10-Jul-2002 -- The confluence of 54N 119W is located in west central Alberta approximately 14 km north east of the town of Grande Cache.
This confluence first came to my attention last year when it was suggested by David Wasserman as a possible venue for trial run and a chance to meet each other for the first time prior to our attempt on 52N 117W. My initial investigation of the confluence revealed that it was on the opposite side of the Smoky River from Highway 40 and that access would be difficult. The only bridge across the river in the immediate area was within a bankrupt coal mine to which public access was denied. A possible route coming in from the south was over 15 km long and required a ford of the smaller Muskeg River. As it turned out our meeting in Grande Cache never occurred and further thoughts of a confluence attempt were set aside for another day.
In the spring of 2002 I began to hear from local sources that access to the old mine site was open informally and decide to do some more investigating of my own. A trip up to Grande Cache in early June revealed that access was open to the bridges over the Smoky and Muskeg rivers which left only a five km hike, definitely within my day hiking limits. A couple of weeks later my sources indicated that public access could be restricted at any time so I decide to make the attempt quickly. I contacted David but his schedule would not allow a visit until late August so in early July I decided to make a solo attempt.
After a 175 km drive from my home I parked on the east side of the Muskeg River bridge and began my hike to the confluence at 1040 hrs. I followed the east bank of the river upstream until a cutbank forced a steep but short climb up 150 metres in elevation onto a flat terrace above the river. Here I made a welcome discovery of a freshly cut seismic line going in exactly the right direction. With my path cleared of deadfall and brush I made speedy progress towards the confluence until the line ended 800 metres later at a steep valley carved by a tributary stream to the Muskeg River.
An easy crossing of this drainage did not look likely so I opted to go up along it to the east. This would allow me to join up with an old trail shown on the topographic maps which passed within a couple of hundred metres of the confluence. Climbing along the north side of the valley in the plus 30º heat I felt sorry for the chainsaw crew I could hear working on the other side of the Muskeg River valley.
About 100 metres in elevation higher I found the old road labeled as the Prairie Trail on the map and began following it around the top of the drainage. I had heard that this road had been the initial route to the south banks of the Smoky River but it looked like it had not seen truck traffic in decades. Portions of the road had slumped away down into the valley while others were blocked by slides from above. It was mostly overgrown by brush and in some areas it was easier to walk in the forest along side the road. Eventually I left the road at it's closest point to the confluence and cut across country.
After a hike of 5.9 km and a total elevation gain of 300 metres I arrived at the confluence at 1300 hrs.
The confluence point is situated on flat terrain in a stand of mixed spruce with an understory of alder and willow. Labrador Tea and moss carpeted the forest floor. Nearby was another new seismic line and I settled down under a big pine tree to enjoy my success and my lunch.
The seismic lines I had found are part of an aerial program currently underway in the area. This type of operation requires minimal road construction as crews and drills are transported by helicopter. GPS is used to locate the drill sites after which a very small clearing is cut for the drills (10 metres square). Lines are only cut shoulder width to allow the crews to carry their equipment between shot holes. Once a hole has been finished the drill is airlifted to the next pad while the crews walk over. The holes on the line next to the CP were about 80 to 90 metres apart. After the holes are loaded with explosives they are shot individually by a two person crew which follows along at their own pace after the other crews have left.
A summary of the operation can be found at this site. Click on "Guided Seismic Tour" on this page for a step by step explanation of the process. Disturbance to the environment is kept to a minimum and all in all it is a great improvement over building cat roads and moving tracked drills through the bush.
After my lunch I followed the seimic line back to the Prairie Trail and began the journey back to my car. Along the way a hen grouse decoyed me away from her nest by playing lame and later a brightly colored Yellow Warbler entertained during a stop for water. I followed the trail north past the point where I had joined it before and was rewarded with some nice views across the Muskeg River valley and upstream on the Smoky River valley. Although the coal mine is shutdown a power generating station is still running and the sound of trucks hauling ash to a dump above the west side of the Muskeg River kept me company as I hiked.
I left the trail again to retrace my route down to the river and then back to my car arriving at 1600 hrs. My return trip was slightly longer at 6.6 km with a total duration of five hours and 20 minutes for the entire hike.