This was my second trip into the Richardson Backcountry, north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The first time I went in was to witness the expanse of the area and assess the current trail system and infrastructure.
Several years back, as president of the Alberta Off Highway Vehicle Association, I was assisting the Wood Buffalo ATV Club in the access management planning process that Alberta Sustainable Resource Development was engaged in. Clearly, it would be impossible to provide credible insights without hands-on knowledge of the area; I had to take one for the team and head in to see the area for myself.
That was two years ago and after extensive discussion at the negotiation table, a workable plan for the most part had been drafted. Despite agreement on how to move forward with all parties present at the table, the plan’s implementation has been delayed by the newly instituted First Nations consultation process. So with no plan being put into force, status quo remains with limited ability of the club to take official stewardship of the area and opportunities beyond our grasp.
Back into the bush
With an invite from Gene Ouelette of the Wood Buffalo ATV Club, it was time to head back in and see how the area has sustained the increase in usership and evaluate the trail development that had occurred. With my son Matt in tow, we headed up to Ft. Mac to join Gene, Krystal Kent and daughter Kaytlynn along with visiting young cousins Stephan and Matt Landry, to load custom-built tub trailers with six days of supplies.
The trip’s added bonus was that several government folks I work with on a regular basis were also going to be up in the area. Discussions in the bush, on the ground, are always more fruitful. With Matt and I on sport quads, my Suzuki Canada/Walt Healy/Maverick Distributing/Motovan LTZ400 and the family Honda 400EX, we were subject to the grace of our hosts to cram our gear into the already full trailers.
Due to the distances away from any form of outside contact, a trip into Richardson requires equipment that is in excellent working order. We had confidence in our equipment and the tub trailers were full of supplies and fuel for five machines.
The Richardson Backcountry is an extensive sand dune complex known as the Athabasca Plain on the edge of the Canadian Shield. Staging, located approximately one hour north of Fort McMurray, takes this trip into the very northeastern corner of Alberta—a challenge for the average backcountry adventurer.
Adjacent and within the boundaries of Richardson are four protected areas: Marguerite River Wildland, Richardson River Dunes Wildland, Maybelle River Wildland and Athabasca Dune Ecological Reserve. Parks and Protected Areas, a different government department than the rest of the backcountry, manage these areas. Other than a short section of trail in Maybelle River Wildland, all motorized access has been closed.
Discussion in the overall planning process around re-opening existing trails or evaluating opportunities within these areas was very limited. The primary access from the staging area is the Fort Chipewyan winter road. Since sand is prone to whooping out as the season’s ATV traffic mounts, a trip earlier in the summer is more enjoyable.
With most of the lakes and camping beginning some 60 kilometres in, a whooped-out trail is hard on equipment and the body. Our trip in at the end of July still put us on the good trail surface and kilometres could be made in short order. An important part of my trip in was to view a new trail that was constructed to replace a section of historic trail falling within the Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve.
Current regulations do not permit any motorized traffic within this type of designation, thus the Parks Department felt this warranted the additional footprint on the landscape via rerouting around the reserve. It didn’t take long travelling on the new section to see that from a technical standpoint the trail suffered from many of the classic flaws in trail construction on sand—too narrow, too winding, blind corners, etc. More disturbing was the fact that the original trail was clearly visible, paralleling a mere kilometre to the north. These findings provided fodder for morning coffee discussions with the government staff who were working in the area.
Thrills and spills
It can’t be all work and no play when visiting such a spectacular place with four excited young people. A trip out to the Richardson Dunes, the remaining dune complex open for ATVing, gave the boys a chance to experience the excitement and challenge of this type of riding.
An afternoon fish on the lake jacked up the fun factor with younger Matt latching on to a 15-pound northern pike—a fish nearly the same size as the fisherman. This fish provided many meals for the crew. With nothing but sand around, every lake has vacation-brochure-quality beaches, so an afternoon doing beach time was imperative.
And a trip like this isn’t complete without the mechanical mishaps. Matt and I had driven about seven kilometres before noticing the back rack and contents on the 400EX had broken off and jumped ship. A lid on a tub trail blew its moorings, leaving a yard sale down the trail, and a trailer tongue twisted off from the continuous pounding, allowing the trailer to have some freedom to head down the trail at its own free will, thankfully stopping intact. This last one was noticed right away and not 15 minutes further down the trail like the others.
Much more to explore
The Richardson remains remote and a trip in should not be taken lightly. Help is nowhere near. The challenge is well rewarded and embeds a desire to return. The future of the area does remain in question until a final management plan is put in place. The expanse of sand makes trail development both easy and difficult. As this all unfolds, I am only left one alternative … plan for my next trip in, as one must remain well informed to participate in meaningful dialogue. And since the world is run by those who show up, I’m planning to show up.