual rock called tufa (too-fah). Apparently tufa forms when water, rich in calcium and carbonate, emerges from the ground. As it comes to the surface, it releases carbon dioxide into the air and forms outcroppings of calcium carbonate rock.

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The first part of the hike was particularly pretty following a stream with lots of little waterfalls.

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I believe this was 3-year-old Simon’s first hike, but he was very keen to go!

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Later in the afternoon, back at the campground, the creek was a great place to cool off!

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