Grande Cache is a hamlet within the Rocky Mountains surrounded by three river valleys. We sat down with Gina Goldie, owner of Wild Blue Yonder Rafting, to ask her about adventure activities in the region.
Tell us a little about yourself and about Wild Blue Yonder Rafting.
Hi, my name is Gina and I’m the owner and founder of Wild Blue Yonder Rafting here in Grande Cache. We started the company here in 1998 and have been running every summer since.
I’ve lived in Grande Cache for about 30 years, but I did leave for about a decade. And then, in 1998, came back and started Wild Blue Yonder.
It is really rewarding even after so many years to be able to take people on the river. Quite often they’re nervous. This is their bucket list item and they want to go white water rafting. We enable them to be able to do that and ensure that they’re safe and they’re having so much fun. That’s what still inspires us after all these years.
What makes Grande Cache special and unique?
Grande Cache is a really special place. It’s very scenic and it’s very quiet. So really, that’s the magic of Grande Cache – that you can come here, you can do all those things that you’d normally expect to be able to do in a mountain destination, but there are really no crowds. It’s just a real sense of peacefulness that permeates everything that you do.
Our workplace every day is the rivers and the mountains. I certainly feel a lot of gratitude for that. You never get tired of the views. I’m very often awed and inspired by all the scenery that surrounds me. It really inspires me to bring other people out into those views and experience those environments in a safe way.
One of the amazing things about Grande Cache is that it’s really very accessible. There are very few rules and regulations. Northern Albertans love it because they can bring down their quads and they can bring their trailers and their dogs, and they can just pick a random spot and hang out. That being said, there’s also a little bit of common courtesy that you want to practice when you’re out here.
What’s the weather like in Grande Cache?
Grande Cache does have a fairly moderate temperature range for Alberta. So we do get Chinooks in the wintertime, but it can plunge down to minus 30.
And then in the summertime, because of our elevation – we’re actually the third-highest community in Canada at 4,200 feet – we do get cooler summers than normal.
My favourite time of year is definitely fall. The rafting is done and after many months of hard work, I get to take a break. The other thing about fall is certainly the colours. It’s my time of year to go out and do some hiking and biking and spend time with my family. I also love winter. I’m an avid cross country skier and we have some really fantastic runs here.
Springtime means a lot of work, but some excitement because we’re getting back on the rivers.
And in the summertime, well, it’s just all work.
What kinds of wildlife can visitors expect to see in Grande Cache?
Probably the type of wildlife we see the most often here is deer. Seeing bears in town is not uncommon. Fish and Wildlife officers do a really good job of coming in and removing the bears humanely and getting them out of the community.
Coyotes are pretty frequent and we see mountain goats sometimes. They are usually down on the edge of the river.
One of my favourite stories is that I came around the corner on the river one day with a group of guests and there was a mother moose and her baby staying in the water. We drifted closer and then she growled at me. So I backed away really fast. That was kind of alarming. But, yeah, so wildlife sightings aren’t frequent, but certainly, we do see them out there.
How many rivers do you raft down? Does Grande Cache have enough variety in its different rivers so that there’s something for everyone – beginners to more advanced rafters?
In Grande Cache, we have a real diversity of whitewater in a very small physical area. Our most popular run is in the Sulphur Canyon. It’s the perfect intermediate and beginner-intermediate whitewater trip.
We can take kids usually as young as eight and up. There are lots of fun waves and it’s not a high-risk trip. The canyon is absolutely incredible for scenery. It’s completely pristine with these two 300-foot walls towering over the top of you. There’s a real sense of magic and wonder down in the canyon. That’s our introductory family run. The water levels get quite a bit higher in June so it becomes a bit more aggressive of a run.
We sometimes have people come rafting with us who are more experienced and they are looking for something that’s more extreme. So that’s where we recommend our Sheep Creek run. It is a very extreme Class IV+ run. We only run it for a couple of months of the year and only our very top, most experienced guides can go on there.
We also have an expedition trip. That’s a two-and-a-half-day trip that we do on the Kakwa and Smoky Rivers. Everything comes on the raft and we camp along the shoreline. It’s a true backcountry experience.
