Adventures for Wilderness
 
 

Dinosaurs in White Rock Coulee: A Fall Hike in Southeast Alberta’s White Rock Coulee

Written on September 22, 2022, by

A glorious day in the coulees along the South Saskatchewan River! Despite the oppressive heat, a spectacular discovery of dinosaur bones, a refreshing river dip, and the spectacular landscapes of Southeastern Alberta’s badlands made for a day to remember. Lindsey Wallis recounts this fascinating adventure, coordinated by Heinz and Kris Unger on September 3:

There was a heat warning in place for Medicine Hat as we gathered our group of 10 along Highway 41 and drove to the lip of the coulee. From the uplands we surveyed the river valley and Tako Koning, one of the geologists along on the trip described how the ground beneath us was from the Cretaceous period, when this area was terrestrial, as it is now. We also saw more history in the granite rocks dropped by retreating glaciers from the last ice age.

The temperature was quite pleasant as we headed into the coulee. Compared to the spring, when the coulee was lush and green, early September had given the landscape a more gold and ochre palate. Salt bush and prickly pear graced the steep coulee walls and, as we wended our way deeper, dramatic hoodoos rose above us. We passed a disused colony of cliff swallow nests as we dropped down towards the river, and the temperature began to soar.

Upon reaching the banks of the South Saskatchewan River the group found a shady refuge under the branches of a gnarled grandmother cottonwood tree for lunch. A couple folks (prompted by the 7 year old in the crowd) swam fully clothed in the river to cool off while others dunked various articles of clothing before heading back up the coulee.

On the way back the sun was intense and high in the sky. The coulee provided very little shade at this time of day. The group moved slowly, taking advantage of what little shade we could for rest stops. This turned out to be advantageous because, at one of these stops, we found a few fairly large shards of fossilized bone on the ground. Looking up, there was a tantalizing bit of white sticking out of the side of a hoodoo. A couple of the group scrambled up to get a better look, and it was quite a few more bits of bone (see photos below).

Photos of the find were submitted to the Tyrell museum in Drumheller where they confirmed, “Yes, what you have found are indeed dinosaur bones. Congratulations on the find. Based on what is visible in the photos, they appear to be the bones of an ornithischian dinosaur, probably a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) possibly ceratopsian (horned dinosaur). Given the concentration of bones it likely represents either an area where the bones of multiple animals have become concentrated, or a single scattered skeleton.”

Back at the top of the coulee, on the sun-baked prairie, we were grateful for the cool refreshments provided by Heinz. We enjoyed them in the shade provided by the vehicles, whose thermometers were reading 40C! Folks agreed that it was a physically challenging day, but thoroughly worthwhile!

Beaver Dams in the Ghost: Hiking the Headwaters of Meadow Creek

Written on August 19, 2022, by

On August 17, Heinz and Kris Unger coordinated an adventure in to the headwaters of Meadow Creek in the Ghost wilderness areas north of Kananaskis. The group was small but the day memorable:

A small group of five started out with fording Waiparous Creek and walked through cool aspen and pine groves, at times along the edge of the escarpment above the deeply cut in meandering Meadow Creek. After about an hour’s walk we caught up level with the creek and crossed the creek on a major bridge, built to keep vehicles out of the creekbed. Some successful bioengineering work could also be observed.

Along the way the damage (deep ruts and water-filled “wallows”) from previous OHV use was clearly obvious. The lower section of the trail / track is now closed to motorized vehicles but for some sections further along, OHV is still allowed. However, we encountered three or four vehicles only, plus one angler on an ATV (he caught several brook trout and one Cutthroat – all released back into the creek).

The highlight of the hike was a series of beaver dams, fairly recently built and beautiful clear ponds in the tall grass. That’s where we had lunch in a shady spot, taking in the views. The high mountains, especially Black Rock and Devils Head, form a beautiful backdrop, seeming quite close and rising almost vertically behind the forested ridges that line the wet meadows of upper Meadow Creek.

The cool breezes, the green meadows, the soft trail and the dark forests, all covered by a wonderful silence enhanced by rustling aspen leaves and gurgling streams rounded off a perfect day in nature.

