September 26, 2012

Victoria Trail

~90 unpaved kilometers of mostly unmolested North Saskatchewan River valley.

Finding gravel roads near Edmonton is not a problem, but finding interesting gravel roads is nearly as difficult as finding hen’s teeth.  Your typical road here is arrow straight  flat enough to put the horizon  about as distant as tomorrow.  This is OK for a while, but for those who crave variety, it does get tiresome.  

One happy exception that does not require many hours droning down  overly crowded highways filled with morons just to get to an interesting road is Victoria Trail.  
At this point Edmontonians might be saying What!?....  No, no, not the Victoria Trail lined with strip malls and newly planted suburban neighborhoods between the Yellowhead and 153 Avenue, but the original Victoria Trail between Edmonton and Victoria Settlement, 100 kilometers downriver on the mighty North Saskatchewan.

Before railways  and highways people travelled to Edmonton using the rivers between Hudson’s Bay and the Rocky Mountains.  This route followed the Saskatchewan Rivers (north and south) between the Lake Winnipeg, the Red River Colony and Fort Edmonton, by canoe or york boat, or overland on the river banks by red river cart.   Steam boats put a swift end to carts, and shortly after, trains followed by motorized vehicles put an equally swift end to following meandering prairie rivers. The only thing a road or rail builder needed for route planning across the flat prairies was a ruler.  One hundred years later, only a few bits of the old river trails can still be found, one bit is the Victoria Trail between Victoria Settlement and Edmonton.

The North Saskatchewan River valley is gorgeous, more so as it flows through a landscape that is somewhat short on variety.  Property owners along the old Victoria trail have not only seen to the maintenance of the old trail for their own pleasure, they have put in a lot of effort to share its beauty and history with visitors.  A local historical society, with funding assistance from Canada and Alberta have restored and maintained historical sites and buildings along the trail.

Close enough to Edmonton and surrounding communities to be an easy day trip back and forth, Victoria trail offers a little bit of everything.  Mostly well maintained gravel, there is one short single lane stretch that is mostly sand with some washouts about 3 quarters of the way east on the section between Highway 38 and 831.  This tiny stretch can be ridden around on other roads for those not comfortable riding on anything but well groomed roads.  Anyone with a true dual purpose bike will have no problems anywhere, and any bike and rider combination comfortable with gravel roads will not be overly challenged.


From Edmonton

Take Manning Freeway  (Highway 15) or Old Fort Road  to  the bridge over the North Saskatchewan River at Fort Saskatchewan/Lamoureux. Take the Lamoureux exit to Lamoureux Drive on the north side of the bridge.  Follow Lamoureux road and the river to Range Road 222 - north to Highway 38.  East and north on 38 to Township road 564A, right on the north border of the Agrium fertilizer plant.  Go east .5 km or so to Victoria Trail.  

Highway 38 and Victoria Trail

From Redwater, Bruderheim, Highway 28

Victoria trail crosses Highway 38, Highway 831 and Highway 855 just above the bridges crossing the North Saskatchewan (north shore).  

An alternative to following the river on the north shore through Lamoureux past Agrium, is to take the 99 street exit off the Manning into Fort Saskatchewan, to 101 street in the center of town, turn north on 101 and follow it to River road.  River road goes through the town’s riverside park complex, campgrounds and recreation areas.  Follow it out of town to where it ends in the industrial refinery zone east of town, then head north as far as you can go and then go east to the next road north, repeat, repeat, repeat, your goal is to stay as close to the river as you can get.  Eventually you will find yourself on a wonderfully twisty narrow paved two lane road following the river’s south bank that will take you to Highway 38 south of the river.  

Heading back to Edmonton, you can find this road from Victoria Trail and Highway 38 by crossing the bridge to the south shore to Highway 830, the first road on the right (west). At the first intersection turn right (west) on Township Road 564A, and follow it back to Fort Saskatchewan.  


Fuel and food

The closest places for riders and bikes to get fueled up, Fort Saskatchewan at the West end, Highway 38, Redwater (North and West) or Bruderheim (South),  neither  are terribly close, Waskatenau is just a few  few kilometers up Highway 831 or Range Road 193A,  Smoky Lake is about 10 km up Highway 855 or Range Road 170A.

