15-Jun-2002 -- Unvisited confluences in Alberta south of Edmonton are now down to the difficult few. We expected 52N 115W to be a bit of a challenge, and so we assembled a crack team of two hardened and experienced confluence hunters, an ex-military man – and a 10-year-old in running shoes (as we Canadians call them; sneakers in U. S. English, trainers in Britain).
Study of a variety of maps showed that the CP was at least two miles (3.2 kilometers) from the nearest road, a road shown on the maps as "improved" as of three years ago. The terrain between the road and the point was shown as forested, with little elevation change and some possibly swampy areas. However, a topographical map of uncertain age showed the area was criss-crossed by cutlines (straight, narrow bands through the forest cleared of trees, usually for the purposes of seismic exploration for oil or gas). None of the cutlines shown went directly to the confluence, but some came near. We expected these to help if the undergrowth proved to be dense.
Armed with this information, two GPS receivers, water bottles, trail mix, FRS radios, cell phones, two film cameras, a digital video camera, and the urge to explore, we set off from Edmonton in David’s trusty all-wheel-drive station wagon. The great circle distance to the point is 200 kilometers from David’s house, but we decided it would be easier to follow the roads. Our route took us south on Highway 2, a four-lane divided highway well-suited to high speed cruising. From Highway 2, we turned west onto Highway 54, two-lane blacktop. Passing through Innisfail, we noticed the street was lined with spectators. Had word of our noble cause reached the citizens of Innisfail? Were they here to cheer us on? Alas, no. We were apparently passing through town just 38 minutes before the start of the Innisfail Rodeo Parade, with the theme "Salute to Sports". If confluence hunting is ever declared a sport, we’ll be able to join the parade. But until then, we pressed on to Caroline, the town nearest the confluence.
Caroline, population about 500, is known primarily as the hometown of figure skater Kurt Browning, four-time World Champion, four-time Canadian Champion, three-time World Professional Champion, four-time Canadian Professional Champion, two-time US Professional Champion and the first figure skater to successfully land a quadruple jump in competition (a quadruple toe loop). By a strange coincidence, the local rink is called the Kurt Browning Arena. The town, on the other hand, is named after the daughter of the first postmaster, and not, as one might have guessed, after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, in whose honour the province of Alberta is named.
After stopping to photograph the arena, we headed south for four kilometers on a gravel road, then west on a road that became progressively smaller as we neared 52N. Passing two petrochemical-related building complexes and a pumpjack that caused the road to circle around it, the road narrowed to one lane. Just past 52N, we were able to park under some high-tension wires off the road, 3.2 kilometers due north of the confluence point.. We gathered our gear, applied sun block (it was a bright, warm day), and headed off down a likely-looking cutline. After about a hundred meters, we realized the cutline was running due east, and therefore taking us further away from our goal. We found a break in the undergrowth and floundered our way southward through trees and deadfall. In a short while, we came to a much wider cutline, which we crossed, seeing an open area on the other side of a strip of forest. The open area turned out to be a clear-cut, a space from which a timber company had removed all standing trees.
We crossed this scene of devastation, coming to a clearer personal understanding of what kind of a mess a clear-cut makes of a functioning ecology. Much to our surprise, when we approached the far side, we came across a road, apparently used to haul logs from the area. The road was going in the general direction of the confluence, so we followed it until it turned off and faded out. At this point we were 1.6 kilometers from the CP; the thought occurred that we could have driven here and cut the walking distance in half, if we knew where the road began.
A swampy-looking cutline and a slightly drier double-rut trail led southward through old-growth boreal forest. We followed the trail until it became necessary to go more easterly, and then cut across country. Deer and moose tracks were everywhere. This direction took us to the south side of another clear-cut, where a killdeer caught our attention. It flew to the top of one of the few upright trees in the clear-cut and waited while David took its picture on film and Dan captured it in digital video.
We headed for a break in the forest at the edge of the clear-cut in the direction of the CP. Shortly we were heading over thick spongy moss as we followed a compass bearing toward the CP, and counted down the remaining meters. The actual confluence was on a drier, higher patch of forest on a gentle slope. Our goal attained, we stopped for a late lunch, took photos and videos, and did the confluence dance without complete success. One GPS receiver showed that we had traveled 4.14 kilometers from the car to cover a direct distance of 3.2 kilometers.
On the return trip, we followed a compass bearing that led us to a cutline with huge, deep moose hoof prints. This in turn led us to the clear-cut we had seen before, but much further east. We followed what a appear to be the tracks of an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV or "quad") back to our original path, and then decided to strike off northward over the clear-cut through a thin neck of forest into another clear-cut, which (as we suspected) proved to be the one in which the mystery road petered out. For the last two hours we had heard the occasional roll of thunder, and at this point we had a few minutes of light rain.
Walking on the road was much easier than working our way through the slash of a clear-cut or muskeg and deadfall of the forest, so we followed the road until it was taking us further away from the car. We then crossed to a cut-line heading due north that very shortly brought us to the original east-west cutline that we had taken from the car; in fact, we could see the car several hundred meters away. The rest of the way was easy, except for Guy, who had to carry Sébastien for part of the way.
On the way back to the highway, we tried to figure out where the "mystery road" started. Our best guess is that it could be reached only by driving past a sign saying "Caution. No unauthorized persons beyond this point", found by a road near an oil company set of buildings six kilometers from the confluence.
We finished the day with a trip west to scout out the approaches to 52N 116W, which will require fording Hummingbird Creek, now in full spring spate. We also took in beautiful Ram Falls, and supper in Rocky Mountain House. Stopping for gas in Rimbey, we discovered a puncture in the left rear tire, and then had to go the rest of the way to Edmonton at a maximum speed of 80 km/h on the emergency spare tire. It was well after midnight before any of us were home.
Sébastien is working on his Scouting Exploring badge, and the confluence visit is part of his qualifying activities. He wrote, "I think it is a great experience for me to go on a confluence. It’s great that I got to go somewhere where no other kid has gone before. After the confluence we got to go see the beautiful Ram Falls, in close up on a viewing spot. During our stay at Ram Falls, we saw a whole bunch of sheep, gathered on a steep ledge on the mountain. After that, we drove to Rocky Mountain House for supper. Then we drove all the way home once again."
The Alberta government’s regulation of forestry practices was criticized in the June 2002 issue of National Geographic, and by local wilderness and environmental organizations. For example, see this link. Seeing the difference between untouched forest and "harvested" land brought home the issues to this team of confluence visitors.