Flowers and Strawberries in the sub-Alpine: A Hike to Tryst Lake in late Flower Season

Written on August 8, 2022, by

After a few weather-related reschedulings, we were happy to finally be able to hold our long-awaited hike to Tryst Lake in the Kananaskis sub-alpine. Despite concerns that the flowers might no longer be in bloom, it turned out to be the perfect day with the year’s earlier moisture leading to an elongated season. Coordinator Chris Saunders writes about this great outing:

Weather conditions were perfect when 7 hikers met at the trailhead just off the Mount Shark road. From the start the group walked south along an old logging road, which is on a shoulder of the main Spray River valley, for 1.9 kilometres. There were lots of flowers and miniscule strawberries growing along the side of the trail. The group than took small trail to the west which follows a very attractive stream which is the outlet from Tryst Lake high above the main valley.

The lower part of the trail, with its damp conditions, supports many moisture-dependent species including some impressive cow parsnip and patches of bilberry. Further up the trail there is substantial avalanche damage which has destroyed the spruce trees and allowed willows to flourish. In the long narrow valley leading up to the lake there were carpets of flowers, mainly paintbrush in a variety of different colours, aster and arnica.

On reaching the lake, there was just enough clear dry land for the group to walk around the margin of the lake to the west end in order to have lunch in the boulder fields. A resident hoary marmot visited briefly. Lunch was brief because after a few minutes numerous insects descended on the group. It was always necessary to keep moving to void them. The vegetated area at the west end of the lake contained numerous flowers including forgetmenot, valerian, fleabane and many chalice flowers.

The second half of the hike involved returning to the east end of the lake and climbing a steep larch-covered ridge on the south side of the lake. From here the views to the south and east were stunning.

The route returned the group back the same way to complete a very pleasant day.

A Paleolontogical Treasure Hunt in our own Back Yard: Discovering Ordovician-Age 450 Million Years Old Fossils in the Tyndall Stone Downtown and Inner- City Calgary

Written on August 5, 2022, by

Senior Petroleum Geologist Tako Koning has many passions in life, and it is fair to say that paleontology is one of them. This expert in many things is one of the finest guides one could imagine when it comes to discovering signs of prehistoric life… even embedded into the façade of a neighbourhood Safeway! On June 18 he led a field trip around NW Calgary to explore and showcase the 450-million year old fossils that can be found scattered throughout the inner-city neighbourhoods. Here he talks about how it went:

On Saturday afternoon, June 18 we had a nice group of 11 attendees on an AWA field trip to discover Ordovician-age fossils downtown Calgary and two inner-city areas. Why would this group want to spend their afternoon looking at fossils?

There are a number of reasons for this. These fossils are very old and are dated as having been deposited 450 million years ago. The fossils occur in a sedimentary layer called the Tyndall Stone which is quarried near to the village of Tyndall located 30 km northeast of Winnipeg. The fossils lived and died in a shallow-water tropical sea. Tyndall Stone is used as a beautiful decorative stone which clads buildings all over Canada. It is the most famous of Canada’s ornamental building stones. Another reason to go on this field trip is to view over a dozen of different species of fossils which were first living creatures ranging from algae, worms and crustaceans which lived in worm tubes, star fish, gastropods (snails), nautiloids, and an amazing variety of corals ranging from large coral-heads to small solitary rugose corals (“horn corals”), to single chain and double chain corallites. So going on this field trip is an opportunity to learn about biological life which occurred many years ago in a tropical sea unaffected by mankind since we were not part of the scene in the Ordovician.

We first visited two historical buildings downtown which are clad in Tyndall Stone: the AGT building at 119-6 Ave., SW and the Bank of Montreal building on the Steven Avenue Mall. Then we spent an hour viewing ten blocks of Tyndall Stone in front of the Safeway Store in Kensington so we could see the fossils in five dimensions (from the top and from four sides). We then spent another hour at SAIT where Tyndall Stone clads the entire outside of the Senator Patrick Burns Building. I look forward to leading this field trip again next year for the AWA with a nice group of people.

The Oldman River: A New World Next Door

Written on July 19, 2022, by

Adventure, natural beauty, and key moments in Canadian history. What a great combination. AWA President Jim Campbell, member Bob Patterson, and Conservation Specialist Phillip Meintzer found it all on the Oldman River between Fort MacLeod and Lethbridge. Marking Jim’s 70th birthday, the three of them set out on July 11th on a Paddling Adventure down the river. Jim and Phillip here share their perspectives on the trip.

AWA President Jim Campbell writes:

This was the 3rd annual Adventure for Wilderness for Jim Campbell and Bob Patterson, and this year we were fortunate to have AWA Conservation Specialist, Phillip Meintzer join us as we explored a stretch of the Oldman River, that offered many happy surprises over two days, and 90+ kilometres of paddling.

