Mackenzie County in the north Peace Country will soon have a new equestrian campground. Construction began in November, 2014, with the selective clearing of trees to establish a loop road for the site. The campground will facilitate access to excellent trails in a unique area of sandhills. This is a true community project: a demonstration of what can be accomplished by a handful of people with a shared interest and some frontier spirit!
The project itself is a joint effort of Mackenzie County and the Hungry Bend Sandhills Wilderness Society (HBSWS). The County sought to partner with a local community group to increase recreational opportunities in this remote rural area. The HBSWS is a registered society made up of several local people dedicated to preserving the natural landscape of the sandhills. The hills are recognized not only as a prized recreational area but also valued historically and geologically. For more information about the region, visit the Fort Vermillion website.
The new campground will be located within the boundary of Machesis Lake Recreational Area, which is administered by the County. The existing infrastructure (gravel road, signage, and camp attendant yard site) lends itself well to construction of the horse camp road and parking sites, as well as to future maintenance of the outhouses, corrals, etc. Machesis (Mah-chee-sis) Lake can be found at SE34 107-16-5.
For about 25 years, trail riders, ATV enthusiasts, and hunters used a random camping area outside of the park boundary, but due to deadfall and erosion of the track into the parking area, access to horse trailers became increasingly difficult. Caretaking was limited and irresponsible use was increasing. All parties involved in planning the new campground agreed that locating the site within the park allows for better management and environmental protection.
The behind-the-scenes work on this project began in 2012 with numerous emails and phone calls between County staff and Hungry Bend Sandhills Wilderness Society members to discuss potential sites and requirements for equestrian campgrounds. HBSWS members researched sites in the Willmore Wilderness Area, and talked with the Alberta Trail Riding Association, Alberta Equestrian Federation, and outfitters and friends who use various staging areas in southern Alberta and the USA. Environmental scans on foot and on horseback in the spring and fall determined that the area was not home to any rare species and that drainage would be appropriate. Flagging of the proposed site and existing connector trails were completed by volunteers in the summer. County staff joined the effort to inspect the site on foot, and provided accurate maps and aerial photographs.
The site was chosen based on several factors:
Proximity to an old ski trail which allows easy access to other trails and avoids the main road, providing greater safety
A sand ridge to the north makes a barrier to the road
Southern exposure encourages spring snow melt and earlier access by vehicles
Trees are mostly deciduous which potentially will regenerate more easily; vegetation is a good mix of ages which contributes to sustainability of the environment
Flat ground for parking RV’s and limiting erosion
No evidence of sensitive species of plants or animals
Traffic must pass the caretakers yard for greater security
Natural breaks in the trees enable less invasive road construction
There is room for expansion if warranted in the future
From the research done a formal written proposal was developed and presented by the HBSWS to the Countys Community Services Meeting, followed by less formal in-person discussions with County staff as needed. The proposal included letters of support from the Rocky Lane Pony Club branch and the Rocky Lane Agricultural Society as representatives of the equine industry in the region. Maps and photos showed the existing trails and the potential for tourism, recreation, and education. Balancing the increased use of the area with environmental protection was key for the HBSWS members. Effective management strategies for manure collection, traffic safety, and wildlife were outlined.
Mackenzie County approved the proposal, and allocated $25,000 in their 2014 budget for the project. This funding matched community donations of lumber for picnic tables and metal pipe for hitching rails and corrals, as well as heavy equipment and labour which was sourced by the HBSWS. The County was responsible for communicating with Alberta Tourism, Parks, and Recreation to receive a Historical Resources Impact Statement. Detailed plans and maps of the site were required and produced by the County. Parks staff also visited the proposed area in person.
This new campground, the first of its kind in northern Alberta, will be the staging area for access to miles of cut-lines and old wagon trails that wind through the sandhills in poplar, jackpine, and spruce forests. There are several small lakes, views of the Peace River, and wildlife to be seen. (The blueberry and hazelnut patches are top secret, however!) The footing is excellent from spring to early winter, and due to the sand, shoeing horses is generally not necessary. Once completed, the camp will have approximately 8 camping spots, an outhouse, pens, hitching rails, fire wood bin, manure bin, fire pits, and picnic tables. A holding tank for water may be provided during summer. The County will manage fee collection and up-keep. The Machesis Lake Horse Camp promises to be a popular asset to the equestrian community in the north.
Gale Dodd Hayday