Bikepacking in the Canadian Badlands: the Neutral Hills

2 wheels, 4 days, and an “Effigy of Man”

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” – Neil Armstrong

I had been planning to do some bikepacking in the Canadian Badlands for a while. I’d bought a new bicycle specifically for the purpose, and a load of new gear… I just hadn’t quite landed on the where. In an area covering over 90,000 square kilometres though, there’s no shortage of options.

What is bikepacking? It’s bit like camping and hiking combined, but on two wheels. You carry nothing but what is necessary (ish). The typical bikepacking bike tends to be a bit more ‘burly’, so traversing gravel roads or dirt trails is no problem at all. And it’s all about exploring the places less travelled.

I happened to stumble across an older website that listed attractions in the rural municipality of Special Areas #4 (an area with “special” in its name is always worth a closer look!).

Halfway down the list read the words “Effigy of Man”. The brief description said “native stone artifact”. No other information or photos were provided.

I’m not entirely sure why, but reading those first three words sent an electrical current through my brain. This artifact sounded mysterious, epic, legendary… I knew I had to see it for myself.

After some further research, the itinerary was set. My four-day bikepacking adventure would take me to the Neutral Hills, up in the northeast corner of the Canadian Badlands. I’d start and end in Consort, AB, and cover roughly 200 km in total.

DAY 1: YYC to Consort, Consort to Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park (15.5 km)

When driving through the Canadian Badlands, I’ve always preferred the road less travelled. Calgary to the town of Consort (3.5 hours, 358 km) follows mainly secondary and tertiary highways, through the rolling hills of Rosebud, past the always-spectacular landscape of Horseshoe Canyon and Drumheller, and into the golden August prairie further east.

I arrive in Consort early afternoon, and after safely stowing my vehicle until my return later in the week, I’m ready to explore the town a bit before hopping on the bike.

The Old Time Printing Museum is my destination. Located in the same building that first housed the town’s newspaper – the Consort Enterprise – the museum is full of vintage letterpress and Linotype machines, inks, and drawer upon drawer of metal type and ad blocks. The Enterprise holds the distinction of being the first Alberta newspaper with a female editor – Mabel DeWolfe, in 1914. Mary Readman would start handsetting type at the Enterprise in 1950, and became it’s full-time editor by 1957, with her husband Charlie as publisher. Mary would one day retire, but the Enterprise continues (in a newer building a few blocks away) with her daughter Carol as publisher and son-in-law Dave Bruha as editor. It’s Dave who tours me through the museum today, and he eventually gives me free run to nose around and photograph every drawer and machine at my leisure!

Now that my inner printing nerd has been satisfied, it’s time to begin the ride. I suit up and start pedalling north out of town towards Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park, where i’ll be spending the night.

I roll down a quiet gravel road towards the Park. Late afternoon, not too hot, bit of a breeze, and it feels great to be riding after a long drive in the car. I stop a few times to take photos, ever on the lookout for pronghorns and birds of prey.

An hour or so later, I arrive at the park and my campsite. I set up the tent fly and footprint (having decided to shed the weightier tent altogether for this trip) and heat up one of the various dehydrated meals I’ve prepared in advance – a lot of homemade soups, nuts, dried fruit and oatmeal will be my staples for the next few days. After dinner and dishes, there’s a still lots of time and daylight for exploring the park.

Gooseberry Lake is a permanent saline lake, and designated as an Important Bird Area by IBA Canada. It attracts huge numbers of shorebirds, particularly during spring and fall migrations. On this evening I spot various ducks, Sanderlings, a few American Avocets, but unfortunately no Piping Plovers, an endangered species that Gooseberry Lake does have a small number of. Wandering through the trees and long grass away from the lake, I spot waxwings and a number of larger hawks. Clusters of glossy chokecherries are on sample seemingly everywhere.

Dusk begins to fall and I climb into my tent. I drift off to thoughts of tomorrow’s big ride, as the crackling of a nearby campfire provides a late night soundscape.

DAY 2: Gooseberry Lake to Castor (92.8 km)

I wake super early, 5:45 or so. The park is quiet, no humans stirring at this hour, but the air above is already punctuated with the sound of incoming and outbound ducks. I make my way back down to the lake with my camera and long lens to watch the sun come up and hopefully spot some new bird varieties. There’s not much going on in the lake, but a red-tailed hawk lands in a nearby tree, so i follow it for a few minutes. Eventually it lands in the grass near a clearing at the northernmost edge of the lake, and tolerates my attempts to sneak a few close-up shots. I spare a few more minutes to enjoy a proper sunrise, before it’s time to get ready for the trip’s longest ride.

After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and some protein powder, I break camp, load the bike and start my journey towards the town of Castor.