The first bonus was an evening in Fort MacLeod. Walking the historic main street and visiting the site of the original N.W.M.P. post brought surprises and reflections. Who knew the internationally renowned, Joni Mitchell, was born here? And the commemorative plaque placed in 1926 at the site of the original Fort MacLeod spoke of a different time and perspective. MacLeod’s Restaurant & Lounge with a delicious 2 for 1 pizza capped off the evening.

We launched on a sunny, warm morning from the Oldman River Provincial Recreation Area at the junction of Highways 2 and 3. Paddling by Fort MacLeod in good Class I water provided a clear view of the town, and why the original Fort was ultimately moved to higher ground.

Not long after that Phillip fortuitously looked back upstream and spotted a cow moose and her two calves crossing the river behind us. Another surprise and delight for the morning. The day rolled on with clear, fast water and great bird activity including an Osprey hovering over the river, and then plunging into the water to clutch its prize and fly close by over our heads. Signs of agriculture and irrigation also abounded drawing our thoughts to plans for three new reservoirs in this basin. How do we reconcile all the competing demands on this vibrant but vulnerable eco-system?

Ever innovative, Bob in his solo canoe switched to a kayak paddle and easily kept pace with Phillip and me. As we passed under the bridge to Monarch there was no sign of the campground mentioned in the guidebook from 1982, the only one we found that referenced this part of the river. We paddled on and at Kilometre 57 found a beautiful stretch of island shoreline to make camp.

Next morning dawned equally warm and sunny. A few more kilometres on a good Class II rapid with large standing waves helped stir us awake, and we paddled on ever watchful of what was around the next bend. Finally swinging north, we landed at Popson Park at the south end of Lethbridge where our new friend, Kirby England, met us for a quick shuttle back to Fort MacLeod. Thank you Kirby!

Thanks to all who so generously supported this Adventure for Wilderness. You can be certain your donations are deeply appreciated and will be well used in support of conserving Alberta’s wildlife and wild places.

P.S. If you do this stretch remember to bring your own water! Happy Paddling!

AWA Conservation Specialist Phillip Meintzer also shares his perspective on the trip:

Departing from the Oldman River Provincial Recreation Area outside of Fort Macleod on the morning of Monday July 11th, Jim, Bob, and Phillip set off on their journey towards Lethbridge to explore this reach of the Oldman River.

This section of the Oldman River is relatively under-paddled, or at least under-documented, which meant that the route felt like a genuine adventure into the unknown. The water levels and in-stream flows of the river were better than anticipated, which made for fairly quick and hazard-free paddling for the majority of the trip. Under cloudless skies and amid the warmest stretch of weather we have experienced so far this summer, the conditions couldn’t have been much better for two days on the water.

The trip covered roughly 92 kilometres in total – 57 on Monday, and the final 35 on Tuesday. Surrounded by impressive cliff faces with lush riparian areas, the group saw plenty of wildlife including three moose (a mother with two calves), two coyotes (one swimming), numerous pelicans, threatened bank swallows and their nesting sites, bald eagles, two beavers, and a few ospreys.

The trip finished just south of Lethbridge, where the crew pulled out at Popson Park and were picked up and shuttled back to Fort Macleod by Kirby England – a professional biologist and environmental science instructor from Lethbridge College.

This adventure was organized as a celebration of AWA President Jim Campbell’s 70th birthday and to raise awareness for water conservation issues in southern Alberta watersheds. The trip was a success, and it made us curious why more people don’t paddle this portion of the river?

Although water levels and water quality seemed to be better than the group was expecting – possibly due to recent rains across the prairies – we need to recognize that climate change will make good years increasingly less likely as we bounce between periods of droughts or flooding.

Then and now: Change and continuity in Banff’s Cascade Valley

Written on July 4, 2022, by

Despite a grim weather forecast, a group of intrepid adventurers spent the day with author Kevin Van Tighem, who recounted stories from his past adventures up the Cascade Valley and how things have changed over the past half-century. Devon Earl, AWA Conservation Specialist shares the day’s discoveries:

On the rainy morning of June 24th, 2022, a group of 11 adventurers and myself met in Banff National Park to hike the Cascade Fire Road with Kevin Van Tighem. Although the weather forecast was bleak, that didn’t stop this adventurous group from setting out on a 13 kilometer hike through bear country to explore and discuss the changing wilderness in Banff.

