The Story of Wanisan Shelter

When it was determined that a shelter in the Wanisan Lake area would be desirable, it was naturally Stan Skirrow who scouted around and selected the location.

The location he chose was ideal for several reasons: It was not too distant from a road, it had a fairly open aspect and a great view, and it was favoured by wildlife. Wildlife naturally gravitate to location like these and use them as rest areas, because for one thing, these areas are relatively free of insects.

The location is on Crown land and so a lease agreement with the Alberta Government was duly worked out and signed.

Materials arrive with some help

A major stipulation of the lease was that we had to erect two outdoor toilets—one for each gender. We were unable to convince the government that one unisex toilet would do nicely. The law required two toilets, period. This was notwithstanding the fact that participants of any group, whether hiking or skiing, would simply drop back briefly and avail themselves of the cover of bushes to answer the call of nature along their way.

Fortunately, arrangements were made with a school group who made a project of building two lightweight sectional toilets for us. The group also delivered and erected them.

Logs for the shelter were also obtained as a project. The Canadian Army secured them in the Alberta foothills and delivered to them to the lakeshore.

But we still needed to float the logs across the lake to the site. This was my first involvement with the Wanisan project. A work party led by Stan Skirrow, as I recall, and comprising high school students with a boat, was formed to tow the logs across to the shelter site. The floating logs were contained by a boom and several of the boys set off with the boat to tow the logs across.

They immediately developed engine trouble and spent much time trying to get the motor going. They finally gave up and proceeded to row the boat, towing the logs across.

Once across, they were met by the rest of the gang who immediately hauled the logs ashore and stacked them. I cannot remember the names of any of the others who were present that day.

Autumn work

Summer turned to autumn, and on a Friday evening after work, a work party assembled to pour the footings for the proposed shelter. I am guessing, but the half-dozen of us present would likely have included Stan Skirrow, of course, and probably Stan Peters, Jim Drouin, and Vince DeJong. I regret having no photos or listing of names of those present.

The plan was to take all the materials across the lake by canoe. Into the canoe went the bags of ready-mix cement, the shovels and lumber, miscellaneous tools, and the wheelbarrow in which to mix the cement.

Stan Peters and I paddled, and when we got to the building site, the others, who had left and hiked along the lake while we were loading the canoe, already had the locations laid for the footings. The forms were made quickly and the cement was transported from the shore to the site.

At this time of year the algae was very thick and heavy so we had to paddle out past the algae to get clear water to mix with the cement. Several trips with five gallon pails did the trick and soon the footings were poured in place.

When the work was done, we sat by the fire and enjoyed our lunch contemplating the beautiful evening for some time after the sun set. As the fire died down we packed the remaining materials into the canoe and Stan and I set off across the lake while the others walked back. We left the wheelbarrow inverted in the canoe, with the handles sticking out forward and the wheel up. Then paddling away, it dawned on us that this being autumn, it was hunting season. We grew antsy about the possibility of some hunter walking along the lake and seeing our profile in the water, mistaking it for a moose and taking a shot at us. We paddled harder and talked loudly until we got to the other side.

Winter hauling

That winter the dimensional lumber was purchased and deposited at an access point at the south west corner of the frozen lake. We would have to truck it across. The cabin unit on the truck was filled to the top with the lumber.

Then on a Saturday morning, a work party assembled at the edge of the lake. Present were Stan Skirrow, Jim Drouin, Gene Miskiw, Len Black and his son Rob, who owned the truck, and a friend of Rob.

There was a brisk wind that day and snow was drifting constantly. We first had to shovel a long route through the snowdrifts to get the truck onto the lake. Once there, the truck was able to make way across the lake quite well and we all rode along, some of us on the tailgate.

At the building site, we were unable to drive very close to the shore due to the heavy snow and there again we had to shovel a narrow path to enable us to carry the lumber to the site and stack it on some logs. The snow in some spots was hip deep and the increasing drifting was creating little cornices which would break off with our passing as the wind continued to pick up.

After the truck was unloaded we discovered that we were unable to make way again without the traction that was provided by the weight of the lumber. The hardpack on the ice was not hard enough to support the truck. It offered too much resistance for the amount of traction available on the ice beneath. Our old tracks were filled in with hardpack that also offered too much resistance on the already polished ice beneath. With some experimentation we found that the only way to move forward was to scuff the snow out of the incoming tracks with our feet for a distance, then get on the tailgate for ballast and take a run with the truck as far as it would go. Then we would repeat the operation over and over. Eventually we made it all the way back across the lake over a mile away where, once again, we had to do some shoveling to get the truck off the lake.