Although dirt trails or gravel roads would be the ideal terrain for this adventure, most of the area I’m riding through features fenced private farmland, so my route on this day runs north on Highway 41 (aka Buffalo Trail), then turns onto Highway 599, right through the heart of the Neutral Hills.

I have decent legs to begin the day, good energy, and I’m excited to be pedalling. Moderate cloud cover makes for cool conditions to start. I stop periodically to photograph long, picturesque fields of wheat or hay bales, green gold hills dappled with sun and shade, and the occasional windmill. By the time the morning sun makes its presence known for good, it’s at my back as I make my way west.

Not far along Highway 41 is a small cairn marking the story of the Neutral Hills. Glaciers helped shape the hills, forming a “terminal moraine” over 50 miles long. Legend says the Great Spirit touched the land, creating a barrier of hills to keep neighbouring tribes from fighting with each other. The Cree and Blackfoot are said to have agreed to consider the territory neutral, as it had plenty of water and good hunting.

As the morning moves toward afternoon, the sky clears completely and the temperature quickly rises in the full day sun. I’m managing to keep hydrated (so far), and reach for occasional “calorie boosts” from a handlebar-mounted bag containing a spork and a jar of “HPPB” (‘high-performance’ peanut butter, loaded with dried fruit, nuts and maple syrup). As the ride gets less comfortable and I start to fatigue, my imagination kicks in with mostly helpful distractions. My thoughts range from memories of long family car rides on the Trans Canada in the 70s, seeing a lone cyclist through the car window, imagining I was that cyclist, which of course now I was (“Holy crap I’m doing this! This is crazy!”), to more morbid thoughts of “if that car I hear behind me were to hit me, how long before they would discover my body in that field?”. The scenery rolling past me continues to be compelling… a rickety old barn to the left, curious cattle peering at me through a barbwired fence to the right, even a mid-air battle between two shrieking hawks. At one point, my senses are assaulted by an explosive waft off a passing livestock transport – so pungent it’s as if it has hooked into my nostrils and is pulling me along behind!

By mid-afternoon, it’s really hot, my water supply (3 bottles and a CamelBak) is getting dangerously low, and my occasional reminders to myself that my destination is “just up ahead a bit” are becoming less convincing. I keep grinding away though, and within an hour come to Castor town limits.

I get a water refill at a main street cafe, and directions to my campsite from some friendly ladies at the town office. The Castor Lions campground, while not as pretty as Gooseberry Lake, is quiet and, mercifully, has public showers. A nearby restaurant provides cheese-less veggie pizza (mmmmm, carbs) and all the air conditioning I require. Post-dinner I take a quick stroll along the main drag with the camera, and am in my sleeping bag and out like a light before the sun goes down.

DAY 3: Castor to Coronation (36.4 km)

I rouse myself from bed as the sun is coming up. The morning is warmer than the previous one, and breezier. I wolf down today’s oatmeal and plenty of water (with an added electrolyte tablet), pack up, and hit the highway SE towards the town of Coronation.

Coronation is a mainly agricultural town, just shy of 1,000 people, with a strong link to Alberta’s railroad history – in this case, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). One of the first things I notice as I ride in off the highway is a bright red caboose, sitting near the town’s large, light-up crown (the symbol of Coronation). Just down the street sits the Roadmaster’s House, built in 1911 to house a CPR foreman (aka Roadmaster) and crew whose main job was to service nearby sections of track in the Lorraine subdivision. The CPR would eventually no longer need the building, and it was rescued from demolition by the local historic society, and declared a Registered Historical Site by the province in 2002.

I make arrangements with some local volunteers to tour the museum later in the afternoon. In the meantime I grab a snack and wander a bit. Coronation has an historic water tower (1914), and some interesting (maybe even a bit quirky) murals scattered through downtown. Obviously the Commonwealth and the monarchy influenced this part of Alberta back in the day – Coronation was named in honour of King George V, and a quick scan of the map shows nearby “royal” town names like “Throne”, “Fleet” and of course, “Consort”.

I pop back on the bike and ride up Royal Street to the Coronation Dam Campground, where I’ll spend the night. As small town/municipal campgrounds go, this one is a beaut. The tenting area is an idyllic spot within a stand of poplar trees, tucked alongside a well-stocked trout pond on the north end of the park. It appears I have the whole tenting area to myself. The wind has grown in intensity through the day, and left a carpet of yellow leaves on the ground.

I set up my tent and laundry line (most of my cycling kit air dries quickly) and make my way back downtown to the Roadmaster’s House for the museum tour.

I’m met there by Bubbles(!) and Bill, a retired couple affiliated with the Coronation Historical & Museum Society. In addition to the restored section house, there’s a bunkhouse, a schoolhouse (the old Wheat Ridge rural school, moved into town and restored), and a fourth building for additional displays.

