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.
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.