It’s really remarkable how much we have nearby. For our main run, we only have to drive five minutes there and back. In our extreme run, we only drive about 20 minutes. And even for our overnight trip, we only drive about an hour to get there and an hour and a half to get back.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to try whitewater rafting but has never done it before?
I think it’s important for people to know that rafting is not as tightly regulated an industry as a lot of people think it is. Certainly, there are federal regulations, but they’ve only actually been enforced since 2014. So I think it’s important for people wanting to try it for the very first time to take a good look at the company, check out their website, look for professional references, look at their equipment, see what they are providing, and do a little bit of research that way.
In terms of the class level, you can definitely start on what we call a beginner or even a beginner-intermediate. Most companies are very professional in Alberta, so they’re not going to take you out onto something that you can’t handle. And they’re going to provide really great instruction and really great equipment again.
For families, our Canyon whitewater run is ideal. It’s ages eight and up, but it’s really best suited probably for 10 to 16-year-olds. Once we get off the rapids portion of the river, we pull out the water guns and the kids really enjoy that. But honestly, sometimes the adults get into it more than the kids.
If people are feeling nervous, we always tell them to start small and then they’re going to be surprised at how comfortable and safe they feel on the raft. People tend to think of whitewater rafting in terms of extreme sports, but there are different levels so that you can safely take young kids out on the river and right up to those real advanced runs.
Do people need to bring anything to go rafting with Wild Blue Yonder?
So when people book with us we advise them to come with their swimsuit underneath their clothes. Bring a warm set of clothes for afterwards, a towel, and if you have them, a pair of shoes to wear on the river.
We provide everything else. Not only do we provide full wetsuits but we take that a little bit further and we provide wetsuit jackets because we often are rafting in really cool temperatures. We even have an additional layer and it’s called splash gear which is a wind and water-resistant jacket. And on really cold days, we even have pants. We even have these cute little gloves. They’re like wetsuits for your hands. And of course, we provide helmets and regulation PFDs as well.
What other activities would you suggest for people visiting Grande Cache?
It would depend a little bit on what type of activity they’re looking for. There are a few moderate walking trails that circle around the community of Grande Cache, with many entry and exit points. There’s a local volunteer group that has done a lot of work on signage and working on the trails in the last few years.
For somebody who wants to do something more adventurous, they want to maybe try summiting a mountain. There’s a couple of day hikes that you can do. Mount Louis is the one that I personally recommend to people the most. It was actually one of the few trails that are designed to be a hiking trail. It is steep, but it’s pretty manageable for most ability levels.
We have a program that’s called Passport to the Peaks. It lays out 21 mountain peaks that surround Grande Cache. It’s worth checking out.
What are some wilderness experiences unique to Grande Cache?
Well, we are one of the gateway communities to Willmore Wilderness Park. Willmore is 4,597 square kilometres of complete wilderness, so it’s about the size of the country of Denmark.
Willmore Park is complete wilderness. There are a couple of main trails that go into the park. You can go a couple of days in, but you can’t go very far in before you start to have to cross major streams. The trails disappear. And so, at that point in time, really, we advise that only people who are advanced experienced outdoors people go really deep into Willmore. People who are comfortable navigating and travelling through a complete backcountry area will really enjoy it.
What about people who are less experienced, but still want to see what Grande Cache has to offer? Where would you recommend, and do you have any tips for them?
One area to definitely check out is the Sulphur Gates. And so, that’s a series of platforms that overlooks where the Sulphur River pours into the Smoky River, and it’s actually where we raft through as well. So that’s a neat thing because if you go rafting, you can see the Gates from the bottom. And if you go up to the Sulphur Gates, you can overlook it and see it from above.
If you’re coming into this area and you’re not very experienced, there are definitely some tips that I would give to keep you a bit safer out there. One thing I would say, get a trail map. Get a good understanding of where you’re going to be hiking. It is quite easy to get turned around out there even on the well-established trails. I actually recommend an app that’ll actually be tracking you so that you can make your way back again.
Definitely carry a small first aid kit with you so that, should you stumble and fall or somebody gets a bee sting or whatever the case may be, you have something with you so that you can take care of that emergency.
