Backpacking through history

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Museum offers self-guided tours of city

Want to do some time-travel for just three bucks? You can explore St. Albert’s past this summer thanks to a little-known backpack tour now available at St. Albert’s museum.

The Gazette accompanied Musée Héritage Museum acting programs manager Roy Toomey Thursday for a test-drive of the museum’s self-guided backpack tour program.

While the museum has long offered guided history tours of St. Albert, program manager Sharon Morin got the idea last summer to offer a quicker, self-guided version, Toomey said. That led to the concept of a backpack full of activities and information on the city’s past that people could borrow for a day. This is the second year that the museum has offered the backpacks, which are only available during the summer.

Toomey said the museum has four such backpacks – two at St. Albert Place and two at Grain Elevator Park – which can be borrowed for a day for $3. The backpacks were aimed at families but can be used by anyone. Not many people have tried them out so far, but those who have seem to have enjoyed them.

Inside the child-sized bags is a folder full of information about landmarks in historic St. Albert, much of which comes from the museum’s guided history tours. The packs also have pencils, papers, and crayons for sketching or leaf-rubbing, a tiny net for pond studies, and a bug trap and magnifying glass for insect examination. If you want an old-school tour, you’ll find a copy of the museum’s 1992 walking tour pamphlet in the bag, which, while quite out of date, still has some useful information on local wildlife.

The self-guided tour generally follows the lands around the trails between St. Albert Place and Grain Elevator Park.

Setting out from St. Albert Place, backpack tourists can learn about how the building’s designer, Douglas Cardinal, incorporated some 21,330 square metres of glass into this $20-million structure.

“There’s something like over a million bricks in this building,” Toomey said, and about 16 kilometres of steel piles.

The backpack tour includes plenty of information on local plants and animals, including the weed-like plantains visible along the Red Willow Trail.

“In the old days, these would have been a staple in healers’ kits,” said Toomey, upon spotting some, used to treat everything from constipation to gout.

The tour also describes the history behind the Children’s and trestle bridge.

The Children’s Bridge got its name after 11-year-old Ronald Harvey student Michele Coombs was killed by a drunk driver in 1979, Toomey said. Her father, Gordon, asked city council to name this bridge after her. Council said no, not wanting to set a precedent, but as a compromise agreed to name it after all children who had died tragically and in recognition of the International Year of the Child, which was in 1979.

Toomey said the trestle bridge was originally built in 1906, and, apart from the steel span now in its midst, has pretty much stood unchanged ever since. Its construction represented the arrival of rail in St. Albert.

“Interestingly enough, the first train that came through St. Albert delivered the wood that was used to build the first grain elevator,” Toomey said. A large, dedicated work-crew had the elevator built in less than three months.

The backpack tours are available on request at the museum and Grain Elevator Park. Guided tours are scheduled throughout July and August, with the next one set for July 26.

Call the museum at 780-459-1528 for details.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.