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Published in VueWeekly June 2009. http://vueweekly.com/outdoors/story/taming_big_red/
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Alberta’sIron Horse Trail is a sideways “Y” section of the greater Trans Canada Trail,linking ten municipalities as far East as Cold lake, and as close to Edmontonas Waskatenau. It’s comprised from257km of the old Boniville-Coronado rail line, which makes it a low difficulty,high quality, multipurpose trail, perfect for a quick recreational getaway fromthe city. Today, the stewards ofthe trail, the Riverland Recreational Trail Society, have organized an 87 kmrun from Heinsburg – the southeastern most point – to St. Paul. Me and eighteen others will enjoy theopen trail, the history, and the dust of yet another hidden gem in EasternAlberta.
Themorning begins how so many mornings used to begin growing up: with a ride on anold yellow school bus. Leaving thestaging area at St. Paul, I can’t help but feel like a big kid about to spendthe day playing with a big kid toy. A 550 cc big red Yamaha ATV. Big Red is an automatic which means the only thing I need to worry aboutis how far to burry my thumb nail into the accelerator pad. Seeing Big Red reminded me of quadingas a child, something I always loved doing; however, after a series ofunfortunate accidents, usually involving some form of fencing – wooden, picket,barbed wire – I stopped quading and became somewhat terrified every timemachines were around. That fearwould not do today. Today I wouldget redemption.
Uponsetting out from Heinsburg, I’m immediately reminded of the two things thatmake Alberta great: the people and the places. A local journalist from Smokey Lake named Nathan, offers toshow me the ropes and be my personal trail guide.
“Let’sget going before everyone gets in front of us.” He beams. Excited, I hunker down, turn the keyand press go, but nothing happens. Nathan shows me how to put it in gear, and then we’re off. We begin taking it slow, and that’sfine by me as there’s lots to see and enjoy. The North Saskatchewan meandersthrough a sea of prairie and lazy ocean of rolling hills. Late morning light turns the freshlybudding landscape into a radiant green; clouds pass through the old blue skylike grazing bison; humming crickets provide melody for the birds to sing leadvocals. It’s the Alberta youalways see on brochure, but never seem to find on the QE II or YellowHead.
Gettinga bit further down, the pack begins to thin, and Nathan and I are given a bitmore room to play. As boys do, webegin to jostle just a tiny bit. Slowly, my odometer begins to creep up along with my sense of friendlycompetition. Moreover, I fullyrealize where the expression “eat my dust” comes from. A thick film begins to cloud mysunglasses. My teeth cake withgrit. I wear more trail than Iride. And through it all, my gringrows more Cheshire and maniacal.
Fortunately,being an old section of rail line, there is a converted picnicking and campingspot every seven miles. Theselittle havens used to be water-refilling stations for the steam engines haulingmaterials into Edmonton. I can’timagine having to stop every seven miles, especially while riding something asfreeing as Big Red. It makes metruly appreciate the transportation conveniences we have today, and it alsomakes me feel slightly wasteful. Like when I take my car across the high level to work so I can leave tenminutes later. Quading along theold rail line for recreational purposes, however, instills a sense of thrill,as though I’m lucky to be alive and be living in an age where I can enjoy thatlife to the fullest. It’s a way ofsaying I’m glad I didn’t have to pioneer the west; but since I didn’t I mightas well enjoy the hell out of the work our forefathers put in.
Withthat in mind I decide it’s time to see what Big Red is capable of. Purposefully, I begin to slow up andopen a wide gap between myself and anyone in front. The section I’ve picked is straight and flat so nothingshould go too wrong. Finally I getanxious and annoyed with waiting. I don’t start slow. Mythumb jams into the accelerator as my exhaust spits like a machine gun. Rocks spray from my tires and I’moff. Third gear comes quick andthe flora lining the trail begins to blur. As I hit sixty Big Red starts to handle like a stick ofbutter on the hard gravel surface. Seventy ticks over as I get to fifth gear. An insect that didn’t see me coming meets its end as itmeets my face. I reel a little bitat the impact but keep pushing with new determination. Seventy-nine and feeling fine, but I’mrunning out of trail, just as I’ve run out of gears.
“Ihope this thing has good breaks.” I say to the passing wind. Like a dam that finally bursts underthe pressure, I hit eighty and scream with mixed delight and terror. I can see Nathan in front of me, so Irelease the accelerator and begin to slow my pace.
As I get older it gets rarer todiscover a new feeling and sensation. Forty kilometers east of Edmonton, however, lies the Iron Horse Trail, agateway to incredible beauty and tremendous fun. See you on the trail, just look for a guy soaked with dust,riding Big Red, grinning like someone who doesn’t know people are starting tostare.

For more information on themultitude of recreational opportunities East of Edmonton, check out http://www.ironhorsetrail.ca/index.htmland http://www.kalynacountry.com/