Stuff to see
Between Lamoureux and Victoria Settlement are plenty of monuments and plaques dedicated to the people places and events of the area.

The western terminus of the Iron Horse Trail is in Waskatanau, which you need to pronounce 'Wasetna' if you don't want the locals to laugh at you. The Iron Horse Trail is part of the Trans Canada trail network. It is restricted to hikers, horses, bikes as in legmotors, quads (#&^%!) and snowmobiles (2X#&^%!!!) but no motorcycles please. This is actually OK, as it is pretty boring on an MC given that it is never more than about 200 meters from Highway 28 (I can't tell you how I know this). But, if you have a horse, quad, mountain bike, snowjoke or sturdy boots it definitely beats taking them down Highway 28. The trail has two branches, one going to Cold Lake the other to Heinsburg. 

Beside the trail between Highway 831 and 855, the MacDonald Store and Pine Creek Post Office built in 1908 is now a private residence and a great example of how to do historical preservation and have a nice house. I would like to look this good at 104, but I don't even look this good now.
MacDonald store and Pine Creek Post Office

Mountie Memorial

A little further downriver from Pine Creek is a ferry crossing monument followed by a monument to the first Northwest Mounted Police, better known today as the RCMP - GRC* who travelled down the Victoria Trail in 1874, and evidently had a tough time of it.  
(*GRC does not stand for Gendarmerie Royale Canadien; an acquaintance from North East Alberta informed me that it actually means Gravel Road Cops.)

The house that wouldn't fall
Here's one to watch, the house that refused to fall down. This tiny house has been standing abandoned, pretty much as you see it in the picture on the left for decades. Most of the other abandoned houses and barns along the trail have collapsed. This summer (2012) someone decided that such exceptional determination to remain standing should be rewarded and put a new foundation under it and has started restoring it.

The unpavement ends where Victoria Trail crosses Highway 855, the paved part on the east side of the highway goes down a short distance to Victoria Settlement, a historical park where some of the original buildings have been preserved. There are two old graveyards, one up the hill, and another for on the site of a former Methodist mission to the Indians and (non Methodist) Ukrainians.

Life was hard on the MacDougall Ladies
If you are at the highway 38 bridge over the river and it is the weekend, stop in at the 'Wreck What You Brung Open Invitational Quad Destruction Derby', take 830, first road  south of the bridge, find the sand pits at the southwest corner of the first intersection, Township Road 465A

On the way home stop in at the Tim's on Highway 21 in Fort Saskatchewan and chat with the cruiser people.

If it is Thursday evening its hot rod time at the PetroCanada at 137 Ave and Fort Road in Edmonton

 So whats a range road daddy?
In Alberta un-named country roads that run north and south are range roads, east and west roads are township roads.  If you are on a range road and the township road numbers are increasing, you are going North.  If you are on a Township road and the range road number are increasing you are going west.  The opposite also applies.  This can be valuable knowledge if you are lost in the dark and the GPS is busted.


September 15, 2012

The Forestry Trunk Road

Alberta's Forestry Trunk Road (FTR) is the mini golf version of the Bolivian death road, the drops are just meters, not thousands of meters, no macho speeding bus drivers on the FTR,  but watch for the macho speeding pickup truck drivers. The Forestry Trunk Road is nearly as challenging as its (very) distant Bolivian cousin, but the penalty for errors is much lower.  Best of all, a ride on the FTR is only an hour or two from Alberta's major urban centers, not the 15,000 or so kilometers to Bolivia.  Alberta adventurers can ride the FTR and sleep in their own bed.  Or not, from end to end the FTR is over 1,000 kilometers of mostly gravel from Coleman to Grande Prairie, with plenty of campgrounds and nearby motels.  

Much of the Forestry Trunk Road is unpaved, some bits are 'unimproved' meaning little if any road maintenance, especially in Winter.  Paved are the 60 km Kananaskis Highway, between Peter Lougheed  Park to Highway 1 (The Trans Canada Highway), and 350 kms  of Highway 40 from the Luscar mine, just south of the Yellowhead highway, to Grande Prairie, and for those who must have gravel, there is a 170 km alternate unpaved section between Grande Cache and Highway 43, just east of Grande Prairie.  The Forestry Trunk Road is also designated either Highway 734 or Highway 40, and can be found on any gas station map, or Google Maps.

