RIB­BON OF GREEN

It’s an apt moniker for the Ed­mon­ton River Val­ley Trail, a route that plays an ac­tive role in the lives of many in the city. Here are some of their sto­ries.

Canadian Geographic - - FEATURES - By Tim Querengesser with pho­tog­ra­phy by Am­ber Bracken

It’s an apt moniker for the Ed­mon­ton River Val­ley Trail, a route that plays an ac­tive role in the lives of many in the city

T“HOSE WERE JUST the best times for me in the world as a child, be­ing with that lit­tle group of girls hik­ing along the trails,” says Sheila Thomp­son of her in­tro­duc­tion to Ed­mon­ton’s path­ways at the age of 10. It was 1960, and Thomp­son was in Grade 5 at King Ed­ward El­e­men­tary in the Strath­cona neigh­bour­hood. Her teacher, Ms. Bren­ton, was an out­door­swoman who sta­bled a horse in the city’s river val­ley, and she would hike Thomp­son and sev­eral other girls through the trails on Satur­day morn­ings.

Years later, Thomp­son, as a mem­ber of Al­berta Trail­net, a group tasked with help­ing cre­ate The Great Trail, worked to es­tab­lish nu­mer­ous parts of the net­work. To­day, she’s one of tens of thou­sands who ride, walk, hike, bike and ex­plore the city’s trails. These peo­ple and their sto­ries of­fer a glimpse into what the Ed­mon­ton River Val­ley Trail means to its city. And there may be no more knowl­edge­able guide to be­gin such a tour than Thomp­son. Be­fore she re­tired in 2010, Thomp­son was a teacher, and her in­struc­tions for a be­gin­ning les­son on The Great Trail in Ed­mon­ton are fit­tingly teacher-like. Meet her on your bi­cy­cle at the Al­berta Leg­is­la­ture grounds at 8 a.m., sharp.

The leg­is­la­ture sits where the fur-trad­ing post Fort Ed­mon­ton once did, its pres­ence marked now by a tiny con­crete plinth. The trail, Thomp­son says, of­fers Ed­mon­to­ni­ans not only mo­bil­ity but also a way to con­nect them­selves to the city’s past — the river’s use as an In­dige­nous meet­ing place, then for the fur trade, ur­ban set­tle­ment and so on. “The trail al­lows you to ex­pe­ri­ence it in three di­men­sions be­cause you choose the ac­tiv­ity that you want to do, you choose the area of the trail you want to visit, and then you can also have the added di­men­sion of time,” she says. “This is a his­toric route, and much of Al­berta’s Great Trail is built on his­toric routes.”

THE GREAT TRAIL runs along the Petroleum Way high­way for a few kilo­me­tres be­fore en­ter­ing the North Saskatchewan River val­ley at Strath­cona Science Provin­cial Park, tucked away on Ed­mon­ton’s north­east edge. Re­fin­ery smoke­stacks loom, hug­ging the river bank. Har­mony Wol­ge­muth first came here as a ju­nior-high stu­dent in the 1980s. Back then, the park was home to govern­ment-run pavil­ions ex­tolling the virtues of turn­ing Al­berta’s bi­tu­men into oil and dis­play­ing old coal mines, while other ar­eas hosted sci­en­tists ex­ca­vat­ing In­dige­nous ar­ti­facts in what be­came the city’s largest-scale arche­o­log­i­cal project.