The Museum Society has done a fantastic job of filling each room in each building with period-appropriate items, mostly donated by town and area residents. The Roadmaster’s House feels very much like walking through someone’s home decades ago. Vintage furniture, clothing, sporting equipment, toys, photographs… all help to transport you back to the town’s early days. More of the same awaits us in each room of the bunkhouse and school. Touring this museum with local residents adds the extra joy of hearing personal stories and anecdotes, like the family connection to rodeo cowboys in a black & white photo display. Bill asks me to guess the purpose of one strange object (a long wooden pole with a loop on the end) in the fourth building (I’m completely stumped), which turns out to be a ‘hook’ used to grab luggage from a passing train as it speeds by!

With the tour concluded, I thank Bubbles and Bill and head back to my campsite for a nap in the shade.

After a much-needed doze I prepare supper and spend the rest of the evening doing minor bike maintenance and just enjoying the peace and quiet. A brilliant orange sunset brings day 3 to a close.

DAY 4: Coronation to Consort (50 km)

Songbirds and geese greet me this morning. The wind has died down considerably overnight, and it’s much cooler today. An indistinct sun burns feebly through a hazy blue-grey sky. There’s a faint smell of smoke from distant forest fires. From my breakfast perch atop a picnic table I watch a flock of sheep munch contentedly along the fence on the other side of the pond. I take down the tent and repack the bike for the final leg of the trip.

I’m feeling well-rested and strong as I make my way east along Highway 12. There’s a few more inclines on this stretch, but nothing too challenging. I see a lot more vehicle traffic on this highway, and more than one curious passerby slows to ask how/what I’m doing any time I stop for roadside photos.

Later in the morning I pull back into Consort. I pause for a quick selfie with the metal dinosaur that stands by the visitor info centre, then head back to my car to load the bike and gear, change, and make my way to finally see the Effigy of Man.

I’ve been in touch with Zane Radefeldt, whose family owns the land on which the Effigy of Man is located. It’s a short drive back out of Consort, down a dirt road past the site of another old rural schoolhouse. Zane arrives a few minutes later in a dark-coloured pickup truck. I hop in, and we continue down the road a ways to a small approach and a barbed wire gate. Once through, he begins driving up and over the grassy hills that seem to stretch in all directions. Zane tells me his family hasn’t always owned the land here (originally it was Crown land), but he has spent his entire life in the area, including lots of time spent hunting and fishing nearby.

We come to a stop near a larger, more prominent hill. We climb out of the truck and make our way up the rise to the top.

In the center of the mound there is a simple rectangular metal barrier. The grass in and outside of the barrier is tall and dry. Barely visible through the grass are a number grey, red-flecked rocks. Zane points out the loosely-stylized human form the placed rocks indicate. A slender, male figure, with arms down at his sides, his feet facing roughly east. This effigy, and others like it, are believed to have been created by the Blackfoot, long before contact with white traders or settlers came to this part of the country. The figure is believed to represent Napi, a creation figure who roamed and rested throughout the western prairies.

Zane mentions that there was much deliberation on behalf of the municipality on whether or not to maintain the Effigy at all, or to let the earth and time eventually reclaim it. They chose the latter. The barrier protects it from grazing livestock as much as people, maybe moreso.

I’m struck by how lucky I am to see the Effigy up close – it sits on private land, exposed to wind and water, overrun by wild grasses, and is sinking further and further into the ground.

It’s believed that each Effigy (and there are others in Alberta and Saskatchewan) point to each other, one long extended arm and hand indicating the path towards the next. As Zane and I drive off, I find myself wondering how many undiscovered effigies there might be, lost to the elements, there under the earth and undetectable.

Zane drives us north and up to much higher ground, on family land a few miles away. It’s the perfect lookout towards the area of the Effigy and Gooseberry Lake as well, even through the smoky haze of this afternoon. I graciously thank Zane for his time and the unique afternoon adventure.

I head back through Consort and make my way south towards Medicine Hat and eventually, home. Near Monitor, AB I finally catch a glimpse of a few skittish pronghorns as they leap through a wheat field. Not long after, I take a side trip to see the Mud Buttes – low hills that look like distant cousins to the Hoodoos further west. I spend a few minutes watching horses whinny and run at the bottom of one of these geological wonders…

For me, this trip encapsulates everything that is amazing and interesting about visiting the Canadian Badlands. In the space of 4 days and a few hundred kilometres, I’ve moved through colourful, varied landscapes, seen wildlife up close, and tapped into moments in Alberta’s past, its Indigenous history, and even as far back in time as the ice age. The Canadian Badlands have thrilled and fascinated me since I was a kid, and I can’t wait to return.

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Gary Blaney is Creative Director at nonfiction studios, the agency of record for Canadian Badlands Tourism.