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Copyright (c) 2007-2021 Travel Alberta, All Rights Reserved
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Grande Cache

Staring into the frothing, seething cauldron of the Muskeg River, I begin to wonder if this evening float in the Rocky Mountains was such a great idea, after all. Latched into the belly of a tandem kayak with a neoprene spray skirt, I survey the safety gear being shoved, rapid-fire, into my hands by Dale Tuck – local prison worker, extreme athlete and self-appointed travel guide.

Paddles. Check. PFDs. Check. Protective gloves. Check. Helmets? Check. HELMETS?

"There are a lot of rocks in the river. We need the helmets in case we flip," says Tuck with a sly grin. "You can get bounced around a lot by the current." Oh.

The weather is unusually cold and rainy today – so much that you would never know that two dozen majestic peaks encircle this rugged community northwest of Jasper National Park. The weather is less than perfect – the temperature is 6°C, the rain has been falling for days, and the river is travelling much faster and higher than normal.

"How's your sense of adventure?" asks Tuck. I hesitate, staring at what seems like an inordinate amount of safety gear for a serene evening float. I wonder if I should mention, just one more time, that I'm a rookie paddler – and a wimp. This isn't exactly my ideal holiday. He studies my furrowed brow as I stare anxiously at the churning water. "My mother did this trip."

Oh.

There's very little that's ordinary these days about Grande Cache, which is emerging as the next big thing for nature lovers seeking alternatives to the well-heeled crowds of Jasper, 90 minutes away, and Banff (both communities are situated in national parks). Situated at an altitude of 1,260 metres (1,373 yards) on the shoulder of Grande Mountain, the town of 4,500 has endured a rollercoaster ride of boom and bust since it sprung to life in 1969 with the discovery of major coal deposits in the region.

When several major employers shut down in the early 2000s (including the coal mine), the town last a third of its residents and was faced with boarded-up buildings, abandoned businesses and few hopeful prospects. But the community's tides have turned with the mill and coalmine back in operation – and word is getting out that one of northern Alberta's best-kept adventure tourism secrets is more than a highway pit stop – a blip on the map – en route to other parts of northern Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska.

"It's all here for us – now it just has to happen," says local Chamber of Commerce president Jean Bourdua, who came to the town 25 years ago to work at the mine and today owns and manages the Grande Cache Hotel. "I think in the next five years we'll see more happen in this town than we have in the past 25 years."

Willmore Wilderness Park, a 4,597-sq.-km (18,388-sq.-mi) provincial wilderness sanctuary, is a few kilometres away and the region is spattered with lakes, rivers, mountains and alpine trails. The annual Canadian Death Race, a six-year-old event that brings more than 800 extreme athletes and hundreds of other tourists to the town early each August, also capitalizes on the community's rugged persona. With the motto 'It's a Killer', it's not your average vacation, but the July 29-Aug. 1 race and affiliated town festival lures travellers from around the world.

"The Death Race has brought us through the glass ceiling," says race organizer Dale Tuck, who has become a household name in Grande Cache for his promotion of the race and other tourism initiatives such as the Passport to the Peaks mountain-climbing program. Tuck says the gruelling 125-kilometre race (77.5 mi), which can be run by individuals or relay teams, and related training workshops bring nearly $2 million to the community each year. When the town's hotels, motels and campgrounds are full, locals open up their homes for a modest accommodation fee to racers and families. (There's even a five-kilometre kids' race.) The main contest itself is extreme, including three mountain summits, a river crossing and 5,100 metres (17,000 feet) in elevation changes. The goal is to finish in under 24 hours.

An avid outdoorsman, Tuck founded the race to promote the community, 450 kilometres (279 mi) northwest of Edmonton, and its natural beauty and abundance of adventure. Eager to share his passion for the outdoors, he and Bourdua have invited me for a paddle down the mighty Muskeg – a river with Class 3-4 rapids, waterfalls and enough other hazards that only the most skilled kayaker dare tackle.

Staring into the churning water, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I've been in Grande Cache only a couple of hours, and I'm not sure this is the introduction I was looking for. But it's too late to back out now. I reluctantly nod my head to proceed – Tuck and Bourdua are clearly itching to tackle the current. I get a brief drill on paddle protocol, and we slip from the river's rocky edge and into the current and start battling the churning surf.

