Gwynne Trail Hike and a Tribute to Oscar Zawalsky

Fourteen people came out for a special guided hike on the Gwynne trail section, to recognize and honour our longtime member, volunteer, and friend, Oscar Zawalsky.

The plaque says “Oscar Zawalsky: Gwynne & the million $ views, 50 years as a hike leader & a lifetime of mentoring for the Waskahegan Trail Association!

Oscar joined the Waskahegan Trail Association in 1971 and has supported us in trail maintenance, as a hike leader, and as a volunteer at the annual Canadian Birkebeiner Festival, or “Birkie.”

Oscar related how initially he only wanted to do trail maintenance. However, Stan Skirrow would not allow it until he became a member. Pushing back was useless. Oscar eventually gave in and joined.

Stan gave Oscar his first assignment—a section on the Coal Lake trail, coincidentally exactly where we are hiking next week. The assignment made Oscar wonder whether Stan was getting back at him for putting up resistance. In those days, we were not yet using power equipment, and the Coal Lake section had not been maintained for a few years. That summer, Oscar spent five weekends in a row, every Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, single-handedly clearing the trail of the heaps of large fallen poplars—using just a bow saw!

At the age of 86, Oscar is still volunteering by sharpening our chain saws, doling out warm beverages to the skiers at the Birkie’s Last Chance Food Station, and mowing the trail at the Coyote Lake property of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Why did we choose this particular spot to mount the plaque?  Because Oscar always said it has the best view of anywhere on the Waskahegan Trail. From this spot, you can view the Gwynne Valley, the Battle River Valley, and the south end of Coal Lake, all at once.

The Battle River Valley
Boardwalk construction with John, Gary, Oscar, and Adrian

We took the opportunity to thank Oscar for being a mentor and an inspiration. For board members, he has been a valuable source of knowledge about the history of both the trail and the organization. For hikers and other volunteers, he inspires us to keep fit and active mentally, socially, and physically, by volunteering in activities we enjoy.

Thanks to Lee for leading the hike, to trail maintenance for clearing the trail, and to the landowners for their permission to keep the trail going and for letting us install the plaque. You can find more photos on Flickr.

Where we’re going next

Bev Stokowski Remembered

Beverly Ann Stokowski (August 6, 1940 – November 4, 2021) was an enthusiastic volunteer in the activities of the Waskahegan Trail Association. Besides leading hikes, every year she led our “Last Chance” Food Station at the Canadian National Birkebeiner and she organized our participation in Edmonton’s Capital City Cleanup.

On April 20, 2022, at the Celebration of Life in Edmonton, Evie Karvellas presented her tribute to Bev.

I knew Bev as a fellow hiker, with whom I shared great conversations along the trails and in the hostels and lodges where we stayed.

The first impression one got of Bev was that of a dainty, porcelain-doll like figure, impeccably put together, even for the roughest terrain. Yes, she was the best dressed hiker. But, beneath that, she was a very experienced and seasoned sportswoman with superb endurance and a great knowledge of the outdoors, knowledge she generously shared with those like me.  

Bev was so familiar with the Waskahegan Trail system that whenever a leader canceled on a short notice, she would pitch in to lead the hike and save the day. There wasn’t an inch of a trail she wasn’t familiar with.

Bev was also extremely organized. She carried a heavy backpack equipped with anything one might need during a hike. But her stuff was organized and stored in such a way that every item was at her fingertips. “You can’t find your band aids or bug repellent? Go to Bev!”

My most memorable hike was Mount Assiniboine. Bev organized the whole trip for the twelve of us. We flew into the lodge she booked and stayed four nights, in the neighborhood of a couple of grizzlies that were roaming around. The owner’s son led us on some very challenging climbs, like the Mount Nub peak, where we feasted on spectacular views and felt we could just touch the sky.

At the end of our stay we hiked out, all 27 kilometres, through freezing runoffs, peaks and valleys, woods and clearings, while constantly gauging our food and water supplies. That has been, indeed, the highlight of my hiking days, all thanks to Bev.  

Having said that, Bev’s hiking skills and interests came second to her extraordinary humanity and kindness, a fact few people are familiar with. Helping others was a rule she  lived by, and she did it in her own quiet fashion. She assumed responsibility for those who couldn’t care for themselves, some who lived on the coast, others in Calgary, or here in Edmonton. Here is an example:

Many years ago there was a fellow hiker who had been having serious ongoing health issues. Several surgeries had destroyed most of her muscles underneath one arm, so she was unable to carry her own backpack. But she loved coming to our hikes. Some of us took turns carrying her bag, and she was always grateful.

Some time later, the lady confided in me that not only did Bev bring her to our hikes, but she had pretty much adopted her. For months Bev had been driving her to doctor’s appointments, hospital scans, radiation and chemo treatments, even visiting her at home on a regular basis, to make sure nothing was missing. From what I understood, Bev had been her sole support system—and they had only met on our hikes!

When the doctors finally told the lady that the end was approaching, she skipped over her closest relative and appointed Bev as her executor to handle her affairs, including funeral arrangements.

This is the Bev I knew, the one I have been grateful to, and who now, without a doubt, is amongst the angels where she belongs.