An exploration of ancestral trails and nature’s bounty
Story and Photos by Liz Jansen
Heading north from Grande Prairie, Alta., into the Peace River region, 460 km northwest of Edmonton, the road stretches straight out in front of you. You might doubt there is much to make this an interesting ride, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its rugged peacefulness belies the stories and bounty the landscape has produced for eons.
Last summer, I rode my Triumph Tiger from my home in southern Ontario across the prairies to this part of northern Alberta to connect with what I dubbed my “Ancestor Trail”—the paths my grandparents followed after their arrival in Canada from Russia in 1926 as part of a mass immigration of destitute Mennonite refugees. Curious about what it must have been like for them arriving here and starting over in their mid-20s, I wanted to put myself in their position as much as possible, when trains and horses were the primary means of transportation. There’s no better way to do that than with my motorcycle, where I can feel the air, smell the wheat fields, walk the land, and sense the energy, while having plenty of time for reflection.
Intense negotiations with the Canadian government saw families placed in remote rural areas that governments were anxious to settle across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. My father’s parents were part of a group of 16 families that were sent to homestead in Beaverlodge, 43 km west of Grande Prairie in the southwest corner of the Peace River Region. Originally named Redwillow, for the nearby river, the town’s name was changed to Beaverlodge, after the lodges built along the river by the Beaver Indians.
Even though times have changed, the area’s frontier culture remains alive and well, with massive pickup trucks de rigueur. Like many small towns throughout the prairies, Beaverlodge maintains a municipal campsite with full facilities at a very reasonable rate. This became my home for three nights while I sought out the land my grandparents had tried to tame. My grandfather died in 1928 at age 28, leaving my German-only-speaking grandmother a widow with my two-year-old father, an insurmountable debt for their passage, and little hope. Although I knew the general vicinity of the farm, I wasn’t able to find the exact location. In fact, the only record of my grandfather being there is his burial in an unregistered Mennonite cemetery, now overgrown with poplars.
Having come so far and not likely to pass that way again, I set aside a day to explore the surrounding area by motorcycle. I was eager to see remote land most of us only read about and to imagine what it had been like for those who came to this harsh frontier. I loosely planned an easily manageable loop, but the area has a way of captivating and drawing in the unsuspecting traveller.
The Peace River Region stretches over 1,200 km, from Summit Lake, in the northern Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, to Alberta’s Slave River. With plentiful animals, fish and boreal forests, it’s been a rich home to nomadic hunters for more than 11,500 years. The arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 in the east and the advent of the fur trade brought with it guns and competition for resources. Warring Cree and Beaver Indians agreed to a negotiated truce, and the mighty river they called Unchagah, or Peace, became the boundary between their hunting territories.
Europeans were attracted by the very fertile soil deposited by glaciers after the last ice age, mostly devoid of noxious weeds and ideal for growing wheat. A bumper crop in 1926 and prize-winning wheat of a Peace River farmer at the International Fair the same year attracted an influx of settlers. By 1930, the Canadian National Railway branch line between the Central Peace River district and Grande Prairie was completed, and 35,000 settlers had arrived in the region I was about to explore.
An Afternoon of Discovery
The wind that eventually cleared the heavy morning fog stayed with me all day, threatening and teasing, with storm clouds adding to the rugged ambience. For northern roads, they were in surprisingly good shape – smooth pavement, flat, often straight or with gradual curves, and gravel shoulders. Highway 43 heading north is the main route for riding to Alaska. As it crosses the B.C. border and the time zone, it becomes Hwy 2, leading to Dawson Creek and Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway. I’d always envisioned the town as set in the mountains, but it was more prairie-like, with broad, flat streets. With no intention of an Alaskan destination but wanting to record the moment, I pulled into the visitor centre for a photo. There I met three new friends bound for Alaska with their big bikes on a most poignant ride. Two of them were accompanying the third, who had terminal brain cancer. He’d engineered a custom side rig for his Yamaha Super Ténéré to help him balance and carry his equipment. It’s hard to describe a deeper act of friendship.
With many thoughts already swirling through my mind, I headed east on Hwy 49 back into Alberta toward Spirit River. The name conjures an intriguing town, almost sacred, but it was disappointing, with only a few buildings and an Esso station. Getting to the pumps across the rutted, muddy parking lot was a bit of an adventure, only to find out it didn’t carry the 91 Octane my bike calls for. They thought I might have better luck down the road at Rycroft, but I still had to settle for regular gasoline. It was a minor inconvenience, more than offset by the friendliness and hospitality of the residents, something I’d note throughout the day.
When I’d ridden through Grande Prairie a few days earlier, I wondered why the roads in town had so much mud on them. They weren’t dangerous or slippery, but it was noticeable and…