Thursday, June 30, 2022

Welcome to the Iron Horse Trail : Lea Park to Elk Point

When we left the Lea Park campground this morning and headed back across the yellow span bridge over the North Saskatchewan River, the pale yellow of the morning sky was reflected in its wide, fast moving waters.  A huge and pre-historic looking Great Blue Heron took off silently from the cattails at the water's edge, it's dark reflection mirroring its majestic wing-beats as it skimmed the surface of the water. 

It was a long steady climb up out of the river valley on the edge of the very busy, paved highway.  Soon we found ourselves high up above the river once again, heading north through lush, green, rolling hills.  The treed river valley meandered along beside us, providing occasional glimpses of the chocolate brown waters of the river snaking along at the bottom. 

As we pulled away from the river we found ourselves walking through a mix of wetlands and rolling pastures dotted with small ponds and large puddles.  There was a lot of traffic on the road, and the paved edge was only about 12 inches wide.  As we were passed by a steady stream of oil tankers, pickups, trucks hauling sand, gravel, and one large grain silo, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for stopping to bird.  This was a little frustrating, since every pond was teeming was waterfowl.   

Among the highlights were small groups of Lesser Scaup, Common Golden-eyes, and Ring-necked Ducks in many of the ponds along the way.  We also enjoyed seeing the bright and almost cartoonish looking of plumage of male Ruddy Ducks in the cattails in several puddles.  Flashes of bright red signalled the presence of Redheads in the dark, mirror-like waters of a few small wetlands, and we spotted Greater Yellowlegs running along the muddy edges of several watering holes in the grassy pastures.  

Eventually we turned west onto a marginally less busy, paved two-lane highway.  The beautiful rolling hill scenery continued as we made our way through farm land and ranches, climbing steadily as we went.  In one field of row crops we spotted a gorgeous silver fox with a white-tipped tail standing tall beside its den sniffing the air.  It paused for a few short moments before diving down below the earth.

Another highlight in this road section was passing a large marsh that was full of large, snowy white American Pelicans!  We stopped to watch as a small group wheeled through the sky, turned, and made a landing on the pond.  There were quite a few smaller waterfowl on the pond as well, but seeing these majestic giants again was a real treat. 

Shortly after this we finally turned off the highway onto a narrow, winding gravel road lined with glorious shade trees.  We made a very steep descent back down towards the North Saskatchewan River and the small community of Heinsburg, which marked the beginning of the Iron Horse Trail.  This multiuse recreational trail is just over 300 km long, and the 178 km portion of it that we will walk is the longest completed section of Trans Canada Trail in Alberta. 

The Iron Horse Trail follows a route that was used by Red River carts in the mid 1800's.  Later, in the 1900's it was used by CN Railway for its train, which was lovingly nicknamed the Iron Horse.  It is now a multiuse trail system, open to ATVs, horseback riders and horse-drawn wagons, cyclists, and hikers. There are various communities located along the trail as well as rest stops or staging areas that offer picnic tables, fire pits, and washrooms. 

When we reached the small village of Heinsburg we found a large, open, grassy green space with a large gazebo in the center, a few campsites along one edge, a cluster of interpretive signs for the trail, and a small trail center.  Inside the small building were several picnic tables, a small day-use kitchen, a wood stove and a large pile of firewood and kindling, and washrooms. Everything was incredibly clean and tidy. 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the green space was the tall, red wooden water tower at one end.  When the CN Railway extended its line to Heinsburg in 1928, they installed the water tower at the end of the line to service their steam-powered trains.  At the time, water towers were located every 30-50 km along the train lines, because steam-powered locomotives required frequent reflueling.  Diesel engines replaced steam in the 1960's, and the line was abandoned in the 1980's, but the community has preserved the water tower with its original water tank and piping.  Its excellent condition makes it unique in Alberta. 

After taking a short break in the gazebo, and laying our tent out in the sunshine to dry off a bit, we continued through park.  At the far end we passed another reminder of the railway days - an old CN Railway caboose, which looked like it could use a little TLC.  When we came to the official trail head we found our first Trans Canada Trail sign since crossing into Alberta (and it when had the new logo)! 

Immediately we found ourselves on a wide dirt track in a pleasant corridor of green trees.  As we crossed under the highway a mule deer leaped across the trail ahead of us. A few seconds later another one erupted out of the grass and shrubs beside us, following behind the first one. 

We enjoyed being away from the traffic and surrounded by trees and greenery.  The North Saskatchewan River was flowing quietly along beside us, just visible through the trees every now and again.  Ahead of us a cloud of butterflies danced and flitted in the patches of sunlight on the trailbed.  We particularly enjoyed the bright orange fritillary butterflies and the tiny Western Tailed Blue ones, with their iridescent wings and delicate blue fur.  They made us wonder how many creatures besides butterflies have naturally blue fur? 

Butterflies weren't the only the signs of wildlife we spotted as we made our way along the corridor of trees.  We spotted deer tracks of various sizes and shapes, something that looked like a large cat print, and the paw prints of a small bear that apparently walked about a kilometre along the trail before wandering off it. 

Generally the trail-bed was in pretty good condition, but the huge amounts of rain Alberta has recently received did leave their toll.  Large puddles were a relatively constant companion, and in one section the wheels on our carts kept getting so bogged down with the thick, sticky prairie mud that we had to continually stop and scrap it off with the hiking poles.  This made for slow and extremely laborious going. 

As we walked we noticed small stations with scientific instruments deployed at regular intervals in the grass at the side of the trail.  Small signs warned that they shouldn't be disturbed because they were being used for a seismic survey.  Seismic surveys use acoustic waves to create images of the earth. Some seismic waves can penetrate solid rock and fluids deep under ground, while others travel along the earth's surface.  They can be used to locate ground water, investigate how a region would respond to an earthquake, and for oil and gas exploration. 

