On ‘the lonesome trail’
Following the Athabasca Landing Trail – the path that connected the region to Edmonton and the rest the world
On the east side of the Town of Athabasca, just by the big blue car wash, there’s a new trailhead. It’s only marked by a couple of small signs, but it’s hard to miss.
Walk over the new bridge – just installed this past Feb. 16 – and down the dirt path. You’ll find the smell of spruce needles and the sound of running water. The edges of the path are decorated with bright pink wild roses feeding bees and electric blue dragonflies ready to eat the millions of mosquitoes. Buzzing, clicking, chirping, humming – the signs of life are all around.
Continue walking down through these rolling hills, and you’ll be walking down a 100-mile path through Athabasca, Westlock and Sturgeon counties that has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – the Athabasca Landing Trail.
“The Athabasca Landing Trail,” a paper written by C. D. Denney and printed in 1971, states as far back as anyone knows, there had been trails linking the elbow of the Athabasca to the North Saskatchewan River.
“From about 1794 on, the natives of the woods came to Edmonton House on them,” he wrote. “They also used them as they went into the plains looking for buffalo.”
According to a history of Athabasca Landing published by Athabasca University, as other trade routes became unpassable in the late 1800s, the Athabasca Landing Trail – which was nicknamed “The 100-Mile Portage – was completed between Fort Edmonton and “the elbow” of the Athabasca River over the summer of 1876.
The Hudson’s Bay Company then made the decision to abandon other trade routes in favour of this new one.
The trip soon become a popular one for intrepid travellers. Those that walked on the road include those seeking their fortunes in the Klondike Gold Rush; Métis mailrunner Billy Loutit, who made the legendary run from Athabasca to Edmonton in 16 hours; and famous Canadian poet Robert Service – who wrote about his 1911 visit and immortalized the region with his poem, “Athabaska Dick.”
One man’s journey, and his legacy
On June 6, 2017, Ron Payne and his wife Marlena started driving their RV north from Sacramento, California.
Armed with his grandfather’s journal, Payne decided to make the trek his predecessor made in 1912 – travelling the Athabasca Landing Trail headed for the Peace River District.
On July 16, 1912, Frederick Everet Brewer wrote that he and two other men took two oxen and a New Deal Covered Wagon “into the wilds of the Illustrious North” ahead of the railroad.
“We were called Fools for attempting the trip as the happenings of the trip from day to day are recorded in this Diary,” he wrote.
His journal details how they fell off of the road a few times. How uncomfortable it is to sleep in a slanting wagon. Feeding the dogs a rabbit they caught. Their breakfasts of oatmeal, canned bluenose butter and sugar. The violin music provided by a man with a large family before they went to bed.
“Any old music good on the lonesome trail,” he wrote July 31.
“You will understand, of course, that it was no paved highway,” Denney wrote in his paper. “It still wound in and out among the trees, and the sloughs, and the muskegs, and the hillsides, and over stumps and corduroy. The bridges didn’t always stay put, they even wore out.”
It got to the point that the Hudson’s Bay Company started charging tolls for “foreigners” using the last five miles of road into the Landing, Denney wrote.
“Then the foreigners cut a trail of their own to the west and came into the Landing from that side,” he wrote.
Payne and his wife, however, did have highways they could take. They followed Highway 2 up from Edmonton to Athabasca, stopping once in between for an overnight rest.
Payne said when they arrived in Athabasca, they noticed a sign for the library and archives and headed over, meeting with archivist Gina Payzant to go over the journal. He allowed her to make copies to add to the archives.
“We stayed at the Blueberry Hill RV Park, which was kind of fun,” he said, noting that the operators told them they had never had anyone come from so far.
He said everyone he met on the trip was wonderful and helpful, as well.
“The welcome we received from the Thompson family (at the Blueberry Hill RV Park) was exceptional. We told everyone about the park and the great people. Their daughter is precious. Thank you again!” Payne and his wife wrote in a later email. “Everyone we came in Contact with was very nice and helpful. Starting with Gina at the Athabasca archive, Shelia in Mirror Landing, Slave Lake visitor center, Roland at North Shore Homestead to Darlene and staff at High Priaire Museum and everyone in between.”
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His grandfather didn’t have the same experience in Athabasca, unfortunately.
“Athabasca Landing is the worst drunken hole I have ever seen,” Brewer wrote in his journal Aug. 29, 1912.
“Had my usual sleep and after breakfast, loafed around time waiting for that train to come, and at the same time learning to hate the place worse every minute,” he wrote the next day. “Outside of the numerous drunks, Athabasca Landing has nothing to entertain the people unlucky enough to get within its gates.”
Payne said Brewer decided not to stay in the north, heading back into the United States to meet up with the woman who became his grandmother.
On his way back south in August 1912, he took the newly-established train from Athabasca to Edmonton, which was the death knell of the Athabasca Landing Trail. He said the train could only get within three miles of town, and so he and other passengers had to walk out to it after much “disturbance and sweating.”
“Train pulled out and after about fifty miles ran off tracks and we were there all night,” he wrote in his journal.
Over the years of disuse, the Athabasca Landing Trail fell into disrepair.
“And before it is too late, wouldn’t it be equally wonderful if people in Athabasca and Westlock and Gibbons would mount an active campaign for the preservation and marking of the parts of the Trail that are still identifiable,” Denney wrote in 1971.
And years later, that is what has happened.
A conceptual master plan for the non-motorized recreational trail was completed March 31, 2010. A steering committee, partnerships with recreation organizations and municipalities, and additional funding and support from the Alberta TrailNet Society has seen this leg join the Trans Canada Trail.
The Athabasca Landing Trail even has its own website – www.athabascalandingtrail.com.
The trail gets fairly regular use from recreation users, and will next year, will see hundreds of people run it during the Athabaska Ultra 100.
Hoping to get 500 runners for the July 27-29 relay, Athabasca’s tourism and economic development co-ordinator Robert Buckle said running the trail will help locals and those from a distance make physical connections to the history of the region.
“It gives us lots of opportunities to make those connections with past and present,” he said. “Revisiting the trail in a whole new modern way. That’s what’s interesting about it.”
Editor's Note: The original version of this story stated that the Hudson's Bay Company established a post in Athabasca Landing in 1848. This was not the case. "The Hudson’s Bay Company built a small seasonal trading post at Athabasca Landing in 1877 (not in 1848 as is commonly claimed)," states the fourth edition of the Athabasca Historical Walking Tour guide.