As we set off on our hike, the rain let up and we spent most of the day in cloudy conditions with breaks where the sun shone through the clouds. We made many stops along the way to identify bird calls, look at carnivore tracks and scat, and listen to Kevin’s stories about his early experiences in the area. Although there was evidence of a lot of bear activity in the area, we felt safe and secure in such a large group, with many hikers prepared with bear spray at their hips.

As we stopped for lunch next to the Cascade River, Kevin pulled out detailed journals that he had written in the ‘70s detailing his early adventures in the park. As we ate, he told stories of animals he encountered on his journeys, including hearing the howling of a wolf pack as he tried to sleep in a tent at night. It was fascinating to hear of these amazing encounters which happened not far from where we sat at that very moment.

On our return trek we were left to consider the amazing natural history of this area, and how humans and all our activities have changed the wilderness. We were also able to consider what has stayed the same, such as how getting out in the wilderness makes us feel connected to nature and all the beings that call this wilderness home.

One of Alberta’s Rare Landscapes: Hiking White Rock Coulee to the South Saskatchewan River

Written on July 1, 2022, by

On June 25, a dozen intrepid adventurers met up with Heinz and Kris Unger in Alberta’s southeastern corner for a special treat: the opportunity to hike the coulees along the South Saskatchewan River just across the river from the Suffield National Wildlife Area. This area offers up a true treasure trove of unique landscapes, plant and wildlife, making for a special viewing experience. Despite this year’s rain-soaked ground providing a bit of a challenge, the hikers got an adventure to savour, as recounted by participant Chris Saunders:

The group of 13 met in a remote part of SE Alberta, the junction of Highway 41 and Township Road 174. The first step was to drive west along Township Road 174 to a point which overlooked the canyon containing the South Saskatchewan River. The road was primitive and conditions were wet so after taking in the spectacular views the group drove further south to the head of a valley which would join White Rock Coulee in due course and the coulee would lead to the South Saskatchewan River. The wet conditions caused a small change from the original plan. The valley chosen to enter the coulee was considerably higher up the coulee so the walk down to the river was longer than originally planned.

This is a very rarely visited area, there is no trail either in the initial valley or in the coulee. In addition, the route was unusually wet due to recent rains so progress was slower than anticipated. However, the scenery was magnificent both in the valley and the coulee.

During the initial couple of kilometers, the valley sides were grassy and at a gentle angle. There was real beauty in this undisturbed grassland. The cacti and wildflowers were in full bloom and we had an expert in the group who helped to identify the less common prairie plants. After the valley joined the coulee, the gradient down towards the river steepened and the sides of the canyon became steeper, turning into bona fide cliffs in the later stages. The group continued down the ever deepening coulee until the turnaround time of 3 o’clock but unfortunately still did not reach the river. The additional distance and the wet conditions meant there was insufficient time to reach the destination.

It was a fine hike in an area new to most of the group. Many are keen to return to the area in the fall to try again.

(below photos by Heinz Unger, Chris Saunders and AWA member Lynn Bowers)

The Grateful Memory of a Rare Alberta Conservation Victory: Unicorn Hunt in the Whaleback with Kevin Van Tighem

Written on June 13, 2022, by

Renowned Alberta naturalist and author Kevin Van Tighem was gracious to lend us his expertise on a hike through one of AWA’s favourite wild spaces: the Whaleback Ridge. Recalling the history of how this wilderness area was famously saved from development, he relates how the day’s Adventure went:

Eleven hikers joined trip leader Kevin Van Tighem, AWA adventures coordinator Lindsey Wallis and a happy six-year-old unofficial nature guide to explore part of the Bob Creek Wildland on May 28. This year’s slow spring made for easy walking as the trails were dry and, once we headed off-trail, the grass had only just begun to thicken. Evidence of wildlife was everywhere but we had to make do with a single sighting of some white-tailed deer as we headed up a creek and then began the long climb to the top of a foothills ridge. There were plenty of early flowers to distract us from the long uphill slog: balsamroot, alpine forget-me-not, shooting star, buffalo bean, cinquefoil, yellow and blue violets, kitten tail and many others.

Up top the group enjoyed a panoramic view from the Livingstone Range, Oldman River Gap and Bob Creek valleys east to the long forested swell of the Whaleback Ridge. It was a rare wind-free day: an added gift. The lunch stop was not far from an isolated hayfield in the valley below that almost became the site of an Amoco gas well back in the early 1990s. Had that well been drilled and proved productive, it likely would have triggered the development of roads, pipelines and other well sites all through that landscape but — thanks to the determined and principled efforts of groups like the Alberta Wilderness Association, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association, working in collaboration with area ranchers and long-time recreational users of the area — that threat was averted when Amoco surrendered its lease and the whole area was protected under Wildland Park and Heritage Rangeland status. As a result, we enjoyed two rarities as we ate our sandwiches among the wildflowers: an entire foothills landscape devoid of roads, and the grateful memory of a rare Alberta conservation victory.