This whole operation took us a number of hours of hard work. Eventually we arrived at Len Black’s place, tired and hungry. Pat Black, who was getting very concerned as we were so long overdue, was waiting for us with a large pot of chili.

Construction

In the following summer, 1976, serious construction of the shelter was undertaken. Unfortunately, I have no photos or names of the participants other than a few which show Stan Skirrow, Stan Peters and Vince DeJong at the site. Some weekends my family and I camped there and did some work, sometimes with a family friend, Gilbert Hemmes. The location has always been one of my favorite places on the trail.

Whenever I worked at the site we would always take across by canoe anything required for the other side. Sometimes it was tools and whatever shorter lumber we could fit into the canoe, with plywood across the gunwales and then sixteen- foot lumber diagonally on top of that with our camping gear and a garbage can or two.

On one occasion Stan Peters and I had an incredible load which included six inches of plywood across the gunwales. We had some cement blocks in the hold for the shelter foundation, which significantly added to the weight. We tried to estimate the weight of the load including our own weight and were fairly certain that it approached 1000 pounds. We had only three inches of freeboard left and were happy to have calm water for the trip across.

Animal invasion

Once the shelter was built, we had, for a time, a problem with horses taking refuge in the shelter and creating a mess. So we had to bar the entrance against them.

Another winter hauling adventure

One year, we were hauling boardwalk lumber by snowmobile to a location beyond the shelter. A friend and I picked up the lumber and delivered it to the edge of the lake, and we went back to Sherwood Park to pick up the snowmobiles and sled so we could haul the lumber to its destination.

When we started hauling the lumber across the lake we found that progress was very difficult. Because it was such a lovely warm March day, the deep snow was wet and sticky. We had so much difficulty trying to get off the lake that we decided to give up. We were exercising the Law of Diminishing Returns. We knew it would be much easier when the snow was dry, so there was no point in trying to do it the hard way.

The loaded sled was already partially buried in the deep snow. All we had to do was throw on some more snow to camouflage it and we left it behind for the day. Early the next day, we came back while the snow was still frozen and dry. We broke the sled free, and away we went. That day we made several trips—with ease—until we completed the job. We finished the day at the shelter, having our lunch in beautiful sunshine.

Epilogue

For over forty years, Wanisan Shelter has been a treasured place on the Waskahegan Trail. Each year, since 2017, we’ve held of a Saturday evening hike and barbecue in the late spring. With a 5 o’clock start time, there are plenty of hours and many opportunities to see beavers and muskrats active on the ponds between the shelter and the Blackfoot Recreation Area. After the walk, we gather around the campfire to roast our dinners and tell stories about the trail.

You can see more of Gene’s photos on the Wanisan Shelter album on Flickr.

The Amazing and True Story of Building the Bridge Over the Battle River

With snowmobiles in the winter…rafts in the summer…limited power equipment…and lots of heavy lifting—they achieved the impossible

In September 2017 we said goodbye to one of our crowning achievements—the bridge over the Battle River, also known as Low’s Crossing. After many years of service, the bridge was about to fall into the river. With a lot of planning and labour from our Trail Maintenance team, plus generous support from the landowner and his equipment, the bridge was taken down and moved over two Mondays. We told you the story here.

But how—and why—did the bridge get built in the first place?

If you were at the AGM in 2017, you would have seen the excellent presentation on how the bridge was built. It was presented by Gene Miskiw, the man who was involved at every stage and took all the photos.

Now Gene has written the complete story of building the bridge, and you can read it here.

This is a story about

  • Reuse and recycle: Where did all the bridge materials come from?
  • Safety with ingenuity: How Gene managed to transport the thirty-foot rods with just his van—and attract the notice of the highway police.
  • Wrestling with nature: From mosquitoes and bloodsuckers, to dangerous slopes, high water, and the freak snowstorm that obliterated their tracks and threatened to leave them stranded.
  • The wonder of nature: The moving story of a herd of deer.
  • Fun and adventure: How they had talk Stan into putting on a life jacket before getting on the raft.

Could a bridge like this be built today? Read Gene’s story and decide for yourself.

History of the Waskahegan Trail: Fred Dorward and the Founding of the Trail

Fred Dorward grew up in Viking Alberta, his wife Chris near Alcomdale, west of Morinville. Because of their professions of engineering and nursing, they were urbanites, however their heart was in the country. This they instilled in their children.

Fred’s hobbies included finding rocks and making jewelry, berry and mushroom picking, bird hunting and fishing.  All could be plied within an hour’s drive of Edmonton. Travels went in all directions, east toward Viking, west toward the Rockies, south to Drumheller and north to Thunder and Fawcett lakes.

