As I was cruising along the David Thompson highway in my Hyundai Santa Fe SUV, Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” was playing on the radio, the magnificent Rocky Mountains were filling up my windscreen view and I thought to myself, “Welcome to Canada!”
The sudden departure of winter and even more sudden arrival of summer in the province of Alberta in Canada in the early days of May, brought about some unexpected wildfires in the province, which resulted in hazy, smoke-filled skies in Calgary and in Edmonton where I currently live. So when my friend Bojan suggested we go camping over the long weekend, I jumped at the chance to not only escape the smoke but to finally get out and explore some of the Canadian wilderness! After stocking up on some bare essential supplies late Friday afternoon, we were on the Queen Elizabeth II highway by around 19h, heading south towards the small town of Red Deer. The plan was to head west from Red Deer towards the tiny village of Nordegg and then find a wild camp somewhere near Lake Abraham.
A traffic update on the radio informed us of an accident and traffic jam along the QEII highway, so we exited the highway before Red Deer and made our way to Nordegg using the slower, but more scenic roads! About three and a half hours and around 300km later we passed Nordegg and were searching for a suitable campsite for the evening. It was past 10pm and dusk was upon us and by the time we found a small campsite just off the highway, on the banks of Lake Abraham it was completely dark. We “set up” camp for the night, had a couple of cold beers while our dogs sniffed around their new surroundings. An hour later and we were fast asleep in our respective SUV’s, me in my 2009, all-wheel drive, 3.0L, V6 Santa Fe and Bojan in his V6 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The following morning, as the sun creeped up over the mountains we were welcomed by the sight of the massive man-made Lake Abraham before us, clear blue skies up above us and not a scent of smoke in the air! We were camping on what is know as public land use zones (PLUZ), which are essentially free campsites. Most of them have space for one or two vehicles and a firepit arranged with stones from the area (although no camp fires were allowed due to the current fire ban which was in effect). These PLUZ campsites are free and do not require any bookings or reservations to be made. They are not named or numbered, so you can just pull up and camp there. And since we were keeping our camping minimalistic, we had both purchased foam mattresses, which were using as beds in our vehicles. Both cars had enough space once the rear seats were flattened to fit the comfy mattresses and we could sleep in our vehicles without having to lug around tents, sleeping bags and so on.
We took a stroll around the other campsites and down to the lake shore, which was considerably lower than it should be. There is a dam further on, by which the water levels are regulated. We waved to some of the campers, some of whom had also brought their dogs, so all the pets greeted each other in their own (butt-sniffing) way. During our walk we came across another campsite nearby which was empty and had a much better view of the lake and the mountains than our current spot. We quickly moved our vehicles there, put out our chairs and soaked in the early summer rays.
The spontaneous plan for the day was to head on back to the "hamlet" of Nordegg, find some public washrooms to get cleaned up and then find some coffee and breakfast. We noticed a sign the previous evening for “Miner’s Café” in Nordegg, so we figured we’d check it out. 30km later and we were sitting on the outdoor balcony of Miner’s Café, with our dogs, sipping on coffee and having some tasty breakfast – I had the Breakfast Wrap followed by an apple crumble and Bojan had a cheese bagel followed by a chocolate brownie.
On our way in from camp we saw a road sign for Goldeye Lake, so after coffee and breakfast we drove to the lake to check it out. The location is officially called Goldeye Lake campground, where campers come with their camper trailers and RV’s, nestle into their camp spots and spend their days hanging out on the lake, canoeing, fishing, going for hikes and mountain biking. One can also come there for the day, as we did, where we parked and took a nice long hike through the forest all the way around the lake.
As the afternoon sun started sinking, we made our way back to Nordegg where, in one of the two general stores, we replenished our bare essentials of bread, cheese, smoked sausages, water and cold Pepsi’s for the evening. We were back at our new campsite (which we had reserved by leaving our chairs there) before the sun dipped behind the mountains and enjoyed a peaceful sunset with a great view over the lake. That was also the evening that I came face to face with the giants that are known as the Canadian Mosquitos! I had initially thought that these large, loud insects buzzing around me were flies, but when one landed on my shorts and I glanced down at it I couldn’t believe that it was an actual mosquito! About three times the size of your average African mosquito, these bugs are much louder, equally as annoying but thankfully are malaria-free…. Nonetheless it was a shock to see how big they were!
Sunday morning greeted us with another clear blue sky and as the dogs frolicked around the campsite, we took in the sun’s rays and had a nutritious breakfast of bread and Nutella! :) As the sun got warmer, we jumped into our vehicles and headed back to Nordegg for our coffees and washroom obligations. The café is located next to a Shell service station which also includes a small general store, a liquor store and coin-operated showers and laundry services as well. Having finished our coffees and slices of pie (this time I had the strawberry rubarb), we took a stroll around the village, visited the museum building (which seemed to be closed at the time), passed the local library which was having a small book sale on, and watched the avid golfers swinging away on the local golf course.
After replenishing our supply of cold drinks and tap water for the dogs, we headed back down the highway and took the turn by the “Fish Lake” sign. This was another campground and recreational area where people could camp, partake in water activities, go for hikes and bike rides. We parked our cars and headed off on the main trail along the banks of the lake. This trail was much longer than the one by Goldeye lake, but it was more scenic as it was much closer to the actual water in most parts. The hike took us through some forests where we came across a weird, eery field with large crosses in it (presumably designated for some church-related meetings). There was also a bike park with some ramps and obstacles for one to tackle with a mountain bike. As we took a break during our hike, had a couple of cold drinks and gave the dogs a well-deserved rest, we noticed some rather strange clouds coming in from the east. On the way back to our vehicles we could smell smoke in the air and the skies became hazy rather quickly. It would seem there was another wild fire not too far away, but thankfully the breeze seemed to be pushing the smoke away from us.
Seeing as we still had a few hours before the sun started setting (which it does around 10pm), we made our way along the David Thompson highway towards the Rocky Mountains, following the banks of lake Abraham. We went off the highway at one point, towards the sunken shoreline of the lake and then into the thick forest for some light off-roading and exploring. We eventually came across an uphill dirt track that Bojan’s Jeep, with his all-terrain tires managed to get up. I didn’t want to risk damaging my Santa Fe, which didn’t have the same ground clearance and didn’t have all-terrains tires, so I was the cameraman while Bojan drove up and down the path.
As the sun started sinking, we made our way back to the highway and back to camp for our final night in the Canadian outdoors. The weather forecast mentioned some rain that night and the low-hanging clouds and crisp evening air indicated the same, so we hit the hay relatively early that evening as we and the dogs were quite tired after the day’s hike and drive.
The next morning was chillier than the previous ones, yet there were no signs any rain had fallen during the night. We slept in a bit later due to the cooler weather but were out and about by about 9am. We had quite a drive ahead of us that day, so we packed up our camp and made the drive back to Nordegg one final time. Another coffee and pie at the Miner’s Café, filled up our vehicles at the gas station, got some cold bottled water for the road and we were on the highway by 11am. We made our way east to Red Deer where we stopped at one of the large parks along the river to walk the dogs, said our goodbyes and parted ways - Bojan heading south to Calgary and I heading north back home to Edmonton. The short but exceptional long weekend camping trip was a great introduction to camping and exploring the Canadian 'wilderness' and has definitely wet our appetite for more camping adventures in the future!
Check out our video preview of our trip below:
"We are a Botswana-based family of 3, with a passion for going out into nature and the bush any chance we get!"