The Forestry Trunk Road, from South to North, begins at Coleman (A) in the Crowsnest Pass.  From Coleman it is about 160 km of  maintained gravel  to Peter Lougheed Park (B), where Highway 40 is paved and named Kananaskis Highway, about 80 km,  wide and fairly straight to the Trans Canada (Highway 1).  Awesome vistas make up for the boring road.  To get back to the Forestry Trunk Road, take the first exit from the Trans Canada in either direction to Highway 1A, the old highway that parallels the Trans Canada, and head east on the 1A, when you have passed the Ghost Dam Reservoir, start watching for the next leg of the FTR.

The next 200 + km stretch from the 1A Highway (C)   is found just east of Ghost Dam reservoir, to highway 11 by Nordegg (E), this is  the best part of the Forestry Trunk Road.  Plenty of tight curves and switchbacks.  Many roads intersect the FTR between the 1A and Nordegg  for getting on and off  to  Water Valley (Cremona), Sundre,  Caroline or Rocky Mountain House, for gas, lodging, food, and pavement to back to civilization.  About halfway up  is  (D) Mountain Aire Lodge beside the Red Deer River, a surprising resort/work camp in what should be the middle of nowhere, with all the amenities including gas.  Farther towards Nordegg is Ram River Falls, a must stop for sightseeing.

From Nordegg it is about 110 kilometers north to the junction of highway 47 (F).  This part of the FTR is nearly as nice as the part between 1A and Highway 11, but there is much more industrial activity here, logging, oil and gas wells, and mining mean plenty of logging trucks tractor trailers, road maintenance and high speed crew cabs.  If you have plenty of gas left, stay on Highway 40 to Cadomin (G). A few kilometers up 47 is Robb and gas.  Highway 47 is a paved 50 clicks to Edson and the Yellowhead highway.  Just past   Robb on Highway 47 is the gravel Hinton road, about 50 km to Hinton.  More fun but longer, is Highway 40 from Highway 47 to Cadomin.  The 50 km to Cadomin is unpaved but then Highway 40 is paved all the way to Grande Prairie.

Highway 40 from Cadomin to the Yellowhead is about 50 km (H).  Hinton is just east of where Highway 40 crosses the Yellowhead, and the last place to get gas until Grande Cache a little over 100 km north.  Just before Grande Cache,  is the last part of the Forestry Trunk Road (I).  This 167 km stretch is fairly straight and freshly graded gravel.  It ends on Highway 43 about 50 km east of Grande Prairie (J).

Getting to the FTR
Coleman is about 160 km from Lethbridge, and about the same from the Montana border crossing at St. Mary.  Alberta Highway 2 to Highway 3.  In Coleman go north from Highway 3 to 28 Ave., and follow 28 Ave out of town, and it becomes Highway 40, the Forestry Trunk Road.

Between Calgary and Coleman the Forestry Trunk Road can be reached by going west from Highway 22 at Longview, and  also on Township Road 532, near Chain Lakes.

From Calgary get there by going west on Highway 1 to Highway 40 (Peter Lougheed Highway) or Highway 1A to the Forestry Trunk Road just west of Highway 22, east of the Ghost Dam reservoir.  The Forestry Trunk Road can also be reached from Highway 22 by taking the Water Valley road west, or  west on Highway 27, Highway 54,  Highway 752, or Highway 11 to Rocky Mountain House or Nordegg.

From Red Deer, west on Highway 11  to Rocky Mountain House, Nordegg, or south on Highway 22.

Edmonton Riders will have a long boring ride to either  Highway 11,  the Yellowhead to Highway 22 (to Drayton Valley), Edson (47 to Robb) or Hinton (40 to Cadomin), or Drayton Valley via  Highway 39 west from Leduc - Calmar.

At Drayton Valley take Highway 620, to the Elk River Road.  The Elk River Road is gravel and ends on the Forestry Trunk Road about midway between Robb and Nordegg.  Alternatively, stay on Highway 620, called the the Sunchild Road on the other side of the Brazeau reservoir, and ride pavement all the way to Highway 11, Rocky Mountain House or Nordegg.

From Grande Prairie, Highway 40 south, or east on Highway 43 to the Forestry Trunk Road at Little Smoky.

