Edmonton, AB - Tuesday, July 1, 2014
The nausea comes first. Seeping up from my stomach. Maybe I’ll vomit. The numbness comes next. Coursing along through my veins. Maybe I’ll faint.
I know what’s happening. It’s the first morning of my 2014 cycling trip and my brain is doing inventory of available physical resources. And it’s not finding very many. Not enough for the task at hand. They’ve all been exhausted over the past two months.
Too many late nights and early mornings. Going to bed at 1:00 am and then getting up again five hours later. Trying to plot my 2,750-km route from Edmonton to Winnipeg. I’m committed to traveling on the Trans Canada Trail, but first I have to find it. And since it’s usually unmarked on the ground, I need to build accurate GPS tracks in advance.
The GPS coordinates for the so-called “operational” sections can be downloaded from the Trans Canada Trail website. That’s easy. These coordinates aren’t reliable – they include non-existent, impassable and inaccessible trail – but that’s a problem for another day. I’ll cross that bridge – or not – when I come to it.
The biggest challenge is the “planned” routes – the proposed sections of as-yet-unbuilt Trans Canada Trail. It’s like chasing a mirage, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan where more than half the land-based trail is still incomplete. Last summer, when I explained to an experienced Alberta trail-builder that I was trying to follow the “planned” route, he responded sardonically: “Good luck with that. The plans change every hour.”
Nevertheless, using satellite views, I’ve managed to determine which planned routes seem passable; and then I’ve meticulously plotted them on an electronic map, placing a GPS point every 100 metres or so.
Anyway, now that I’ve eaten breakfast and taken a stroll in the backyard, my spirits have improved. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I hang my panniers on the bike and fasten my rack pack. I turn on my Garmin GPS device and choose my track. I turn on my Sony voice recorder and make a few notes. I’m ready to roll.
From my Edmonton home, I coast down into the North Saskatchewan River valley, past the Muttart Conservatory, and over the Cloverdale footbridge, to the Trans Canada Trail Pavilion in Louise McKinney Park. My friend Frank McMahon and my sons Edmund Jr and Richard are already there, setting up the sound equipment, handing out brochures, telling passers-by about my trip.
Most media outlets are busy covering other Canada Day activities, but David Paredes, a genial photo-journalist from Le Franco is already set up and taking pictures. “I tried to contact the tourism minister, Richard Starke,” David tells me, “but he was busy. His department says your figures are wrong, that the Trans Canada Trail is more than half completed in Alberta. It’s at 59 per cent.”
“The difference,” I explain, “is that the provincial government statistics are now including waterways. The rivers are already there, so that makes the government look good. My estimates are only for the land-based trail, but still hard to calculate reliable figures. The planned routes keep changing, so we’re chasing a moving target.”
I’m tempted to quote my father: “Figures never lie, but liars figure.” But I can’t think of an equivalent French expression.
Trans Canada Trail Pavilion, Louise McKinney Park. Photo by Edmund S. Aunger.
By 10:00 am about 35 people – mainly friends and family – have gathered, and I thank them for coming “to celebrate and lament the Trans Canada Trail – to celebrate a beautiful dream and to lament an ugly reality.”
“The beautiful dream,” I explain, ‘is a multi-use greenway, stretching across Canada, joining communities, stimulating growth, promoting tourism, respecting the environment, encouraging fitness, and creating a safe place for ordinary Canadians to walk and to cycle.”
“The ugly reality is that, in Alberta and Saskatchewan, large parts of the trail are incomplete, unusable or dangerous.”
I recount Elizabeth’s frustration with Alberta’s Trans Canada Trail – and particularly the 177-km Iron Horse section – and her decision to work for its completion and its accessibility. “But Elizabeth’s not here, we are. Let’s take up her cause. Let’s work for a safe place to walk and to cycle.” I encourage everyone to sign my online petition, calling on the provincial government to complete Alberta’s Trans Canada Trail by 2017.
Several days earlier, my son Richard and I did a dry run for today’s trip to Fort Saskatchewan, and so I tell people what to expect: “For the first 14 km, all the way to the Strathcona Science Park – and Edmonton’s city limits – the trail follows the river valley; it’s paved and it’s scenic and it’s safe. After that, we’re on roads and highways much of the way to Fort Saskatchewan. So I’m not encouraging anyone to go beyond the river valley trail.”
About a dozen cyclists, and one jogger, make the trip to the Strathcona Science Park, and then several turn around and head back. The rest continue with me on busy roads – including Petroleum Way – into Sherwood Park, where we pick up an eastward-heading asphalt path, before heading north to Greenland Nurseries – Elizabeth’s favourite – and then north again on two-lane country roads with no shoulders. As we near Fort Saskatchewan, we take Hwy 21, a four-lane divided highway with a 100 km/hr speed limit, and then we head westward into the city on a beautiful asphalt walking and cycling path.
The previous week, Richard and I had found, without surprise, that our GPS coordinates, down-loaded from the Trans Canada Trail website, were wildly inaccurate. On three occasions, we had been dead-ended by barricaded or impassible trail, and forced to backtrack. Today’s trip goes smoothly and much more quickly – it’s almost two hours faster.
At our Bed and Breakfast accommodation in Fort Saskatchewan, I discover that the host, Dave Truscott, has already read my Edmonton Journal article on the sad fate of the Trans Canada Trail in Alberta. A long-time trail supporter, he’s eager to learn about the route I’ve just taken, and to warn me about the difficulties that lie ahead.
But for now, I’m hopeful and optimistic. My brain has done a new inventory and located unexpected reserves. I’m buoyed by the love and support of my family and friends.