Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz
I remember my days working at the campground office at Duck Mountain Provincial Park, looking over the provincial highway map of Saskatchewan that held so many secrets at the time. The northern half of the map was sparse, but there were also stark patches of emptiness amid the thick rural maze in the south-eastern half, noted with text reading "The Porcupine Hills" and "The Pasquia Hills". What could be in these forests? Something incredible, no doubt.
The Pasquia Hills, in particular, seemed to carry a strong sense of mystery. The map only enhanced this notion. Dozens of streams flowed from the nucleus, a plateau called Wildcat Hill Provincial Park, in an area without roads that was surrounded by unique ecological reserves. As much as I tried to research the hills online, there appeared to be so little information, and even less photography. It was almost forbidding.
Then a book fell into my hands, "The Great Saskatchewan Bucket List", by Robin and Arlene Karpan. Although I am proud of the trips I've researched and planned on my own accord, I have no shame in admitting that our trip to Rice River Canyon was inspired entirely by this book.
After seeing only three photos and reading the quote: "If you do decide to hike into the canyon, you will be among the relatively small number of people who have seen this unique and wildly beautiful place," I was sold. With a difficulty level of "4," I couldn't help but feel a little bad-ass either.
Our mission will be to photograph the canyon and try to do it justice. Near the river forks, around 8 km upstream, the valley slopes are over 400 ft. high. This has to be that "incredible something" I've been looking for.
Packed like sardines into one vehicle, Sean and his dog, Jean-Paul, along with Nate, Mitch and I drive by our last familiar sight, the Waskwei River, before entering strange new lands. I'm happy to be back in the Pasquia Hills for the second time and on the cusp of fall, because if I have to deal with the torrential onslaught of hornets and mosquitoes again, I might just end it all.
"So, where did you hear about this place again?" Sean asks me as we approach the Rice River crossing. "It was in this book I read, The Great Saskatchewan-Something-er-Other. It's supposed to be pretty awesome from what I hear— the hills are going to be real high 'n shit," I delight in regurgitating what little I know of the place.
"There should be a lot of fossils there too. But really, we're going to be the first people to make it to the forks and photograph the canyon in detail. That's why we're going." This is all I need to say to motivate the group, apparently.
We park our vehicle in the trees, alongside an ATV trail before gearing up.
In record-breaking time, we are ready to get started. Sometimes I love travelling in small groups— things just get done.
We step off the gravel road and find our way to the riverbed. It is a massive floodplain spanning the length of roughly six school buses, filled with rocks and huge washed-out trees. I am stunned while imagining that, at one time or another, this has all been under rushing water.
We are ready for one of the hardest hikes of our lives. With 40-50 lbs. of gear, you move extremely slow while backpacking through rivers and wiry bush. I want to make sure we get at least 5 km upstream before setting camp, or else we might not have enough time to make it to the forks and back the next day.
Aside from an obstacle now and then, the Rice River is incredibly easy to hike. Nathen checks his GPS.
"That can't be right... It's saying we're already three kilometres in," Nate says. "We're making great time." We haven't even had to bushwhack yet! What a joke.
Of course, things change almost immediately. The canyon walls have now become impassible, and, as the river valley narrows, we lose our options for avoiding crossing the river. We have no choice but to start taking some risky steps on the rocks.
Now we're moving real nice and slow... I'm still astonished that Mitch has managed to get this far without slipping into the water. He just keeps crossing the rapids as if he were skipping on the way to school...
"Mitch... How the hell are you not soaked yet?" I asked, desperately trying to rationalize his voodoo magic. "Uhhhh, I'm kind of wet, but not too bad. There are some rocks that are wobbly that just have no business being so wobbly, ya know?" he says. I judge him silently.
With my shoes filled with muddy water, I resign to trudging through the river with extra caution. Mitch and Nate, who have decided to keep their boots dry, climb a canyon wall to stay dry and get a bird's eye view of the river.
