I used to spend over 100 days in Alberta’s Ram R canyon each year. To this day I can still close my eyes and walk through 60km of canyon, knowing exactly where to cross, where the hang ups for a loaded raft are. We still fish it often, just not like we once did. Prior to guiding the river, when I worked for the Forest Service, my shifts were 10-4, and I’d fish the canyon every time off plus several afternoons. For the longest time, I simply loved it and wanted to fish no other water.
There are several sets of water falls through the canyon. One set in particular is very tall and rugged, and the fish below it are numerous but seldom have anything larger than 16″ thanks to the mass turbulence of high water keeping these fish busy swimming. But I’d get in below to fish because it’s a great spot in the world. I always come from upstream, meaning I’d stop atop the falls for a look, before circling the canyon to get down to the base of the falls. It was never easy nor for the timid. To get down, there’s a 4″ wide sheep trail that angles across an exposed face of the cliff. A 25 yard bit across a 60 degree slope on hard packed shale you had to pick your path. It was a game of angle ramp up, then RUN to the little notch that was big enough for your toe at the peak 1/2 way across, then angle slightly down and run to the rock at the far end of the run and lean forward to not lose your balance. Miss any part of it and you’ll slide down and over the 100 foot cliff. I’ve always been good at this kind of stuff. I used to chuckle to myself whenever I found a fishing rod abandoned on the rock here, knowing that someone had a bad experience. I’ve found 4 rods here through the years. Thankfully nobody has gone over but it’s going to happen.
One day I woke early and hiked 12km in to meet some folks that had flown in by chopper. I spent the day with them then hiked out. I looked at it as getting paid to go for a long day hike of 30km, stopping to show some folks the river so they could enjoy the rest of their trip. It was a great day.
In all the years of fishing the Ram I always wore stiffer hiking boots so I could dig at the sandstone cliffs. That day I decided to hike out in my felt soled wading boots. If you know wading boots, they don’t exactly fit like hikers. On my way out I decided to walk the lower route through the canyon, past the rafters campsite they use early in the season. It’s a neat bit of water with rocks the size of houses and you skirt through. On my way past the camp, I saw a paddle leaning against a tree. I have always hated people leaving garbage so I grabbed it and took it with me. As my route went, I had to climb out of the canyon at the falls I described above, just in reverse. No biggie.
So there I was on the flat, hard scree. In wading boots. My ankles turning the boots sideways. The felt gripping the sandstone as well as oil. I tried my best to ramp up the slope to the midway notch.
My stomach lurched as I looked downslope at where I was going. This was going to be an ugly exit.
As I slid, I did my best to keep my legs moving across in case I got traction. I never did. But in a last ditch effort now only a few yards above the cliff, I jammed the paddle into the rock and it pole vaulted me forward just enough that I was able to hop to a rock on the edge of the cliff. I told Amelia at the time it wasn’t that bad, but I had mere feet. As I stabbed the paddle into the rock and vaulted forward I let the paddle go and watched it slide over the cliff. “Better you than me” I thought.
I made it home ok. I was scratched up and bloodied from the sliding and grabbing at sandstone. 2 weeks later I was back in there, using the same route. In hiking boots this time, I traversed the route and down the cliff to the river. I went to the base of the falls hoping to find my paddle to take the broken bits home as a souvenir. I found it. It was a little scratched up but as though nothing had happened. It sits in my garage to this day in the back corner. It’s my reminder to not do anything stupid in that canyon. I’ve never hiked it in felt wading boots since. That was 1999.