"We're going to do a few Eskimo rolls to get you used to being under water, announces Tuck, as Bourdua pulls alongside us in his single trick kayak, a stubby boat with a pointy front and flat backend. We steer into a backwater under the bridge, and Tuck, an expert paddler, flips our boat so we're upside down in the frigid water. After five to 10 seconds (but seeming much longer), he rolls us upright and I shake the water from my eyes. Now, it's time to get serious. We lurch into the current and battle the river's moods as it zips past soggy, muskeg-laden hillsides that are home to bear, wildcats, moose, deer, eagles, and numerous other bird species. At one spot, we pull out to traverse an eight-foot waterfall that Bourdua will run in his truncated kayak. He lands on a rock, flips into the current, then pops up a few metres below laughing. "Did you see that – I landed on the rock!"

We carry on but before long we're dipping, surging, plunging, flying, almost flipping into the thrashing waters and Tuck is shouting at the top of his lungs. I strain to hear his words over the river's roar. "Don't stop paddling!" he cries. "Keep that paddle in the river! Attack the current – those waves are your enemy! KEEP PADDLING. KEEP PADDLING!"

Another rapids down, and we pull off for a rest. I tell my companions my arms are too tired to carry on much further. Tuck and Bourdua offer me a choice – pull out now, or tackle the lower reaches of the Muskeg. The river, which winds through a narrow canyon, is mostly rapids and there is no way out except at our pullout. The scenery, says Tuck, is even more amazing. So is the adrenaline rush. I shake my head. "I don't think so," I mumble, exhausted and more than a little afraid. Tuck and Bourdua urge me to continue.

"The only thing that is stopping you now is what's between your ears. You can do this; but you have to believe you can," says Bourdua, wiping the river's spray from his brow. Pause. More than a minute passes. "Let's go," I announce, surprising even myself, and my fellow river-runners raise their paddles in glee.

The bottom part of the Muskeg becomes choppier; the canyon walls have closed in and it's a kilometre hike straight up for anyone who wants to get out. We portage another waterfall; my tour guides help me across a rain-slicked, mossy cliff ledge overhanging the falls, and haul the boats across the precipice. I stare at the river, seven metres (20-odd feet) below, and wonder how we're getting back in.

Oh, of course. We'll just jump off the cliff in our boat. "It's what's called a dry entry," says Tuck. "Jean will push us – you just drop your paddle if you have to, and crouch down low when we go over," says Tuck. "We should be fine. There's a 50-50 chance we'll land upright."

Now I've gone from scared to terrified. My heart is pounding so hard I can barely hear their words of encouragement. "We'll be fine," says Tuck. I shake my head again. No. I sit motionless. I realize we have no choice.

"Well, we can't stay here all night," sighs Bourdua, motioning Tuck to his seat at the rear of the boat. I close my eyes, press my chest to my knees, clutch my paddle to the side of the boat and pray for the best.

There's so much water when we land I can't tell which way is up, but I realize we've landed upright and I'm screaming with joy. Bourdua follows suit, and we paddle the last few sections of current down the Muskeg and pull out just above another waterfall – this one impossible to navigate. We shimmy out of our boats, and begin the kilometre hike up the canyon, our feet squishing through the muskeg and mossy forest floor.

I'm huffing and puffing, toting my paddle and helmet, while Bourdua and Tuck drag and carry their boats, barely breaking a sweat. They grin and praise me for being willing to walk on the wild side with them, and face my own fears.

Despite the rain, the clouds and the cold, it's just another lovely spring evening in Grande Cache, where adventure is beckoning those willing to embrace it.

And in the end, I'm so glad I did.


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Copyright (c) 2006 Travel Alberta, All Rights Reserved

Travel Alberta is the destination marketing organization for the Province of Alberta. Guided by the Strategic Tourism Marketing Council, Travel Alberta is the steward for the effective delivery of tourism marketing programs. For information about our organization, please visit our Travel Alberta industry web site at http://www.travelalberta.com

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