When travelling in Alberta avoid  stupid traffic and very boring Highway 2 by using Highway 2A, 22 or 21 between Calgary and Edmonton.  If travelling to BC consider using Highway 3, way nicer than either Trans Canada route (Highway 1 or the Yellowhead).

Weather.  As much as Albertans like to complain about it, I can say, having travelled from coast to coast, as well as from the Arctic Circle to the Atacama, you won't find better riding weather than Alberta in summer.  Cool, clear and sunny is the norm.  Rainstorms are usually short.   Between June and the end of August, the high temperature is typically in the twenties.  Nights are cool, as are the mornings, leave the mesh gear at home, pack some sweaters and leave the liner in your riding jacket.  No crazy heat means you wear all the gear all the time in comfort.   Don't be too surprised if you wake up to find a few centimeters of snow on the ground, especially if you are in the Calgary to Nordegg area.  Don't fret, it will disappear by mid morning and can be safely ignored if you are off pavement.  The secret to staying warm is layering your clothing, a set of  long underwear bottoms, and a sweater or two to put on or remove will keep you toasty.  Expect plenty of sunshine, watch out for the occasional violent but short lived thunderstorm.

Navigation.  It is difficult to stay lost in Alberta, even if you don't know where you are.  If you get the concept of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west you can leave the GPS at home.  The FTR is generally the farthest west of the North-South roads this side of the mountains, so heading in an easterly direction will quickly land you in civilization, or if you are trying to find your way back to the FTR keep going West.  Most of the other Alberta roads are laid out with T squares from North to South and East to West, backroad road signs will give you a clue as to orientation, numbered 'range roads' run north and south, 'township roads' run east and west, range roads count up from east to west and township roads from south to north so you don't even need a compass. Most intersections have road signs.  If  a road is a dead end, it will be indicated by a 'No Exit' sign.  Maps showing the FTR include the ordinary gas station folding maps, free maps available from the Alberta Tourism Parks and Recreation, or auto club maps.  If you are using a GPS with the ability to load maps,  consider a topographic map rather than the highway map, for the additional information, such as elevations, locations of landmarks, ghost town sites etc..

Accommodation. Because the Forestry Trunk Road runs mostly through Crown Land, it is possible to camp just about anywhere.  There are many designated provincial campsites, with various degrees of service, ranging from none, to hot water showers and electrical hookups in Peter Lougheed Park.  For those adventurers who prefer to sleep in beds with roofs and running water, no part of the FTR is more than an hour or two from civilization in the form of a motel or hotel.  The Provincial campgrounds  fees are reasonable north of highway 11 and silly south of 11.  Sites are self registration using envelopes and a drop box.  Carry some checks or cash with an assortment of bills,  Loonies and Toonies, in 2012 fees range from 11.00 to 25 for provincial campsites.   For those willing to rough it, there are unserviced  campgrounds, (actually they are closed, but easy to to get into with a bike) or just grab a stretch unoccupied creek side if you are on crown land.

Critters.  The FTR is bear country and there are plenty of them, so make sure you take all precautions, such as cleaning up your camp site, keeping all food and smelly stuff well away from tents etc..  If you are unfamiliar with how to share the wild with our bear buddies, familiarize yourself with all the stuff you need to know and do if Yogi and Booboo show up.  In addition to bears expect to see many kinds of birds, deer, moose, various rodents, including our national symbol, the beaver. There are also mountain lions, lynx, and most members of the mink and weasel family, coyotes and wolves.  Besides wild critters you will also need to keep an eye open for range cattle and loose running horses between Coleman and Nordegg.

The bike. Any bike and rider combination comfortable travelling on groomed gravel roads will work on the Forestry Trunk Road.  I have taken a sport touring bike (an FJ1100) down the FTR, rental Buicks, worn out econo beaters as well as my 640 Adventure.  I prefer the so called unimproved portions, as they tend to be hard packed, almost like pavement, but lumpier.  The worst bits are the maintained gravel portions, as they are graded almost daily in the summer, which means piled up loose gravel that grabs the front wheel, and lurches it from side to side unless you are going ass pucker fast.  Whatever, if you can ride gravel, you will have no problems with the FTR.

