Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Iron Horse Recon

After scheming for months about cycling the Iron Horse Trail, I finally made it out there on the weekend for a little lookie-loo at part of the southeast leg of the trail. In fact, we made it a family overnight: me, my wife, and our two boys, ages 13 and 11. The plan was to pack up the bikes and Bob trailer, drive to St. Paul (two-hour drive northeast of Edmonton), park our car at the staging area there, cycle 32 km to Elk Point, where we’d camp and then ride back the next day. Things didn’t quite go as planned, but the trip was a fine adventure nevertheless. We ended up getting a pretty good sense of the Iron Horse, and gathered some valuable intel for future, longer forays along the trail.

Gil, excited about the sandy trail.
The most important thing I learned was that the trail is slow-going, and I mean SLOW. I knew the Iron Horse was gravel, but that’s a pretty broad category. Gravel can be hard-packed and fast or quicksandy and a slog or anywhere in between. We quickly discovered that most of the gravel east of St. Paul is soft and loose and a real chore to pedal through. Some stretches were fine, a thin layer of loose gravel over a hard surface, but long segments were not. (I should mention that I rode a touring bike with 38 mm tires, and the rest of my gang were on mountain bikes.) In addition, we encountered lots of raised cattle gates along the trail, and this also slowed us down. (The kids rolled over them on their mountain bikes, but I had to walk my bike and trailer over them each time.)

Riding together as a family, it took us three hours to go 18 km the first day. We ended up shortening our trip that day, partly because of the arduous conditions, but also because of a mechanical problem with our Bob trailer. Plan B involved me zipping back to fetch the car, busted trailer, and family but that worked out okay in the end.

View of one of several ponds along the trail east of St. Paul.

My general impression was that the trail was not really designed for, nor is it maintained with, cyclists in mind. On our two days of riding the trail, we saw half a dozen ATVs, two dirt bikes, and one pedestrian. No bikes. I suspect this is fairly representative of how the trail is used. That’s not to say it can’t be done a bikes. Just don’t expect bike-friendly conditions. When I go back, I think I will bring my fat bike.

These raised cattle gates offer a technical challenge. 

Another big takeaway from our trip is that the town of Elk Point has crappy camping options, and I mean CRAPPY. There is a municipal campground a stone’s throw from the trail, but it was a grim place the day we visited—garbage strewn, over-grown, utterly uncared for. I was glad we weren’t on our bikes after all, for it would have depressed me to have stayed there even one night. Instead, with our car, we were able to seek out other campgrounds. The next closest, River Park, about 5 km off the trail, was even worse. The views of the river valley were lovely, but the sites were filthy, and I wondered, what’s wrong with people around here?

Walking around Elk Point didn’t much improve my opinion of the town. The place gave off a backwards vibe and the people struck me as unwelcoming, wary, in that small town way. Is Elk Point our own little Appalachia of the north? I have a few friends who grew up here, and I understand now why they left. In any event, I’d recommend cyclists avoid staying over in Elk Point. (We ended up driving 15 km north to Kehewin Park, which is a lovely campground but too far off the trail for most Iron Horse cyclists to consider.)The town Co-Op has all the supplies you’ll need. Get them and get back on the trail as quickly as possible, is my advice.

The final piece of intel I can share is that the hamlet of Heinsburg, at the far eastern end of the southeast leg, is a gem of a spot. On our second day, we drove there, explored the staging grounds, and went for a short ride west of the trailhead, along the North Saskatchewan. This section of the trail was, generally, much better for cycling—hard-packed dirt, mostly. But this was cow country, and in some sections the beasts had trampled through mud which had since hardened into extremely bumpy terrain.   I imagine a little rain could make this gravel-less part of the trail a real mess.

View of the North Sask River, near Heinsburg.

Cows rule around here.

But the staging grounds at Heinsburg were the highlight. The trailhead features a large park with a simple camping area beside an old water tower and train engine. The train has been vandalized, windows shot out, but my boys had a blast playing inside it. The little village is a charming semi-ghost-town where about half of the buildings are shuttered, abandoned structures from decades ago, when the train made Heinsburg a happening spot. But almost everything in Heinsburg, including the dilapidated buildings, feels somehow preserved, cared for—curated, is the word that comes to mind. They may not have much money to restore things in Heinsburg, but they do seem to care about the place, and that counts for a lot.

A local fellow stopped to chat with us. He was friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic about (not puzzled by) the sight of our bikes, and clearly a little proud of the clean, well-tended, modest staging grounds. This was precisely the kind of small town spirit missing from Elk Point. Even the millions of gophers were somehow charming.

If you go on the Iron Horse—with your fat bike, remember—be sure to allow for some time poking around Heinsburg.

1 comment:

  1. i can't wait to visit Heinsberg, Jasper! Thanks for the tip. Also, when cycling with kids of different ages, I suggest that riders carry a whistle so that if the group splits up, you can always flag each other down.

    If any other readers have tips about trail cycling with kids, I'd love to hear them.


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