I collapse backwards on a pile of rocks, resting on top of my backpack for a moment. "Alright, maybe this is the hardest hike we've ever done," I say, noting the sweaty, burnt-out look drawn across all of our faces. "I think the next place we find that looks nice, we should set up camp," Nate suggests.
Proud with our day's progress, we agree on the motion to pack it in for the day.
Dreams of black bear, wildcat, and sasquatch take their proper place in my imagination as the daylight pries my eyes open. Why am I always the first person to wake up? At least it doesn't take long for everyone else to follow suit, thanks to the sound of crackling fire and the awful noises coming out of my throat. A little hot coffee tends to help too.
The air is cool, the skies are clear, and the early light is casting playful shadows on the canyon walls. As if we're witnessing the transition into autumn in real-time, the yellow, orange and red colours lining the edge of the canyon are highlighted in the morning sun.
Even the water, which - let's be honest - looks like beer brewed in a dirty bathtub, glistens with an inviting quality today. Things are looking good for us.
After a questionable breakfast of canned chilli and Pop Tarts, it's time to get ready for our hike to the river forks. "We've only got three kilometres to go and we're there," Sean says. "It's not even twelve o'clock yet. We should be able to make it there and back, with plenty of time to goof off."
Spoiled with good weather once again, we leave our camp and set out on our mission.
"I think we set up camp at the end of the tough stuff," Mitch says. "It's like the way to the forks is practically paved for us." Without the weight of our backpacks, and with few river crossings in the last stretch, this is nothing but a walk in the park.
One issue we have with hiking rivers is that your eyes are always glued to the ground to make sure you're not tripping over rocks. With your head down, you tend to miss out on the beauty of the surroundings.
But the Rice River Canyon has a few things to offer as compensation— rocks and fossils. Some of which are between 240-400 million years old.
"... Woah, why couldn't the river look like this at our camp?" Sean says, remarking the clarity of the water upstream. At this point, we aren't used to seeing the bottom of this river. It's a refreshing change, especially for the sake of our water filters.
In the final stretch before the river forks, we discover the culprit:
"We made it guys, good work," Sean proclaims with a tinge of lethargy. "This is the Rice River Canyon." We throw our backpacks onto the ground and soak in the scenery.
The forks themselves are not the intense convergence of rushing water I had anticipated, but with being able to finally relax and appreciate the valley, I just don't care. It's peaceful here. We're in the core of a place few people have seen, and, for that alone, I'm proud of it all.
Relishing in our new playground, Sean and Mitch take to the river to play fetch with Jean-Paul, while Nate disappears down the lengthy corridor of one of Rice's tributaries. I decide to try my luck scaling the canyon.
Crawling underneath the thick stands of spruce and maple, I push myself further up the slopes. It's not everyday you find yourself at the Rice River Canyon— might as well go all the way.
I find myself side-stepping the slopes to maintain grip. With my eyes firmly ahead, the path to the top just goes on and on. I can see the sweat dripping off the tip of my nose as I lose my breath.
Finally, I reach a dead-end and start snapping some shots. I know I can't capture the vastness of the canyon, but at this point, it's just a mark of accomplishment. One day, when I'm being carted around the old-folks home and can't be trusted to manage my own bowels, I'm going to look back on this moment with fondness.
"Where have you been, Andy?" Sean asks me as I clumsily stumble out of the bush. "I climbed the canyon! It's insane up there!" I say grinning, with that feeling of enlightenment Buddha must have felt after witnessing the weight of the world. Sean seems unfazed.
After having an afternoon lunch and cooling off in the water, we find our way back to camp just before the sun goes down.
"Another successful trip," we all agree. I still wonder when our luck will run out, but for now, we're just going to lay on the rocks, cook some smokies, stare at the stars, and enjoy this for what it is.
The Rice River Canyon— another piece of the puzzle that is the Pasquia Hills.