Learn Athabasca’s wild history, then live it

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From the river rats of old to today's adventure trails, Athabasca is home to all kinds of fun. Add in some history, festivals and lake time for a memorable trip north! 

Athabasca, AB - For the brief period when Athabasca was in the bidding to be Alberta’s capital, roughly around 1900 - 1905, it was the river rats who made the town’s reputation. The river rats were tough, unbeatable men who forged their way up river towing giant skows laden with furs over the Class V1 rapids north of town.

Today, when you come to Athabasca for a weekend on the trails or lakes, or at a festival or race, the same hearty ethic applies. Athabasca is still a place where “River Rats” work and play hard, embrace the wild and enjoy life to its fullest, in the moment. And that’s what you’ll find when you visit here.

Take the bookends to the Athabasca summer season: kicking things off is the Magnificent River Rats Festival, an event that has run for over 30 years, bringing big music headliners and rocking discovery acts to the stage by the river, at Waterfront Park, for a weekend of festival endurance on July long weekend. 

For Devan MacDonald and her partner Tyler Martin, of Fort MacMurray, their first time visiting Athabasca for the fest was an eyeopener.

"It was cool to see some well known acts and a lot of local talent, i was amazed at how many local performers there were," said MacDonald. "The festival, the car show, the art gallery with local artists, which was phenomenal. They really have a lot of talent in that town for sure."

Plan a wild, historic visit to Athabasca now

Then, in mid-September, you’ve got the Kapâwinihk Wilderness Triathlon, a run-bike-paddle odyssey that has racers working their way across the land. In that way, it’s not entirely unlike the river rats of old, except with better technical gear.

Mainstage at the Magnificent River Rats Festival, summer 2022.

And yes, those of us who race wilderness tris will tell you, we do this for fun, and we’ll even pay to do it, unlike the river rats who did it for a living. If you’re thinking pelotons and spandex, stop there.

Wilderness tris are way more informal, and no one much cares where you place. It’s a great introduction to racing, but mostly it’s a way to explore new spaces while doing some fun sports, back to back (to back). A tasting platter of local adventures. 

Build your own adventure tri in Athabasca

In between, Athabascans do as they’ve always done: work the land, build new things by hand and seek adventure on the region’s abundant waters and trails. 

For MacDonald, who's originally from Nova Scotia, she was drawn to Athabasca's nature right away. "Being on the water made it feel more like home to me, more beautiful and inviting."

Friends Lisa Stocking and Heather Boucher readying to hit the river.

For an example of the former - by which I mean fresh farm produce and locally crafted goods - visitors to the region should check out the Athabasca Farmers’ Market, which runs weekly in season at Athabasca’s Waterfront Park from 11am - 3pm. It’s also a good way to pick up some snacks for pre- or post-adventure fuel ups. 

For the latter, the options are almost unlimited, from local lakes to the Athabasca River to the Trans-Canada trail which runs through the edge of town. Those who have the gumption and crave a real wilderness adventure, akin to the toil experienced by those aforementioned famous river rats, would do well to sign up for the Kapâwinihk Wilderness Triathlon.

Athabasca 3-day adventure itinerary

No matter which is more your speed - triathlon or farmers’ market stroll - here’s a flexible, relaxed 3-day itinerary to make the best of your time on a visit. 

Day 1: 

Historic Walking Tour, Picnic at Lions Park

If you want to truly appreciate Athabasca, start with its history. Through booms and busts a unique local resilience has kept the place alive and thriving, and it originates with community. Take a historic walking tour to learn about the Indigenous, trading and explorer histories here in town. This will add richness to your own explorations. 

Interpretive signage on Athabasca's Riverfront Boardwalk.

Having familiarized yourself with town, grab some sandwiches and coffee from Paddy Melon’s, the local cafe, and cross the Athabasca River Bridge to Lions' Centennial Park for a commanding 180-degree view of town, the river and the valley beyond. 

Picnic Athabasca
Photographer: Jeremy Derksen
Picnic with a view at Lions' Centennial Park.

Day 2: 

Hike, hit the Farmer’s Market, chill on the lake

Two popular trail areas can be reached within minutes of downtown Athabasca: the Muskeg Trails to the west, and the Trans Canada Trail to the east. Both feature boreal forest, creek and wetland that offer an easily accessible nature refresh. In the cool of a summer morning, you’re likely to spot some wildlife such as deer, birds or small critters on the trail.

Trail loops start at an easy 1.2km and work up to 60km. From there, if you’re ready to take on the wilderness triathlon, get info and sign up here.

A visit to Athabasca Farmers' Market, Athabasca, AB.
Photographer: Paul Lavoie
Meeting a friendly vendor at the Athabasca Farmers' Market.

On Saturdays, the Athabasca Farmers’ Market sets up in Centennial Park (waterfront), overflowing with tasty baked goods, jams, jerky, fresh greens and veggies, and locally crafted woodwork, clothing and accessories.

By mid-afternoon as the sun warms the day, it’s time to hit the lake. Athabasca is lake country, and thirty minutes in any direction will put you on a cool, clear, quiet lake perfect for swimming, paddling or cruising on a pontoon boat or jet ski.

Dockside at Tawatinaw Valley Retreat Bed and Breakfast, near Athabasca, AB.
Photographer: Paul Lavoie
Kicking back by the water at Tawatinaw Valley Retreat.

Day 3: 

Golf, visit Amber Valley

If you’re not too tired from all the activity of the day before, head over to the Athabasca Golf & Country Club for a round. Hilly, stepped-down tees open onto meadows and forest to create a fun boreal challenge for duffers of any ability. It’s also a great place to grab a meal between adventures. 

A final chapter to your travels should definitely be Alberta’s northernmost Black settlement, Amber Valley, just 20 minutes drive from Athabasca. At the time, in 1910, it was one of the biggest Black settlements in Western Canada, established by families who came seeking to leave behind the racial discrimination in the United States. Their story is also one of resilience, and one that should be more widely known in Alberta’s history.

As our ancestors before us, we live in history, too. What we do today will live on in some way tomorrow. Why not have your own share in the wild history of Athabasca?

WHEN YOU GO

Get into the adventure - sign up for the Kapawinihk Wilderness Triahthlon happening Sept 10, 2022. 

For more hiking and trail information, go to Visit Athabasca’s Trails page.

To book an Amber Valley tour and museum visit, call 780-675-3490.

Here’s a quick primer on some local lakes and beaches.

Athabasca County has cabins and B&Bs to offer a more unique stay. Our ZenSeekers crew enjoys Tawatinaw Valley Retreat, with its remote nature setting and lakefront access. 

For more travel inspiration, check out Visit Athabasca.

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