“It would have been a field trip, and I wouldn’t have had as much in­ter­est in it then as I do now,” says Wol­ge­muth. She’s a post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tor to­day and is in­ter­ested in find­ing ways to main­tain hu­man con­nec­tions to places such as this. Wol­ge­muth, 51, walks her dog, Chili, here at least 12 hours each week. Moun­tain bik­ers and a con­tin­gent of model air­plane en­thu­si­asts — who have taken a spot in the aban­doned park as their de facto air­field — are her usual com­pan­ions, though on this swel­ter­ing Au­gust af­ter­noon, she’s joined by some nud­ist sun­bathers. “I hope they have some other plans for this,” Wol­ge­muth says, as she sur­veys the Ufo-in­spired for­mer main build­ing, a would-be lair for some evil ge­nius to plot world dom­i­na­tion. It was long ago boarded up. Since she dis­cov­ered the spot three years ago, Wol­ge­muth comes reg­u­larly, a mug of de­caf cof­fee al­ways in hand, seem­ingly us­ing her­self as a sub­tle push to keep life in the park since the clo­sure of its ex­hibits. But she can only do so much, de­spite this park’s con­nec­tions to the River Val­ley Trail. “It’s not one of the busiest places go­ing, that’s for sure. But cy­clists and dog walk­ers still use it. If you leave the park sort of half up and half down, look­ing like a ghost town, and ev­ery­body knows i t used t o be some­thing, but no­body knows why it isn’t any more, it just seems kind of sad.”

IM­ME­DI­ATELY WEST of Strath­cona Science Park, down the trail and across the industrial Ainsworth Dyer Bridge span­ning the North Saskatchewan, is Run­dle Park. Named af­ter Rev­erend Robert Run­dle, the first mis­sion­ary ed­u­ca­tor in Fort Ed­mon­ton, it was built atop a for­mer land­fill. On a crisp July morn­ing, Erin Jack­son, 33, is here train­ing for a triathlon and, ev­ery so of­ten, pulls her dog, Kaya, away from squir­rels. Jack­son is a lawyer, a mem­ber of sev­eral boards and a wheel­chair ath­lete, slowly scal­ing back her rac­ing to fo­cus on a new job — draft­ing a new men­tal-health pol­icy for the Al­berta govern­ment. Jack­son first came to this part of the trail on fam­ily pic­nics, but af­ter in­jur­ing her spinal cord in a car ac­ci­dent in

‘Be­ing ac­tive is an im­por­tant part of life, par­tic­u­larly for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. I think that’s why the trail is so im­por­tant to me.’

2003, she now comes to train in her race wheel­chair, on her hand-cy­cle or, her new pas­sion, on cross-coun­try skis. “Be­ing ac­tive is an im­por­tant part of life, par­tic­u­larly for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties,” she says. “Ac­tu­ally, I think that’s why the trail is so im­por­tant to me. I just choose this one be­cause there’s nice shade cov­er­age and it’s re­ally open. It’s re­ally ac­tively used so you feel safer, and it’s nicer than be­ing in a gym.” Jack­son and Kaya move at a slow, jog­ging pace, dodg­ing ruts in the asphalt. To their right, Run­dle’s base­ball di­a­monds and tennis courts slowly spark to life. As she rolls, Jack­son says she only re­al­ized she was us­ing The Great Trail in Run­dle Park, as well as other parts closer to down­town, in pre­par­ing to chat about it. Now she wants to use the sys­tem else­where. “Some­day, I would like to see other parts of it,” she says, “although I have to say I’m kind of bi­ased be­cause I think Ed­mon­ton is by far one of the nicest river val­leys I’ve ever been in.”

DOWN THE TRAIL from Run­dle, atop a ridge with views of the river-val­ley-sized chasm be­tween down­town Ed­mon­ton and the old city of Strath­cona, sits Con­sta­ble Ezio Faraone Park. San­dra Ga­herty is here, help­ing her six-year-old son, Sa­muel, open a bag of Cheezies af­ter a long bike ride across the city’s iconic High Level Bridge. “If you have kids and choose to live with­out a car, get used to them com­plain­ing, and teach­ing them about re­silience,” she says. Nearby, her other son, 10-year-old Noah, sits qui­etly, partly watch­ing over Sa­muel to help his mom and partly scan­ning the bridge for ex­cite­ment. Ga­herty, 39, first stepped on the trail i n 2011 af­ter mov­ing t o Ed­mon­ton from Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land. She came with lofty am­bi­tions: De­spite Ed­mon­ton be­ing one of the most car-de­pen­dent cities in Canada, she planned to walk and bike to work just as she did as a civil en­gi­neer in Scot­land. Then she promptly be­gan com­mut­ing by car. Her ex­pe­ri­ences walk­ing and bik­ing on parts of The Great Trail res­cued her dream. “The re­al­iza­tion that Ed­mon­ton was walk­a­ble and bike­able mo­ti­vated me then to de­cide that I may as well do this to go to work. It might take a bit longer, but if I’m lov­ing it this much, why not?”