The happiest riders will be those with plenty of excellent suspension,  and a fuel range of  300 plus kms.  Decent range means no  worries at all about fuel, however, with careful planning even a small 100 plus km tank with a supplemental gas can strapped on will do.  It would be wise to pack some form of tire repair, but for the ill prepared and luckless, assistance is never far, as the FTR is well travelled by full of helpful Cowboys, Indians, Drillers and Loggers.

Hazards.  The most frequent hazard encountered on the FTR are trucks, dump trucks, gravel trucks, high speed pickup trucks and logging trucks.  When it is dry all vehicles drag a dust cloud that is as thick as the thickest fog.  When the road is wet, dust is splashed up on your faceshield or goggles as mud.  If you can't be the fastest on the FTR, (that is, if you don't have a suicidal death wish) be prepared to give way to pickups attempting to break the sound barrier.  Logging trucks are easier to stay ahead of, but almost impossible to pass from behind due to the volume and density of dust they stir up.  If you see a logging truck in the mirrors notch up the knot rate  or take a break for an hour or so.

Stuff to see.
The Crownest Pass has a lot of interesting history, including the Frank Slide, where half a mountain fell off and buried a town in 1903.  It still looks as if it happened yesterday.

Peter Lougheed Park and Kananaskis country offer a variety of the usual mountain outdoor activities, campgrounds and resorts, as an alternative to much busier Banff.

Canmore has some nice restaurants, it has become an overflow for Banff tourism, lots of hotels and motels and time shares.

The 1A Highway is the old highway between Calgary and Banff.  Two lanes and a handful of posted curves between Highway 22 and Canmore have made it a favorite with all the Calgary boy racers with sport cars and sport bikes.  Go on a Sunday to watch the fun.

Longview, Water Valley, Sundre, and Caroline are not too far off the Forestry Trunk Road and good alternatives for getting on or off the FTR besides the major access points mentioned above.  All have gas, food, lodging and grocery stores. They are the heart of Alberta cowboy country, so if you are a vegetarian, best keep it to yourself.

Impromptu quad demolition derbies taking  place at a location near you on the FTR.

Ram Falls, between Mountain Aire Lodge and Nordegg are worth a visit.  A very short walk from the day use parking area.

Cadomin, like Nordegg is what is left of a coal mining town.   There is a small store with a cafe, and a motel but no gas.  If you have a few hours and are in excellent shape, consider hiking up to Cadomin Cave.  This is a strenuous hike, but the rewards are worth it.  The cave is near the top of a low mountain.  No specialized climbing equipment is required, but you will need sturdy hiking boots or shoes, and good lungs.  Getting there is like climbing all the stairs in the CN tower.  The cave is used by bats for hibernation in Winter, there are no bats occupying the cave in Summer.  The cave is closed  between Labor Day and Victoria day, as disturbing the bats impairs their ability to  hibernate.   To go more than a few feet into the cave will require a good flashlight.   If you don't like the cave, the top of the mountain is only a few meters above you.  The view here is fantastic.

Between Cadomin and Hinton on Highway 40, near the Luscar mine site is a herd of Big Horn sheep that are always around the highway everytime I have gone through there, bring a camera.

From Cadomin take the road heading southwest to Mountain Park, a ghost town, but the only ghosts you will find are in the Mountain Park Cemetery, everything else is gone.  This is still an active coal mining area.  Nowadays, the coal mining is done by large machinery.  The Mountain Park road runs alongside the coal mine road, only used by huge rock trucks that are too big for public roads.

Past Mountain Park the road is called the Cardinal River Divide road which takes you to the Cardinal River Divide (go figger), which is a continental divide between the river systems that flows into the Arctic Ocean via the Athabasca, Peace, and Mackenzie Rivers, and the river system that flows into the Hudson's Bay via the  Sasakatchewan.  From the divide south is a road that is not on any of my maps, but it is there and will take you back to the FTR about half way between Nordegg and Robb, along the way you will pass through the Alexis Band reserve.

Near Grande Cache they discovered a major Dinosaur trackway, preserved Dino tracks.  Apparently the dinosaurs migrated north in the summer, the arctic was unfrozen and summer near 24 hour daylight meant lots of plant growth for hungry dinos.   Unfortunately the tracks are located on a mine site and can't be visited.  Stop in at the tourist information building for more information.