Reflections on Red Deer River

For one Alberta woman, a slow-moving stretch of the Red Deer River holds precious family memories.

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My parents at Red Deer RiverPhoto: Courtesy Haley Hewlett

My Red Deer River Memories

A six-mile drive from our farm along Highway 27 east lies a deep river valley surrounded by hoodoos, sandy soil, catcti and natural grasses. A significant contrast to the rich, fertile soil atop the hill where farms thrive.

The Starland Recreation Area and campground, nestled northwest of Drumheller, is encompassed by jagged badlands with a lazy dirt road winding down to the Red Deer River. Flowing at a snail’s pace, this stretch of the river contributes to generations of our family’s memories.

My maternal grandparents, Emy and Ted Davis, stopped here in the late ’50s to let their children stretch their legs and explore, while embarking on a road trip to Drumheller. (Here are 10 more Canadian road trips worth taking.)

In June 1976, my parents Donna and Bernie (above) spent their honeymoon here, snuggled in a pup tent alongside the river. As they began welcoming children, the rocky riverbed, hoodoos and campground became a place for family day trips. (Don't miss these 10 must-see attractions in Alberta.)

My older sister Ashley—“Ash” for short—(in red, above) loved climbing the hills, guiding me and our younger siblings Jamie and Matt with expertise, pointing out cacti, animal tracks or dangerous caverns to avoid. Occasionally, we’d bring bikes along, criss-crossing over wooden bridges and leaping over dry spring beds that wound throughout the campground.

Many afternoons were spent puddling along the banks of the river. Ash scavenged for the flattest rocks; shifting her weight, she modelled how to achieve the most skips, then carefully guided our younger sister and brother, Jamie and Matt, to a quiet pool in search of water beetles and clam shells. These treasures were later haulted home with pride.

In late July, Grandma Milan (my paternal grandma) and Mom would guide us along packed riverbank trails in search of ripe saskatoon berries. With an ice cream pail tied securely around her waist, Ash gently plucked the purple berries, stopping occasionally to pop a few in her mouth. A full bucket meant baking juicy saskatoon berry pies with Mom later.

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Mom and my daughter at Red Deer RiverPhoto: Courtesy Haley Hewlett

From 1992 on, our Red Deer River excursions took on an entirely new dimension. Two loading zones, one down a winding, rocky path beside the camping area, the other conveniently located across the highway, were taken advantage of—between these two infamous drop-off zones ran a two-mile stretch of gently flowing water.

It all began with air mattresses. Mom (above) would drop Ash and me off at the top of the hill then head downriver to meet us. We’d squash the flimsy floaters under our arms, racing down the path to be the first in the water. After diving in and getting out several times, we’d use the last stretch to relax. Climbing atop the floats, we’d absorb the intense summer heat as we floated aimlessly, hoping to improve our tans.

“It feels like we’re floating on a cloud.” The words rolled off her tongue as Ash lazily rested her head on the mattress. Although the time it took to float down those two miles of knee-deep water depended on the speed and velocity of the river, to us, time stood still. We told secrets or lay in peaceful silence, carefree, content and happy.

As teenagers, trips down the river became a circus with the addition of friends. Floating mattresses were traded in for huge inner tubes, some so enormous six people could climb aboard, toes unable to touch the surface of the water. Occasionally, when someone tumbled overboard, arms and legs were linked together to heave the fallen floater back aboard. Dozens of summer afternoons were spent floating down the river with some altercation occurring every time, which led to laughter and plans for future attempts to take on “our” stretch of the river.

Although we loved the adventure with friends, the time my siblings and I spent floating together, grasping hands, laughing until tears streamed down our cheeks, whispering our deepest thoughts, are the times that remain closest to my heart. To me, the river will always be ours.

Don't miss this gallery of gorgeous Canadian water photography.

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My children at Red Deer RivertPhoto: Haley Hewlett

Until her death in 1997 at the age of 19, from complications from Lupus, Ash wore a delicate golden signet ring upon her left ring finger. A gift from my parents, she never left home without it. Mom gave me the tiny ring after Ashley passed away. I tenderly placed it on my pinky, it being much too small for my own ring finger. I, too, never left home without it.

A year after Ashley passed away, Jamie, Matt and I “set sail” down the gentle Red Deer River, reminiscing as we lay on the warm surface of the tubes. As we emerged around the last bend, we saw Mom waiting along the shore and I thought of my sis. How many times we had glided around the last bend, clinging desperately to some type of floating device, walking along the rocky basin or, eyes closed, just floating, grasping one another’s hands, lost in the peace until we saw Mom’s familiar greeting. Now, Mom waved, beaming beneath her straw hat, at her children. An uneasy feeling caused me to look down. My pinky finger was bare. I burst into tears. Mom had given me Ashley’s ring in trust and it was gone, impossible to find along the murky floor of the flowing river. “Ash’s ring,” I stammered. “It’s gone.”

Mom wrapped me in her arms. “Maybe a piece of her wanted to stay here forever.”

Now every summer, I make a point of taking my own children James, Jack and Anna Ashley (above) to “the river.” They scramble up the hoodoos more quickly each year, exploring the unique terrain. As they are aged seven and under, I have yet to “float” with them, but I know this is an experience they have to look forward to in the future.

What slice of Canada holds a special place in your heart? Check out this reader's love letter to Montreal.

Originally Published in Our Canada