By Graham Hicks

Maybe it’s an idea whose time has come.

 An annual five-day walk through the North Saskatchewan River valley, from the town of Devon southwest of Edmonton, through Edmonton, ending at the City of Fort Saskatchewan to the northeast.

In medieval days, Christians from across Europe walked across Spain to reach San Diego de Compostela where, according to myth and legend, the remains of the apostle St. James (San Diego) were interred.

Today, the 780-kilometre Camino Santiago is one of the most famous walking trails of Europe. About 300,000 walkers a year, each for their own reasons, walk all or parts of the camino.  

Metropolitan Edmonton has its own potential camino route. The River Valley Alliance (RVA) has been working since 2007 to create a continuous walking trail along the river. Members of the RVA are the seven municipalities with waterfront along the North Saskatchewan River.

It’s a distance of about 88 kilometres, as the crow flies.  But following the twists and turns of the river, it’s closer to 120 kilometres.

Sheila Thompson and I are past members of the RVA Community Engagement Committee. 

Last winter, we got to talking: An Edmonton Camino? Why not put aside five days in the summer to hike, as much as is now possible, the actual and proposed trails in our river valley rom Devon to Fort Saskatchewan.

Why not indeed?  What a great way to enjoy the summer sun, to actually experience the trail itself rather than endlessly pour over maps in a boardroom.

We could see for ourselves where trail gaps remain, gain a practical sense of the work still to be done, and enjoy a darned good multi-day hike through the gorgeous river valley’s urban wilderness.

Friday June 15 to Tuesday June 19, 2018  was blocked off on the summer calendar. We would walk, as much as possible alongside the river, following the River Valley Alliance proposed route.

Day 1: The Plan: From the University of Alberta Botanic Garden (north of Devon) to Prospectors’ Point, crossing the river to Devon’s magnificent river-front parks.

Day one highlights included our company of hikers.  RVA engagement committee member Wendy Lickacz did all five days of the trek. Valerie Turner, chair of the RVA Community Engagement Committee and a resident of Parkland County, was our  guide.

 It was a day of sunny skies and easy walking.  Wild roses were blooming everywhere.  We even met a gold panner at Prospectors’ Point.  In all, it was a great beginning.

Day 2: The Plan: As trails are yet to be built from Devon to Edmonton, we would bush-whack, sticking as close to the west side of the river as possible until reaching the footbridge under the southwest Anthony Henday bridge, then walk City of Edmonton trails to Terwillegar Park, crisscrossing the river on existing footbridges through the new Oleskiw Park to Fort Edmonton Park.

Day two was grueling – we had to bush-whack several kilometres between Big Island and the Henday Bridge. Out of nowhere emerged a beautiful white dog that looked like a cross between a Golden Lab and a Husky. The “spirit dog” stayed with us the entire afternoon, finding faint trails through the bush.

At the southwest Henday Bridge, bush-whacking abruptly changed into smooth paved pathways. Several of us stayed overnight at the Hotel Selkirk in Fort Edmonton Park after that tough Day Two. We enjoyed beers at the city’s longest bar and, later in the evening, quietly wandered through the empty park, save for three weddings.  Jasper without the drive!

Day 3: The Plan: From Fort Edmonton Park along the Edmonton trail system, on either side of the river to Capilano Park.

Leaving Fort Edmonton, we stopped for photos at the Talus Dome, then followed little-used secondary trails high up the river bank between Keillor Road and Hawrelak Park, giving us brand-new, spectacular river views. 

The sun was shining, it was Father’s Day, and it seemed like everyone was having a day in the valley with Dad.  Up the funicular we went from the downtown’s beautiful river valley to the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. We sat on its gorgeous patio in our hiking clothes, drinking mojitos and craft beers, visually retracing our steps as far as the eye could see upstream.

Day 4: The Plan: Criss-cross the river on foot bridges from Capilano Park through Rundle Park to a major  detour on inland paths through Strathcona County’s industrial area, reaching the river’s edge again by the end of the day.

Day four was another tough one. The trail, once past Rundle Park and over the river to the former Strathcona Science Centre site, turned into an all-day detour through the industrial sections of Strathcona County.

We did not see the river again until the end of the day. Understanding that this hardship is temporary until a trail and footbridges will be built alongside the river, the day’s walk, with little shade, was alongside busy industrial roads. Pastoral and bucolic, it was not.

On the other hand, it was a reminder that industrial activity creates the wealth that makes possible the building of quiet, shaded river-side trails.

Day 5: The Plan: The final leg alongside the river on Strathcona County’s Riverside Nature Trail linking into Fort Saskatchewan’s well-established riverside trail system. From Fort Saskatchewan, crossing the Hwy 15 bridge by car (because there is no bridge walkway) to stroll the final three kilometres of the River Valley Alliance trail system alongside the river through the lovely village of Lamoureux.

The last day, following the riverside trail from the river  -  from Strathcona’s Township Road 540 to Fort Saskatchewan – was a revelation.  Along this stretch of the river, the North Saskatchewan River sometimes looks as wide as the mighty Mississippi!

This day turned out to  be, well, a walk in the park, as the trails are complete, other than a pedestrian river crossing at Fort Saskatchewan to link up with the village of Lamoureux in Sturgeon County. ( A new bridge with a pedestrian crossing is planned).

The stretch alongside the river through the charming Lamoureux is filled with historical markers and an historic church. At the end of the River Valley Alliance trail system, the Trans Canada Trail carries on, east to the Atlantic and north to the Arctic.  This hike can go on and on.

With start- and end-points for each day established, friends, family and fellow RVA enthusiasts joined in.  Wendy Lickacz was with us for all five days.  River Valley Alliance Community Engagement Chair Valerie Turner, Alliance executive director Brent Collingwood, community engagement member Marg Elliott, hiking enthusiasts Amy Hawkins, Bart West, Barrett Hiebert, Maria Hicks, Andrea Collins, Wes Alton and David Wasserman all joined in one day or another.

We enjoyed world-class weather the whole way – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday being hot!

Truly it was a magnificent expedition. We gained so much appreciation for ALL the work over the decades that has created this splendid river valley trail system. The River Valley Alliance is closing in on the day when top-quality river valley trails will run the length of the river from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan, without ever leaving river-side.  

The camaraderie of the road is a phenomenon of caminos the world over. The 12 folks who travelled in this, hopefully the very first Edmonton Camino, have a unique bond.

Special thanks to Sheila’s husband Jim, our faithful driver who’d drop us off in the morning, and then, after a round or two of tennis and/or golf, pick us up in the late afternoon. Thank you Jim!

The first Cameo Edmonton is done.  Sheila, Wendy and I will soon start to think about possibilities for next year, now that we have the lay of the land.

Perhaps a system of nearby lodgings/camping spots can be developed. Perhaps others will come up with river valley long-distance hikes with different highlights.

Hope we’ll see you on the 2019 Camino Edmonton!