Bringing the classroom outdoors
You might call them pioneers, or at the very least, trailblazers, who have dedicated their lives to preserving nature. For over 35 years, Richard and Vera DeSmet have been stewards for areas in Alberta’s Horse Hills region, located northeast of Edmonton. Throughout that time, they’ve worked with other organizations, like the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to protect the land they call home.
Although their long and storied careers saw them take on a variety of roles doing everything from working as a farrier, to working in the energy industry, to more traditional office work, it’s perhaps their most recent endeavour that is the most meaningful. As caretakers for the Pioneer Trail North Foundation, the couple now help young people connect with the outdoors.
“We’ve been part of the entrepreneurial world. We’ve been involved in the private sector and the not-for-profit realm, to varying degrees of success in each,” laughs Richard. “Eventually we came to realize that we did some of our best work with non-profits. And so the Pioneer Trail, and the work we do here, well, that’s where we’re supposed to be.”
The Horse Hills region holds a special place in Richard’s heart, as he grew up not far from the land that is today home to the Pioneer Trail North Foundation. The rolling hills, serene wetlands and open fields were his backyard, rife with adventure and discoveries. By his estimation, the land they now oversee was once an important link to the Athabasca Landing Trail, a traditional trading route connecting Edmonton with northern communities.
The couple purchased the land in 2000, but only began developing it for more public use in the last few years. But the trail as it is today was almost the dream that never was, thanks to financing difficulties encountered when the mortgage on the property came up for renewal.
“The concept of what we wanted to do here was in the works for many, many years, but we almost didn’t end up making it happen. We were almost having to walk away from it, but thankfully that’s when we learned of SEF,” says Richard.
Today, the DeSmets’ Pioneer Trail North is an 80-acre natural paradise with 22 km of trails to explore. Hanging at the entrance to the property is a sign reading, Iskwahtem, a Cree word meaning door or portal. It’s a sign of what the DeSmets hope those who visit will experience: the doorway to nature.
“We’ve seen the effect nature has had on us two, on our children and now on our grandchildren,” says Vera. “We know the impact it has on raising healthy kids, particularly on kids who might have challenges or might be acting out in school. When they come out to nature, we often see that they transform—suddenly they’re leaders, they’re thriving.”
But the question of how to help more students and families understand and appreciate nature was not an easy one to answer. Looking for opportunities, Richard cold-called the nearby Sturgeon Public School Division. He was connected with Mark Lockwood, the then-director of curriculum for the division. The two immediately hit it off, and before long Lockwood was visiting the property with an outdoor pursuits teacher. At the time, the property was still quite untamed, with few trails or facilities in place. But that visit was the start of a relationship that would bring hundreds of students to the property in the coming years.
“All it took was having one teacher buy in to what we were doing. We just needed someone like Mark to come out and see this place, and see what we envisioned for it,” says Richard.
It’s thanks to that first visit that the Trail is now alive with the sounds of running, laughing, excited schoolchildren. Each year, the DeSmets welcome classes from kindergarten through to grade 12, who enjoy activities ranging from educational nature walks to responsible outdoor recreation and survival skills. They’re particularly busy in September and June, but welcome groups for full-day and overnight visits throughout the year.
“To think that we almost folded everything up and walked away from doing this…” Richard shakes his head. “I can’t believe we almost had to do that. And I’m so glad we didn’t.”
Entrepreneurs, and in particular social entrepreneurs are usually moving pretty fast.