A connector of all these pursuits were maps. Fred loved maps. He had virtually all the topographical maps that were available at the time surrounding Edmonton. Marked on those maps were favorite gravel pits, creeks with petrified wood, creeks and lakes, berry patches, duck hunting spots and favored boat launch locations.

And yes, the hikes.

As young as 6 I was out with dad constantly from May to October. By age 12 my brother Ross and I were pretty proficient in planning a trip and packing the right maps (and the station wagon) for the day or weekend. We understood how the topo lines on the maps worked and whether a hill was going to be too steep to climb before we got there. We understood where to turn off the highway and how to plan to get around a lake or over a bridge.

We hiked before hiking was cool. We did it with Converse running shoes and minimal equipment, at times down dusty roads. At first opportunity we got off the road and into nature that we loved.

I was born in Toronto, Ontario my older sister in Peterborough. Mom and Dad were westerners, but GE Canada’s lighting division had moved young engineer Dad and Mom to Ontario for 4 years of training after university.  There dad met folks who became involved in 1960 with a new trail in Ontario called the Bruce Trail.

Around 1965 Fred joined the Bruce Trail Association. He ordered all the maps and information. https://brucetrail.org/pages/about-us/history-of-the-trail

We were back in Edmonton when it all came together. Dad’s understanding of rural Alberta, his love of maps, his knowledge of nature, his acumen to structure an organization and seek support, his dislike of walking down gravel roads, and inspiration from the early days of the Bruce Trail gelled together when, in the fall of 1966, the federal government had a series of ads on TV encouraging Canadians to create something or do something to commemorate Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967. The trail was an idea! Where would it go?

An idea takes hold

I recall vividly the topo maps in our living room in Avonmore that first winter. (I recall my mom asking when the maps would finally be cleaned up.) We discussed going to the west. The land was higher, less marsh, fewer lakes—but there was not a natural flow to the land in terms of a circle routing.

Conversely, the land to the east had more natural paths, Whitemud/Blackmud Creeks, Coal and Saunders Lakes, Battle River, with Camrose as a stopover, Miquelon Provincial Park, the provincial area now known as Blackfoot, Elk Island Park, Ross Creek, Ft. Saskatchewan, Gibbons, Sturgeon to St. Albert and home. It seemed all so natural.

Fred was smart enough to know that help was required to do the massive amount of work to set up memorandums of agreement, contact land owners, deal with government, build a club following and get going. He approached a club that he was in, the Oil Capital Kiwanis Club to help. They agreed very quickly to support the project.

(Dad was a Kiwanis member since about 1960. In the early ‘60s one of the major fundraising efforts of the club was the selling of apples in the fall. Hundreds of members of the club, our family included, would dress up as clowns and stand at red lights in busy intersections and sell apples out of baskets to the stopped cars. We would be at the doors of malls and we would rove downtown and Whyte Avenue. It was a lot of fun.)

The discussion of Ross and I hiking the trail was brought up by Dad in the winter of ‘67/’68. I had just turned 16, Ross was 14. We had no doubt that we could do it, and we pretty much just started planning and getting on with it. For us it was just an extension of what we had been doing for years. Just for a longer time.

Dad dropped us off in Whitemud Park at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 18, 1968. We hiked 290 km over the next 14 days. Dad came and met us three times over that time, otherwise we were on our own.

The hike was grueling. We were always short of good water, although homes and farms along the path were most generous. We drank from a well that we found later had been contaminated, we were chased by a bull that had very large horns, and we endured some serious bog and slough conditions at times. But we had for the most part good weather and we absolutely loved the trip. The Mayor of Camrose met us and we had a whole lot of folks from St. Albert greet us. We were allowed to camp overnight in Lions Park in St. Albert although that night sparks from the fire burned our sleeping bags (no burns to us). We were honored to have Lt. Governor Grant MacEwan meet us in Emily Murphy Park when we returned. When we got home we really enjoyed seeing an unlimited amount of water come out of the taps!

The word spreads

As a result of that hike, Ross and I were able to speak to many service clubs and scout groups over the next couple of years. We were more scared of doing that than hiking the trail! But that brought in interested individuals and volunteers and helped to expand the number who were learning about the trail.

Fred continued to meet with landowners and develop the team that would continue the work of the Waskahegan Hiking Trail Association until he retired to Whitehorse in 1980. There Fred continued his outdoor pursuits with tourist tours, prospecting for precious stones, working on local trails, saskatoon picking, and northern gardening as well as sponsoring the filming and recording of historic sites in the Yukon.

The Waskahegan torch was passed to Stan Skirrow and many others who continued the work to this day.

(Read more about the 50th Anniversary of the David and Ross’s hike.)