21-May-2001 -- When I heard of the Confluence Project, I was intrigued. As a GPS user, I am always interested in uses for my “toy.” As a photographer, I liked the challenge of trying to find photographic interest in a random spot. As a hiker, I’m fond of any excuse for a walk. And as a statistician and data analyst, the “sampling” design had thought-provoking elements.
I immediately began looking for a suitable unvisited confluence. My original choice was another one in the flat farmland of eastern Alberta. No one has absorbed the concept of imposing a grid on the world more thoroughly than we residents of the Canadian prairies. Our landscape is crossed by roads and property lines running east-west and north-south at regular one-mile intervals. Even the spherical nature of the Earth’s surface and its effect on putting a grid on a curved surface is acknowledged. Prairie dwellers will refer without explanation to “correction lines,” where the surveyed north-south gridlines are shifted because converging lines of longitude have narrowed the putative square-mile “sections” of land beyond acceptable limits. To a prairie farmer, to say someone “farms five sections north of the correction line” is not technical talk, just normal conversation.
And yet…finding a confluence on nearly flat, already gridded land lacks challenge. For my landscape photography, I prefer wilder country. When I purchased an up-to-date 1:250,000 scale map of the foothills area that included some other possibilities, I was thrilled to discover that a relatively new logging road passed within about a half-kilometer of the confluence of N53 W117, in the middle of unsettled old-growth forest. The CP is 23 km from the nearest town, Cadomin, and 12 km from the Cardinal River Indian Reserve.
(Purchasing the map made me speculate whether the entire project was a conspiracy by map-makers to increase sales of their products. In Canada, at least, confluences tend to be on the corners of four 1:50,000 scale maps; thorough research would require buying all four.)
So my goal was chosen. The point in question is 245 kilometers great-circle distance from my home. Obviously a full day would be required; I could combine the trip to the confluence to some more photogenic sites at the edge of the Rockies just further west. A spare day offered itself: Victoria Day, when Canadians, whose royalist sentiments typically are mild, celebrate the monarchy by taking a long weekend to kick off the summer season.
Loading the hiking, navigating, and photographic gear I had selected the night before into my all-wheel-drive station wagon, along with some trail mix, apples, and a thermos of hot tea, I set off from Edmonton, Alberta, at 7 a. m. on May 21, 2001. The first 180 kilometers after fuelling up and clearing the city were on a four-lane divided highway, so I set the cruise control within excusable distance of the 110 km/h speed limit, stuck the Velvet Underground’s greatest hits in the tape player, and let the road pass beneath me.
Before 9 a. m., I was at the tourist information centre in Edson. As I took a few photographs of the early 20th century caboose and train station displayed there, it started to rain. The woman in the centre gave me a commemorative road map that showed the logging road I had identified, and assured me that the road, though owned by the forest products company that operates a pulp mill in Hinton, was open to the public. She reminded me that logging trucks had the right of way, as if any sane person would contest road space with one of those behemoths.
When I told her the reason for my interest, she wished me luck, and asked if I was prepared for the grizzly bears that sometimes roamed in that area. I told her I had brought my bear spray. Bear spray is a 10% concentration of capsicum (pepper) that is to be sprayed in the bear's face from a distance of 15 feet or less. Experts on bear behaviour are undecided as to the spray’s effectiveness, but agree that as a last resort, it’s certainly worth trying. I’ve carried it for years in bear country, ever since a distant encounter (70 meters) with a grizzly bear on a trail in Kootenay National Park, but never had occasion to use it.
The road from Edson lay southwestward on Highway 47 into the historic Coal Branch area. This area, named after the railroad branch line into remote coal-mining communities developed at the turn of the nineteenth century, has a number of ghost towns abandoned and mostly dismantled when the coal markets failed in the 1950s. It was only when the mines were closing that road access into the area was developed. Names like Mercoal, Coal Valley, and Coalspur, once homes to hundreds, were now just places on a map. Only Robb and Cadomin continued to be inhabited: Robb because it served the railroad to Cadomin, and Cadomin because the limestone quarried there still had a market.
