On paper, the M.D. of Lesser Slave River has three organized sections of the Great Trail connected by M.D. roads, the Lesser Slave River, and Town of Slave Lake trails. However, all three are in various stages of construction.
The Great Trail, formerly called the Trans Canada Trail connects the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts of Canada. In the southern part of the M.D., the Peace River Trail connects Athabasca with Moose Portage, east of Smith. The Great Trail website has a green line from the Town of Slave Lake through the Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park and along the north shore of Lesser Slave Lake all the way to Grouard. It calls this 124.95 km section the Lesser Slave Lake Trail. However, this trail hasn’t been finished and the built sections need work.
Last fall, a woman walking the entire trail was in the area on her way to the Arctic Ocean. She was able to take the Peace River Trail from Athabasca to Moose Portage and the connector along M.D. gravel roads to Smith. She walked along the Old Smith highway to Slave Lake, which goes beside the Lesser Slave River, which is the official route. However, instead of going through the park and along the Lesser Slave Lake Trail, she had to walk along Highway 2 south of the lake.
The three sections of the Great Trail in Lesser Slave River are portions of historic freighter trails.
“You can see the old wagon tracks right next to our trail,” says Lloyd Sawatzky, Woods and Water Recreational Trails Association president.
The Great Trail within Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park was a historic freighter trail, says Margot Hervieux, Parks Northwest Region operations manager.
Off-Highway Vehicles and horse’s aren’t allowed on the trails in the park. However, at the moment, OHV riders use the North Shore and Peace River trails more than any other group. Both are multi-use, with bridges built safe for horses and wide enough for OHVs. However, because of the wet conditions, it is difficult for people to hike, cycle, or ride horses on the trail.
In the winter, the trail is accessible on an OHV, cross country skis, or snowshoes.
Woods and Water is building the North Shore Trail between Marten Beach and the middle of Lesser Slave Lake. Once finished this will connect with the Grouard portion of the trail. However, this is still a long way off.
The group currently has developed 18 km, with four bridges and one large culvert. However, with the wet weather and ruts from Off-Highway Vehicles on the trail. it is difficult for hikers, cyclists, or horse back riders to confortably use the trail.
In July or August, Sawatzky was working on the trail and saw some cyclists start out up the trail. They only made it a kilometre before they had to turn back. The group is working on improving drainage. By fall, Sawatzky would like to have at least the first six kilometres passable by all users, not just OHV riders.
“We’re probably five to 10 years away from having a passable trail,” he says. “You have to engineer everything.” The work continues year round, with winter a good time to mulch trees and open up new trails. In the summer, the group deals with problem spots which include water drainage and fallen trees.
The next big push will be the next 18 km to Narrows Creek, which flows into the middle of Lesser Slave Lake. The creek runs through Kapawe’no First Nation, but the group hopes to build the trail around the reserve.
‘Freighter Lakeshore Trail’
Trans Canada Trail (Freighter Lakeshore Trail) is 23 km from Devonshire Beach to Marten River Campground. Along with the start and end point, there is access at North Shore Day Use Area and the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation.
In the Marten Beach 2019 flood, a bridge on Lily Creek washed out. This divided the section between the Boreal Centre and the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory.
It is unclear when the bridge will be fixed.
The bridge doesn’t belong to the park, says Hervieux. It belongs to Alberta Transportation.
Unfortunately, Alberta Transportation doesn’t claim ownership of the bridge.
Between Athabasca County and Smith, the Great Trail is called the Peace River Trail, says Lyne Jewell, Athabasca Recreational Trail Association president. It is owned by the M.D. of Lesser Slave River, but managed by the association. It was a regular road from the early 1900s. This association was incorporated as a charity in 2010, but individuals had been working on the trail much longer.
“We haven’t worked on the trail this year,” says Jewell. “It’s too wet to work with. We can’t keep ahead of the water and even the snow conditions,” with the groundwater so high there is water at the top of hills.
A few years ago, the Peace River Trail was in better condition. The Canadian Western Wagon Train drove horse-drawn wagons from Athabasca to Smith one year and the reverse another. It took them four days to cross the 65 km trail.
Trail building is expensive and labour intensive.
Sawatzky says the group’s biggest need is for “volunteers with road building knowledge that can deal with water issues and how to divert it properly.” Woods and Waters would “like to do the work once, and eliminate the problem, and have a well built trail.”
Although Woods and Waters has 15 or 20 people on their volunteer list, usually only three or four show up.
Athabasca Recreation is “badly in need of young blood,” says Jewell. The average age of volunteers for this group is 75 years old.
People interested in joining Woods and Waters can call Joe at 780-849-4380. To join, Athabasca Recreation call Lyne at 780-675-2512.