‘The re­al­iza­tion that Ed­mon­ton was walk­a­ble and bike­able mo­ti­vated me then to de­cide that I may as well do this to go to work. If I’ m lov­ing it this much, why not?’

To­day, Ga­herty has be­come some­thing of a flag-bearer for car­free child rear­ing, earn­ing a fea­ture story in the lo­cal daily for buck­ing the city’s trend as she raises her boys with­out a ve­hi­cle. “When Sa­muel was a baby, I used to just ride across the bridge with him in the bike­seat on the front, be­cause it was an amaz­ing view of the river,” she says. “He loved it. He just learned how to ride his bike three weeks ago, and just when we were com­ing down the hill onto the bridge to­day I looked right, be­cause he has coaster brakes on his bike, and was like ‘Oh, I don’t know if he can do that hill.’ He just had this huge smile on his face.” Mo­ments later, Noah jumps up and points at the bridge. But Sa­muel wants his mom’s at­ten­tion, too. “A tram — it’s a tram!” Sa­muel screams, point­ing at the High Level his­toric street­car on top.

SHEILA THOMP­SON’S tour con­tin­ues from the leg­is­la­ture across the North Saskatchewan River and into the Univer­sity of Al­berta cam­pus, which Thomp­son ex­plains was an­nexed as part of the river lot sys­tem used to al­lo­cate land as Euro­peans set­tled in Ed­mon­ton. She then rolls far­ther west, into Wil­liam Hawre­lak Park, only to be “swooped upon,” as Thomp­son later de­scribes it, by more than 100 cy­clists on The Great Trail train­ing for an up­com­ing triathlon. Thomp­son freezes on her green city bike and the pelo­ton flies around her like water rush­ing around a rock in a river. Across the North Saskatchewan again, this time on the Lau­ri­erHawre­lak foot­bridge, she passes the Ed­mon­ton Val­ley Zoo. Even­tu­ally, af­ter trudg­ing up the steep river bank, Thomp­son ends up at t he new home of Fort Ed­mon­ton, near where she first started ex­plor­ing trails as a 10-year-old. “We are at the place where all of the trails join to­gether,” she says. “To have that so close to home, it’s a game changer for me. I’m very happy that we have the idea of The Great Trail, and I think it’s im­por­tant that ev­ery­body has a chance to get out and ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture, es­pe­cially in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment — for chil­dren to be able to know what it’s like to get out and ex­plore.”

‘The trail a ows you to ex­pe­ri­ence it in three di­men­sions be­cause you choose the ac­tiv­ity you w ant, you choose the area you want, and then you have the added di­men­sion of time.’

See more of the Ed­mon­ton River Val­ley Trail in a video of its no­table sites and the peo­ple who use it at can­geo.ca/jf18/ed­mon­ton.

Trail views (clock­wise from top left): Look­ing out over the river val­ley; Ed­mon­ton’s sky­line; the High Level Bridge; a man walks his dog in For­est Heights Park; a vol­ley­ball game on the shore of the North Saskatchewan River; San­dra Ga­herty and her sons Sa­muel (left) and Noah in Con­sta­ble Ezio Faraone Park.

Erin Jack­son and her dog, Kaya, in Run­dle Park ( above), part of Ed­mon­ton’s River Val­ley Trail. The iconic High Level Bridge ( be­low) is vis­i­ble from many parts of the trail.

San­dra Ga­herty with her sons Noah (left) and Sa­muel. Ga­herty, who doesn’t own a car, reg­u­larly uses the trail to walk or bike to work.

Sheila Thomp­son (right) and Tim Querengesser ride to­ward a por­tion of the trail near the south side of the High Level Bridge.

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