Two-day trek in central Alberta recreates pioneer journeys
For decades, Eileen Davies dreamed of travelling in a horse-drawn wagon train.
"It was a little bit of a dream to travel in a covered wagon," Davies said.
The retired Grand Forks, B.C., woman lived out her dream with the help of Alberta Prairie Wagon Trains, driving a team of horses pulling a covered wagon from Red Willow to Donalda in central Alberta.
Davies said it was "just a fluke" that she and her husband, Dave, learned about the wagon train when they took the Alberta Prairie Steam Tours train to Big Valley, 160 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.
When Eileen was in the Stettler train station checking on their tickets for the steam trip, she saw information about the wagon trek. The decision was easy for a woman who has had a long involvement with horses, including acting as a customs broker in Toronto for the movement of thoroughbreds such as Secretariat and Northern Dancer across the Canada-United States border.
Eileen's mobility was limited by recent hip-replacement surgery. "I wasn't sure I could get into the wagon," she said.
But she was able to climb aboard with the help of a small stepladder and drove the lead wagon pulled by Clydesdales Tom and Jerry during the two-day trek.
The team of Doc and Bud that I drove for part of the journey demonstrates how horses are individuals - Doc tends to be a bit of a laggard, letting Bud do more of the work, while Bud reacts to commands such as "whoa" faster.
The journey is a reminder of the slower pace and arduous conditions that pioneers faced on their trek to open the North American west. The wagon train takes more than four hours to cover the 16 kilometres from Red Willow to Donalda - a 10-minute trip in a modern car at highway speeds.
However, that plodding pace also gives participants the time to see the scenery and wildlife, including ducks swimming about the sloughs and a lone shorebird wandering across the muddy margin of a drought-shrunken pond.
There are no plush, comfy seats on the wagons - just a bare wooden bench. The overnight stay is in a sleeping bag either inside the wagon or on the ground underneath it.
Pioneers would not have had access to medical care. For example, a pregnant woman might have had to deliver her baby in the wagon with the help of her husband or other women in the wagon train.
The wagon train is a relatively recent addition to Alberta Prairie, which has been offering train trips for 20 years.
Bob Willis, Alberta Prairie general manager, said the wagon train is the brainchild of Don Gillespie, the driving force behind the steam tours. Willis said the wagon trips, now in their fourth year, are an attraction that's still in the developmental stage.
Alberta Prairie owns the wagons while wagon master Jim Long owns the Clydesdale horses that pull them. Long has worked with horses since he started riding a pony as a small child. He shows drivers how to handle the horses before the wagon train trek begins.
The running gear and top bows for the wagons were built by skilled craftsmen in southern Ontario. Although most parts of the wagons were new, the hubs of some of the wheels were recycled from wagons that were a century or more old. Alberta Prairie staff built the boxes for the wagons, and a Stettler upholsterer sewed up the tops.
The wagon train follows the rail bed of a rail line that was abandoned and torn up. Alberta Prairie was able to retain only the track from Stettler to Big Valley for its steam train tours.
Long promotes the wagon and steam train tours as part of what can be an extended family vacation stay in central Alberta. When a woman called recently from Toronto, Long suggested she take the train and wagon trips as well as visiting the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller to learn about dinosaurs.
The Davies went one better, visiting those attractions plus the Reynolds-Alberta Museum with its collection of old cars, trucks and farm machinery in Wetaskiwin.
As the wagon train rolls along, Long rides alongside on his horse Emmett, checking with people in the different wagons occasionally to make sure that everything is going OK. Five wagons are available now for the treks, but two more could be added.
While each wagon usually holds two people, an extra seat can be added to accommodate a family of four.
In those situations, Long finds that "the kids drive and the parents sit in the extra seat."
When the wagon train is on the trail, one of the wagons is a cook wagon, hauling the food for hungry travellers. The lunch stop consists of sandwiches, fruit and ice tea or water.
When the wagons reach Donalda for the overnight stop, staff break out the barbecue to cook steaks. Depending on the length of the trip, other evening meals could include hamburgers and chili.
After spending the night at Donalda, visitors check out local attractions that include the world's largest kerosene lamp, the lamp museum, art galleries and the historic creamery.
IF YOU GO
For more information on Alberta Prairie steam train and wagon trips, visit the website at www.absteamtrain.com. Train trips leave from the Stettler station, while wagon treks start in Red Willow, north of Stettler. Phone 1-800-282-3994 or 403-742-2811 for information on train trips. Call Jim Long at 403-740-2796 to find out more about the wagon trains.
Bob Willis,AlbertaPrairie'sgeneral manager, said the wagon train will adapt as it goes along to meet customer needs.
Since the business is in its developmental stage, Alberta Prairie is still working to determine what groups of people are interested in the treks.
"We have to be flexible enough to accommodate whoever wants to do this," Willis said.
So far, customers have ranged in age from seven to older than 80. For safety reasons, children must be seven or older.
While wagon train business had been steady in previous years, it has slowed somewhat this year as the recession has taken hold.
Willis said the price is a factor - $350 a day for each wagon - but it has to stay there to cover costs. On the other hand, train fares range from $85 to $150 for adults, depending on what the trip involves.
The train trips have evolved to the point that Willis said passengers could make the trip three or four times a year without having the same journey. Trips include a journey to Big Valley with a buffet meal, steak barbecue excursions, murder mystery and dinner theatre specials. These trips often include a train robbery staged for the entertainment of the riders.