For as long as I’ve lived in Alberta, which is my entire life, I’ve heard people in the Red Deer area refer to themselves as being in “Central” Alberta. At the same time, people who live west of Edmonton along the Yellowhead Highway are often referred to as being in West Central Alberta even though they are clearly north of Red Deer and roughly along the same latitude as Edmonton, which fancies itself as part of Northern Alberta. In today’s blog I’m going to explain why they are all wrong and why that is so. I’ll also describe a short hike of around 3 km that provides bragging rights for those who have visited the centre of everything that is Alberta while also being in the middle of nowhere. Confused? Well read on and it will all make sense.
Many years ago my family and I stumbled upon a place called the Centre of Alberta. It was a short hike from the highway but we gave up on it before we even started. At that time the trailhead was extremely muddy and the mosquitoes were in full attack mode. The whole family was there and had planned to do this short hike regardless of the muddy conditions. The consensus at that time was to run back to the vehicle because we were under attack by a cloud of insects. “We will be back” I said as we chased the last of the mosquitoes out of the car where we huddled in safety. We’ll come back in either in the spring before all the flying insects take over or in the fall when the cooler and drier conditions make for fewer bugs.
That was at least ten years ago so it was time to make good on my pledge to return. This time it would only be hiked by my wife and me. I thought that the conditions would be favourable because Alberta and BC were just recovering from a record breaking heat wave. For most of last week the daily high temperatures were in the high 30° C range and in some places the high temperatures were flirting with 40. This unprecedented weather was difficult for people who are used to the province’s normally moderate summer weather but it’s deadly for mosquitoes that thrive in cool wet conditions. This past week’s weather was not only hot but also dry so that should take care of the mud and bug situations that we encountered on our last attempt to do this short hike. So we packed up our little trailer and pointed it north for the start of our journey. This time we cannot, and must not, fail.
There is a huge parking lot along highway 33 where the trail begins. A large sign tells you that this is the right place. To the left of this sign is a wide trail started by quads or other off road vehicles. The sign however points to the right so that is where we went. It directed us to a slightly overgrown trail for hikers and that is where we set off. The trail soon became wider and the going was easy allowing us to make good time, at least until around the half way mark. That’s when we encountered the dreaded muskeg. Muskeg is common in the boreal forest. It’s a type of peat bog with mud that will easily swallow your boot and make it nearly impossible to extract it. It’s basically sphagnum moss that covers black water that smells like rotting vegetation. Walking through this stuff requires tall waterproof boots and a marked level of determination. We didn’t see any quads but even they would struggle to maneuver through this terrain as it constantly changes from water, to mud with extensive roots and other impediments to travel. After making one wrong step my hiking boots were covered in a black slop and my one clean pair of jeans were now also now as black as the mud that covered them. Clearly my assumption that the record breaking hot temperatures would cause all mud issues to dry up was wrong. As long as the boreal forest stands there will be muskeg, regardless of the weather.
We tried our best to walk around the worst of the muskeg and occasionally found ourselves back on the trail. Fortunately the trail had some signs that described which way to go although we also had a GPS so getting lost was not a concern. The photo to the right shows you that the trail is maintained but with a very limited budget so the signs, at least the few that were still standing, were quite faded. Don’t let that discourage you as we experienced very little difficulty in finding the destination but there are intersecting trails from off-road vehicles that can cause confusion at times.
The going remained slow until we had passed the worst of the muskeg. We even eventually passed some old pit toilets but they were in pretty rough condition. One had nearly fallen over and the other one had no door, or rather the door was lying on the ground as you can see on the image below. Tip; do not expect functional outhouses on this trail. At least these disfunctional toilets meant that we were heading in the right direction and were near our destination.
The Centre of Alberta
We eventually did reach our goal and what should we find there but a grizzly bear. Not a live bear but a statue of a grizzly bear. There were also some picnic tables but they were in as rough contition as the toilets.
Each side of the statue, except the front where the plaque is, has a bear claw. You can see from the image of my hand that the claw is quite large, although not as big as a real grizzly bear claw could be. The statue was inspired by the Great Plains Grizzly that roam these forests. They are a huge bear that are even larger than your typical mountain grizzly. You can read more about them at the quote below the image.
This trail was meant to be something special when it was built but unfortunately it hasn’t been maintained very well with the exception of cutting and removal of trees that fall across it. However the signs, toilets and tables were in pretty rough condition. They are not critical to the adventure and don’t take away from the bragging rights of completing this journey to the Centre of Alberta.
If you are a geocacher you will find a virtual cache here (is that an oxymoron since you don’t actually find a virtual cache?) There are other caches to hunt for nearby as well. The trail to the Centre of Alberta is part of the much larger Grizzly Trail system. I didn’t look to see where else these trails go as I assume that only people with motorcycles or off road vehicles would choose to go on.
A Swan Hills Grizzly paw print is inset on the back of the cairn. The Swan Hills Grizzly is a sub-species of the grizzly bear also known as the Great Plains Grizzly. This grizzly is second only in size to the Kodiak Grizzly. To ensure that the center is not forgotten and remembered only by the forest, a time capsule was placed in the cairn. This twenty five year capsule is due to be opened in 2018. On September 10, 1989 the Centre of Alberta was officially recognized when one hundred (100) people made the hike to the geographical center.Centre of Alberta (townofswanhills.com)
There is an old saying in the geocaching world which goes something like this, “there’s always a good trail leading away from the cache”. It means that despite the difficulty of finding a place, there is always a good trail to lead you back to the start. This trip was no exception. We spotted this sign and it led the way to the start of the trail without passing through the muskeg. The person who put the sign here must have a “dry” sense of humour. “G.T.” refers to the Grizzly Trail and “Dry” means that if you don’t want to go through the muskeg or search for ways to go around the worst of the muskeg, just follow this way. I think it would be a brilliant idea to have a sign like this at the start of the muskeg so that those heading to the Centre of Alberta can avoid that nastiness. Maybe there was a sign but like so many others it had fallen down or been vandalized. We did see a number of signs lying on the ground. The point here is that this trail can be hiked without walking through the muskeg or bushwacking around it.
Other Things to Watch For
We didn’t see much wildlife on the trail but I’m reasonably certain that we spotted an Ent. Normally Ents are only seen in Fangorn forest as found in J. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. They are ancient shepherds of the forest and look like very old trees. Ents can walk and talk but do so very slowly. I think that you’ll agree that if there are Ents in Alberta’s boreal forest, they can be found at the Centre of Alberta. Below could be the first official photograph of an Alberta Ent.
So there you have it. Most Albertans live to the south of the Centre of Alberta except those who live in Grande Prairie, or the Peace River area, and Fort McMurry. That makes most of Albertans southerners. So the next time you hear Red Deer referred to as Central Alberta you will know better than that. The Centre of Alberta is about 190 km north of Edmonton.
Some Related Trivia
The Centre of Alberta is in the Municipal District of Woodlands Number 15, and accessed along highway 33. That highway has some interesting history.
“Highway 33 follows the original Klondike Trail, which was advertised by Edmonton merchants as the shortest route to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, from the Athabasca River at Pruden’s Crossing, near Fort Assiniboine, through present-day Swan Hills and along the Swan River north to present-day Kinuso. The trail followed a very difficult and dangerous route and by 1901-02 use of the trail declined, soon after it was abandoned altogether in favour of other routes to the Peace River area.”Wikipeadi (see citations below)
Thome, Michael (July 19, 2012). “Klondike Trail”. RETROactive. Government of Alberta. Retrieved May 20, 2018.
Town of Swan Hills guide to the Centre of Alberta (townofswanhills.com)