We continued on through the warm afternoon, following the river, occasionally emerging into more open ranch land with cows, but mostly staying in a corridor of green.  When we came to the Middle Creek Staging Area at first we thought there was nothing more than an overgrown track there.  Then we realized the long grassy track lead to a very nice rest stop with a group of picnic tables and fire pits clustered under a stand of spruce trees. There was a washroom and a place to tie up horses as well.  It was a very peaceful spot, and we were tempted to stop and camp.  However, in the end we decided to continue on. 

Just before we headed back out onto the trail an ATV passed by, the first we'd seen up until that point.  As we made our way towards Lindberg we passed through several gates.  Every trail has a few small touches that make it unique, and the gates along this trail, which say 'Caution Cattle at Large Please Keep Closed April 1 to October 31' are one of those things that give it a unique feel relative to other sections of the TCT we've hiked.  Beside the metal gates are cattle grates, or Texas gates, that prevent horses and cattle from passing through, but allow motorized vehicles to drive across.  So even though we can't see much of the ranch land around us through the trees, these gates provide a nice reminder that we are in the prairies. 

We had been hoping to get a cold iced tea or ice cream when we reached Lindbergh, but the gas station and convenience store that were mentioned in the trail guide were closed and looked like they had long since been abandoned.  Somewhat disappointed, we crossed the highway and continued along the trail, enjoying a brief view of rolling grassy hills and cows. 

A few kilometers past the road crossing we came to the rest area in Lindbergh.  It consisted of a large green space with a covered picnic pavilion, a few picnic tables and firepits in the shade of a small stand of trees, and a washroom. Like the staging area in Heinsburg it was incredibly clean and well kept and it was supplied with firewood and kindling.  

Gratefully we stopped in the shade for another break at the picnic tables.  Again, we contemplated stopping there for the night, but we weren't entirely sure we were allowed to camp at this particular staging area, or if we needed permission to do so, and the residents of the small group of homes overlooking the rest stop were all openly watching us.  After considering our options we decided to continue on. 

The hamlet of Lindbergh was settled in 1906, and by 1911 a ferry, school, and cemetery had been set up in the area.  When the CN Railway was extended to Heinsburg in 1927, a post Office and general store also came to town.  In 1946, three oil companies that were drilling in the area discovered salt, and by 1948 they had set up a salt mine. 

The salt deposit is an extension of the McMurray salt bed, which is believed to be over 700 miles long, about half a mile below the earth's surface, and about 1,000 ft deep.  The location for the mine was perfect, having access to water from the river, its own source of natural gas, and the railway running nearby to export the salt.  In the 1940's the plant produced about 120 tons of salt per day, and employed about 40 people. It's products were sold under the name 'Cascade.'  

Today the plant produces Windsor salt and is owned by Morton Salt, a Chicago-based company.  It employed 50 people, and was the only industry in the area apart from agriculture.  Sadly, it will be closing its doors permanently on August 1, 2022 because it has been operating at a loss for the past five years.  The rising cost of energy, inflation, and the fuel costs of transporting a heavy product like salt are listed as reasons for the closure. 

After the staging area at Lindbergh the trail brought us down to the river, where we got a beautiful view and heard the unmistakable keening of a Bald Eagle.  Then we followed the trail through the Windsor salt mine.  We could hear the roar of the plant before we could see it, and the trail took us right alongside the building, where the train would once have been filled with salt. 

After Lindbergh we found ourselves in a very beautiful section of trail, bordered on both sides by trees.  At first the tall, straight white trunks of white birches bordered the pathway. Then we passed through a stand of trembling aspen that whispered in the light breeze.  The songs of Ovenbirds, American Redstarts, and Yellow Warblers broke the quiet of the late afternoon. 

Soon we found ourselves in a corridor of dense spruce trees, which felt like a small patch of Boreal forest.  The loud 'Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada' song of White-throated Sparrows echoed through the forest, along with the buzzing of a sizeable swarm of mosquito.  We could just glimpse the waters of Simmo Lake to the north of us, but mostly we were surrounded by tall, tree covered sand dunes. 


As we slowly progressed past the lake, enjoying the shade of the trees, we noticed a shift in the landscape.  The trail bed became more sandy, and small sandy ATV tracks led up and down the dunes on either side of us.  As we approached Muriel the landscape began to open up into one of fields, and we found ourselves passing an area that was being used for sand and gravel excavation. 

By the time we reached the outskirts of Elk Point we had walked nearly 58 km, and it was nearly 9 pm. It stays light here until just after 11 pm, so the sun was just sinking towards the horizon, turning the fields and pastures of lush green grasses to a glowing red. Prairie sunsets are always very beautiful, but nonetheless, when we finally spotted the grain silo silhouetted against the sky in front of us we felt a sense of relief. 

At the edge of town we came to the Tourism Information center, which was located in the old railway station. Outside was a large bronze statue of an elk.  We turned up the main street towards the Elk Point Motel and RV Park, stopping at Subway to pick up two sandwiches for dinner on our way past. 

Although we were too tired to do much exploring, Elk Point has an interesting history. It is located near the North Saskatchewan River, which was part of the fur trading route.  Both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company had trading posts on the river near Elk Point.  The HBC ran Buckingham House, while the NWC operated Fort George between 1792 and 1800. Although we didn't have a chance to visit them, today there is an interpretive center where the posts were located, apparently with a statue of Peter Fidler outside, who was a British surveyor, map-maker, fur trader and explorer who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company.  

It was a very long day but interesting day on the Trans Canada and Iron Horse Trails.