About a half-hour up the Yamnuska trail with Don Cockerton, the Kananaskis Trails Planner, describing features and trouble spots along the trail, we all agreed, we’d never look at a trail the same way again.


Part of the crew at days end

I joined a trail crew leadership workshop run by the Friends of Kananaskis. I thought I’d find out a little more about how trails work in Kananaskis. The Elbow Valley is under a lot of pressure from users who risk “loving the trails to death” and resource companies who want to exploit the wealth contained in the wilderness. Natural forces are also taking their toll. To ensure that the outdoor experience can be sustained, good trail maintenance and management is essential.

The Friends of Kananaskis is a non-profit group affiliated with Alberta Community Development. They rely on private/corporate donations and volunteers to maintain trails and run educational programs. Each district in Kananaskis (Elbow, Bow Valley, Sheep etc.) has a trial maintenance foreman responsible for trail work and few workers to wield picks and rakes, but the hundreds of volunteers from the public, corporations and user groups supply most of the elbow grease.

2 trails

Two trails are not better than one

Thousands of kilometres of trail were cut into the wilderness in the late 1970s and early 80s when Kananaskis Country was created. It was a massive project involving hundreds of government employees. Due to cutbacks, most of those people are gone and the trails are suffering from erosion and wear. Some trails were not well designed and water is collecting on, or cutting into trails making them difficult to use and, in some cases, dangerous. Over the last 20 years we’ve learned a lot about how to build sustainable trails and many groups provide guides to help people learn how to bring volunteers, land managers and material resources together to enhance the outdoor experience for all types of trail users. The “Friends” used the American Trails Resource Library  to show us how to motivate people, resolve conflicts, CUSS – Carry, Use, Safety and Storage, of tools, and learn the techniques of trail construction and maintenance. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has become a widely recognized authority on trail building, using professional managers and representatives to support trail initiatives and build credibility for mountain biking. They publish an attractive and comprehensive guide book titled “Trail Solutions” that is worth a look.

Our two-day workshop was held at the YMCA Camp Chief Hector, a wonderful facility for campers and convenors. There were 14 aspiring leaders – a few hard bodied adventure bikers, climbers, runners and hikers and a few of us with “ahem” less hard bodies. Staff and alumni from the Mountain Equipment Coop, who plan to sponsor trail care outings, made up half of the group. Others had particular trails they want to develop to facilitate access for their sport. Most of us had seen trails deteriorate and recognized that something has to be done to maintain them.


Trail tools are an odd collection of implements with odd names. The “Pulaski” is the indispensable tool. It’s a combination adze and axe. As one has to carry all this stuff in and out, a miner named Pulaski came up with the idea of combining the two tools. The “Macleod” is a combination of a heavy duty rake and a hoe. Jeff Gruttz has been building and maintaining trails in Kananaskis since the early 80s. He brought along his personal super tool; an axe with a clamp on the back where he can attach a pick, an adze, a shovel or a rake. He also brought a wealth of knowledge about trail building and team leading. There are many more conventional tools like rakes, shovels, bow saws and wheelbarrows that can be used as needed. The equipment volunteers use is supplied by Community Development.


Who knew that trails had such a lexicon of terminology? Trails have treads (the part you walk on), a critical edge (the outer edge), an inside edge (the part where the tread meets the slope above), a backslope (the part you dig out of a slope to widen/flatten the trail), an outslope (the slight angle that allows water to run off the tread), the grade (the percentage of change in elevation from point to point), and the cross slope (the gradient of the undisturbed hillside). There are two things that are significant contributors to erosion of trails; the fall line is the path water follows as it flows downhill and a berm is the bump that forms along the critical point that stops water running off the trail. If you build a trail on the fall line it will erode. Berms result from the stampede of feet over time packing down the centre of the tread. You can cut a ditch across the trail, cut a hole in the berm or, better yet, cut out a dip (swale) in the outer edge to let water flow off the trail. The ideal trail curves and rolls across/down a slope. This makes trails more enjoyable to use and the curves will force water off the trail. As the trail undulates up and down, the rise stops the water flow and the water will flow off at the low point. The worst place to put a trail is on flat land because water will puddle and there is nowhere to allow it to drain away.

Trail Anatomy




Don Cockerton

We hiked up the Yamnuska trail twice. The weather was beautiful. Spring wildflowers were popping up everywhere. On the first day, our group followed Don Cockerton who has built, maintained, planned and managed trails for over 20 years. As you can imagine he has a passion for trails. He recognizes the diverse needs and expectations of the wide spectrum of people who -use trails. His challenge is to provide facilities for those who enjoy leisurely strolls and those who throw themselves into the rough and tumble of freeriding bikes down impossibly steep slopes. And then there are the motorcycles and horses to consider. Stir commercial interests into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. But things are pretty good, all things considered. Time and again I’ve heard people from abroad envy and laud praise on our outdoor recreation facilities. Don showed us the effects of erosion, rushed planning and heavy use. He proposed a variety of solutions that we could use to repair damage and avoid further trouble. As with any seasoned observer of nature he revealed subtle indicators that an untrained eye could never see.
Erika Jensen is the Program Coordinator for the Friends of Kananaskis. She’s a young, energentic, hard body whose enthusiasm and passion comes in handy when recruiting volunteers and wielding a Pulaski. She took another group up the Spray Lakes road to see “The Reclaimer” a new mountain bike trail under construction.


Traversing this slope was a balancing act as there wasn’t much left of the trail . . .

Photo by Gord Dubois

our group fixed it and we’re proud of it

On the second day we went to work. Our task was to repair the Yamnuska trail at the junction where the route to the base of the climbing wall meets the trail to the ridge hike. The slope below the junction was quite steep and the trail was on the fall line. In wet conditions the trail was difficult to use and it had eroded. Naturally people began to walk beside the trail and created a second trail. Same thing happened, leaving two wide trails up the slope. A third trail was developing beside the other two and our job was to improve that one with a curve and good drainage. The first two trails were covered with loose topsoil and dead trees. The best trails look like they belong there – as if they formed naturally. We wanted to reclaim the old trails and make an attractive new one. I tested the patience and wisdom of the crew leaders by suggesting we build a rock wall to rebuild the reclaimed trails. No one ridiculed the idea and left me time to come to the conclusion that rock walls don’t exist in nature. They are an artificial device that require maintenance and don’t fit into the natural landscape of the wilderness.

It was a very rewarding weekend. I learned a lot, including that there is a lot more to learn and skills to acquire. Eventually I’d like to bring people out to the Elbow Valley to build and restore trails that will enhance the outdoor experience for people who come here in search of an adventure. But first I need to get to know Pulaski and Macleod a lot better.