The return trip was along a ridge crowned with wind-gnarled limber pines and Douglas fir trees, surrounded with the green spikes of newly-sprouted rough fescue and the intense colours of tiny wildflowers. We ended the hike as we had begun it, with a wobbly crossing of an un-bridged creek which most boots survived. Back at the cars the last flycatchers were still calling. It was a fine day with a fine group of people.

A glorious day in an ever-diminishing special ecosystem: Hiking the Milk River Ridge

Written on June 3, 2022, by

AWA has had a long involvement with Southern Alberta’s Milk River Ridge, not least through board member Cliff Wallis’ membership on the Milk River Management Society. So it is always a memorable day when he is able to take us on a tour of this amazing ecosystem. On May 20 he was joined by Cheryl Bradley, another Alberta naturalist with many years of expertise in this grasslands area, as they graciously contributed their expertise to make our “Botany, Birding, and More” exploration of the Milk River Ridge a very special adventure indeed. Chris Saunders and Lindsey Wallis took photos and jointly wrote this story from the field trip.

When most of the group left the meeting place in Lethbridge in a severe storm featuring lashing rain and very strong winds, few thought this hike would go ahead. However, Cliff, our self-proclaimed “Sunshine Superman,” assured everyone the weather would change for the better. As the group drove south along Highway 4 the rain continued but after turning west and south on gravel roads it stopped.

Fourteen hikers and a stuffed wolf carried by our youngest naturalist set off to the south-southwest up the ridge from a point about four kilometres from the Taylor ranch house. This is in the eastern portion of the Milk River Ridge. There was no rain but a fierce wind was blowing from the north, making the right clothing essential. It has been a very dry spring in the area and the grassland plants were just beginning their spring growth. Along with the hike leaders Cheryl and Cliff, there were a number of other experienced naturalists in the group. As a result, there were plenty of sightings of plants and wildlife together with extensive discussion. One highlight was an “up close” view of a large porcupine seeking shelter from the wind in a clump of low bushes. A herd of deer were also spotted on a far ridge, silhouetted against the sky.

Lunch was held at an impressive viewpoint at the top of the Ridge, where the snow-covered Sweetgrass Hills in Montana could be seen clearly to the south east. After lunch, on the descent, there was a brief squall of ice pellets driven by a strong wind that drove the hikers back to the trailhead like horses to the barn. Amazingly, this was the only precipitation the group experienced during the hike.

On arriving back to the vehicles, an intrepid few drove further west to the Sandstone Ranch to search for the fuzzy-leaved purple jewels that are the rare hare-footed locoweed. The group combed gravelly slopes above the sinuous river valley and one appeared… and another… and another! A good colony of these threatened plants were found, as well as larkspur, flax and other hardy natives. With the sky clearing, a prairie falcon was seen making trips back and forth to what may have been a nest on the other side of a sandstone outcrop. The same cliffs held two other apparently disused raptor nests, as well as a colony of cliff swallows.

A glorious day in an ever-diminishing ecosystem that is so special in both the micro and macro views.

Finding Spring Wildflowers on the Ghost’s Lesueur Ridge

Written on June 1, 2022, by

Hike leader and longtime AWA friend (and past board member) Heinz Unger has lived in the Ghost/Waiparous area for many years, so he knows the Ghost watershed like the back of his hand. Who better, then, to lead a cool spring hike up the area’s Lesueur Ridge?

Despite the poor weather forecast for Sunday May 29, five intrepid hikers turned out for the loop hike up Lesueur Ridge. Although spring is coming late this year, the aspens were just leafing out in the brightest possible green, and the fescue meadows were greening up, too. There were still lots of prairie crocus in the shade and many bright Goldenbeans. Lots of short-stemmed shooting stars grew in abundance and we also saw some small mountain avens and a few yellow locoweeds.

The trail was steep but easy to walk because it was so dry. The hike down to the valley trail was equally steep, then followed by an easy walk through mixed woods and past gnarly old Douglas firs. And the views from the top were great, with lots of snow still on the mountains to the south and west, and dark rain clouds in the north. But the weather was actually quite nice, even a bit sunny, and only for the final 15 minutes there was a light drizzle to see the group back to the trailhead.

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