Being bear aware is also important. Make noise when you hike and hike in a group. Just keep your head up and be aware of the environment around you.
If you’re driving out to a trailhead, just park so that you’re not going to be blocking somebody else’s ability to get in and out. Quite a few of the areas where you’re going to access the trails or the rivers are very undeveloped. It’s just a random spot where people have been parking their vehicles. I recommend just using common courtesy to the other people who may be out there.
Where are your favourite places to spend time in Grande Cache?
One special spot that we like to hang out at is our ‘put-in’ on the Sulphur River where we start our rafting trips. We built a platform to lower our boats on and it’s at the top of a 400-foot switchback trail overlooking the Canyon. It’s a very quiet, very beautiful spot. Some people even train on the stairs that we’ve built on our trail.
What can people do around Grande Cache on a rainy day?
Well, people tend to think that to do white water rafting it should be hot and sunny, and certainly, those days are fun when it’s really beautiful weather. But honestly, for me, probably some of my greatest experiences white water rafting have been when it’s a bit more inclement and it’s stormy out.
Because we have such great gear, we’re able to still keep our guests warm. They’re surprised at how warm they are. And there’s just a certain rawness to when you’re out on the river and it’s storming down rain and you’re calling out commands and everybody’s paddling.
They ask us, well, what if it rains? And that’s when we remind them that the point of whitewater rafting is to get wet. So you’re dressed for it, you’re set up for it, you’re going to be warm and comfortable out there. So in some ways, that’s a great activity to do on a rainy day.
And what about on a hot summer’s day?
So we don’t get a lot of hot days, but on those rare days that it does get very warm, I would say definitely take the kids down to the spray park.
Our recreation centre has a fantastic aquatics facility with a full swimming pool, lazy river, wave pool, waterslide, and hot tubs. It’s a really great place to go when it’s not so nice outside and you want to go and get wet.
Grande Cache Lake is also a really beautiful spot and that’s a really popular place for locals as well. There’s a couple of picnic tables down there and it’s quite close to town.
After a day on the river, where can people stop for something to eat and drink?
My favourite restaurant in Grande Cache is The Ridge. I’m a vegetarian and they’ve got some really great options. My daughter has some allergy issues and they’re just really good at catering to special dietary needs. At the same time, they’ve got your wings and all the other regular pub fare that you would expect at a place like that. They’ve always got great service too!
What’s your favourite memory since starting Wild Blue Yonder?
So one of the most amazing things we’ve done as a company certainly has been to fly to the source of the Smoky River, which is just one mountain down from Mount Robson. There’s a really cool little mountain called Rearguard Mountain and a lake called Adolphus Lake. We flew in two boats, 1600 pounds of gear and eight people. We schlepped it about 11 kilometres to where the river actually got big enough to get on it. The source of the Smoky is just a tiny creek.
We then spent 12 days paddling and portaging all the way through Jasper and then all the way through Willmore Park to make it back to Grande Cache.
It was just legendary and epic and amazing. We got snowed on, we had so many wild things happen, but that was a big adventure for us. And I guess, that’s that type of thing on a very small scale that we try to recreate for our guests all the time. It’s just getting them out there and having these amazing experiences, but keeping them safe while doing so.
That sounds amazing. Would you say people have misconceptions about Grande Cache before they visit?
I think one of the greatest misconceptions about Grande Cache is that it’s a coal mining community. Although certainly, there is a coal mine, it is out of town. And so, unless you’re driving north from town, you don’t even see the coal mine.
I don’t think people have an understanding of how truly beautiful it is. We’re surrounded by 21 mountain peaks. Grande Cache sits on a mountain plateau with three river valleys surrounding it. So it’s beautiful, but it’s also so quiet.
What would you tell someone to encourage them to visit Grande Cache?
I think people should come to Grande Cache because not only is it a quiet mountain destination, but there is an authenticity here that you’re simply not going to find in busier mountain destinations. The operators that you’re going to meet are often the owner. You’re going to be talking to the people who’ve put their lives into their businesses. It’s affordable, it’s beautiful, and as I said, it’s just really quiet and peaceful.