ST. PAUL, Alta. – When Leona Joly travels to Elk Point for a coffee, she doesn’t always take the highway from her home in St. Paul.
Instead, Joly jumps on her snowmobile and rides to the nearby town along the Iron Horse Trail, a 300 kilometre abandoned railway line turned into a multi-use trail.
“It’s a beautiful way to see the country. It’s a safe ride and a great place to ride,” said Joly during a celebration of the trail and the publication of the first trail map in Alberta.
Joly was just one of dozens of snowmobilers who rode into St. Paul on the trail for last month’s celebration.
It has taken almost 10 years of meetings, plebiscites, work bees and community co-operation for the abandoned Canadian National rail line to be transformed into a trail for bicycles, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, horses and hikers.
Politicians from 10 municipalities, local towns, villages and the provincial government worked together to overcome the challenges of building the trail running from Heinsburg to Waskatenau and Cold Lake to Ashmont.
Local MLA Ray Danyluck said the people of northeastern Alberta put aside historic differences and turf wars for the common goal of creating the trail they hope will bring tourists to their part of the province and give locals another place to play.
“It takes everybody to come together to work and to achieve what we have today,” Danyluck told the group.
Marvin Bjornstad of Elk Point, the past-president of the Riverland Recreational Trail Society, said at the beginning no one believed the riders of quads, horses or snowmobiles could share a trail.
“I think it has been fairly positive.”
A set of user guidelines, work bees and monthly meetings to address any concerns has created a system that seems to work.
Surprisingly it’s not the mix of quads and horses that creates problems, but horses and hikers. Livestock are used to quads on the farm, but few are used to pedestrians.
Danny Smyl, president of the St. Paul Trail Blazers, said the trail has become a draw for snowmobilers across the province.
“They know they can come here to ride,” said Smyl, whose organization helps maintain and groom the trail.
“People aren’t scared to bring their kids. They don’t have to be an experienced rider,” he said.
Before, riders had to guess how to cross the patchwork of fields and fences to get their winter fun.
Roy Scott of Heinsburg was one of the original visionaries behind the trail. He was already taking tourists up parts of the abandoned rail bed with a team of horses and he could see the tourism possibilities.
“It’s great entertainment. They enjoy themselves immensely,” said Scott of his past wagon guests.
Since the creation of the trail, there have been other events developed, including Haying in the ’30s, an old-fashioned threshing bee where many participants ride their horses or bring their teams to the event on the trail.
Villages have revived historical sites and many towns are planning to create access routes and directional signs into their towns to encourage trail users to stop for a visit.
Valerie Pringle, television personality and chair of the Trans Canada Trail board, said the Iron Horse Trail is a model within the province.
Pringle called each community working on its piece of trail a pearl in the necklace that makes up the Trans Canada Trail.
“When you get this, it becomes sacred ground. It’s sacred to the community. You will have it for generations and it won’t go away.”