The 59 kilometers of Highway 47 were paved and two lanes wide. I met only a dozen vehicles as I watched the distance to the confluence decline on my GPS receiver, Velcroed to the top of my dash. I wondered what I would find when I got there – would it be old-growth forest, the clear-cut remains of logging, or something else? Two white-tailed deer standing on the left of the road caught my eye. As I slowed in case they decided to cross the road, three other deer bounded in front of me from the right.
The rain tapered off as I approached Robb. A sign there reminded drivers that the next gas station was 40 kilometers away in Cadomin, or 120 kilometers south in Nordegg. Soon after Robb, the pavement ended, and I was on Highway 40, still heading southwest along the railroad. Apparently no logging trucks were operating. Usually logging operations are closed down while the roads are soft from the spring thaw, but this winter had been so dry I wasn’t ready to assume the usual rules applied.
I studied the map carefully to know when to expect the road I was seeking. As a private road, I couldn’t count on any signs, and since it didn’t go anywhere in particular, I had no idea what a sign would say. I guessed it might be called the Taylor Creek road, since it followed that creek for most of its length.
Eventually I came to where I thought the road should be, and there was a road there named the Pembina River Road. A look at the map showed that the road I wanted would go to Pembina River if it continued past where it was marked on the map, so I turned south, crossing the railroad tracks by a sign stating “Permanent Private Crossing.” The GPS receiver indicated 18 kilometers to the confluence.
I continued south through the foothills boreal forest landscape, billions of dollars of satellite technology assuring me I was going in the right direction, and must be on the right road. A white-tail buck pranced across the rough gravel road, and then a coyote with something held in its mouth. The countdown continued. Ten km…7 km…4 km. I felt growing excitement, as I wondered how close the road would take me, and how far I would have find my way through trackless forest. Two km. 1.00. 0.50. 0.30. 0.25…0.24…0.23…0.24…0.25! Time to stop and walk.
It took me a full fifteen minutes to prepare for the short hike into the trees, as I removed nonessentials like my bankbook and pocket calculator from my pack, and put on my gaiters, to protect me from the most likely threat: not bears but blood-sucking ticks at this time of year. I also strapped my water bottle, camera case, and bear spray around my waist. I would only be 250 meters from the road, but I would be utterly alone.
GPS and compass in hand, I set off uphill, perpendicular to the road. The slope was fairly steep, but also fairly open. There was little shrubbery. The main obstacles were deadfall and the odd snow patch. The GPS seemed to be having some trouble among the trees; at one point it leaped suddenly from a distance of 210 meters to 110 meters to the CP as it picked up a better fix.
After some confusion caused by me mistaking the heading for the bearing on the GPS display, I eventually got the magic numbers to show. A quick check showed five satellites were locked in, enough for a good fix. The chosen spot had nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the old growth forest around me. Only a shallow gully a few meters north broke the regularity of the slope. There was no sign that any human had passed that way before.
As I took the requisite photographs, I speculated on the possibility that I was in fact the first person to stand on that spot. The road has only been there for about four years. Before that, access would have required many kilometers of bushwhacking on foot or in a saddle. Perhaps an aboriginal hunter or two had passed that way in the 12 millennia since the glaciers retreated; perhaps not.
Preparing to return to my car, I realized I had made an elementary mistake; I hadn’t waypointed my parking spot. No matter – if I headed downhill I would be sure to hit the road. So I did, and just before noon I was back at my car and eating my lunch.
During the 18 km since entering the logging road, I had seen only two people, and had passed only one parked (unoccupied) vehicle. While I was there I heard no traffic go by. The confluence of N53 W117 is truly a lonely spot. I drove back to Highway 40 without seeing anyone else, stopping at Chief Creek, 10.8 km from the CP in a direct line, to take a photograph that would give a better appreciation of the landscape.
I spent the rest of the day heading further west, taking a short hike and many pictures at the Cardinal Divide south of Cadomin, and then returning through Hinton to Edmonton. Some of the pictures will eventually appear on the Canadian Mountain Encyclopedia web site, another site that is structured around latitude and longitude coordinates. All in all, it was a pleasant excursion.