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Welcome to Part I of my #ExploreLethbridge journey across the land and into the dramatic landforms and endless coulees of Lethbridge, Alberta. Trekking through a very different landscape, exploring the spirit of Lethbridge through adventure, culture, and finding ourselves among the discovery of a palpable “pulse” of this flourishing region in southern Alberta.

by Dax Justin

Warm through Summer, rich in culture, and caressing one steep valley into the Oldman River. Located on the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Lethbridge is a city notorious for agriculture and undeniable grit in the Western Prairies. Once a classic whisky-trading post, the city where I spent four years of my University life — is now a blooming cultural hub speaking loudly in color, adventure, and a palpable new “pulse” I’ve never felt here before.

Meet: Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

When I think of Lethbridge, Alberta I recall a whirlwind of endless memories. Driving from Calgary to Lethbridge and shaving off time by going the “Granum” way, living on the West Side, wearing Von Dutch hats while strutting through the endless halls of the University. Street Wheelers. The Water Tower. The old outdoor city pool that had like, no security… and Essie’s on Monday nights! I recall these memories because I spent my formidable years here learning about design and technology achieving my Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in the New Media program at the U of L. Of course, I thought I knew this place inside-out…then, when I was deployed on this assignment I immediately learned that I was wrong! Working in tandem with Tourism Lethbridge and ZenSeekers, I return to revisit a place I thought I knew in a three-part series focused on discovering the Spirit of Lethbridge. 

I spent four years in Lethbridge and I don’t think I rode a mountain bike once…that changes NOW! For the first part in the series I saddle up on an e-bike for the first time to explore the iconic valley and Six-Mile Coulee. What I expected was great views. What I didn’t expect was a day of athletic re-awakening! Racing through renegade bike trails, dust in your teeth, eyes-wide and knuckles white.

ABOVE: Tracey going through “The Muff”.

The True Lay of the Land

In southern Alberta, you’ll find the third-largest city in the province: Lethbridge. This place was once a whisky trading post. Picture an old Western movie. Wild intentions and raw grit. Now, Lethbridge is a luscious cultural hub, gaining an energetically-tangible momentum I’ve never felt here before. The city is divided by the Oldman River Valley, saddled into a chain of parks running south to north through the valley bottom. The landscape in this region is characterized by distinct formations called “coulees”. A coulee is a V-shaped valley, often incredibly steep and otherworldly-looking. They are created by glacial erosion or wind and water erosion. When it comes to Lethbridge specifically, this iconic valley has grown into one of the largest urban park systems in North America at 16 square kilometres of protected land. Indian Battle Park is situated under the High-Level Bridge and commemorates the defeat of a Cree war party by Kainai (Blood) and Piikani (Peigan) warriors in 1870. This is where my experience in Lethbridge begins as I re-traced these steps and trekked the valley by mountain bike.

Dust in Your teeth: Biking the Valley & Six-Mile Coulee

For the first part of my journey I teamed up with two local cyclists, Justin from Alpenland and Tracey from BikeBridge Cycling Association, to act as guides through our trek in the valley. We met up in the valley under the High Level Bridge, which is the longest and tallest of its type of construction in the world and was built in 1909. This is where my experience exploring the adventure inside Lethbridge really kicked off!

Before this assignment, my mountain biking skills were OK. Not the worst, but not world-class either. I do feel extremely comfortable on bikes and since I have never been on an e-bike before, this was the perfect opportunity and everything was going to plan.

ABOVE: Justin V. catching air in the “Playground” in Lethbridge, AB

Riding through the city we explored features along the trail such as “The Muff” and “Barley Brew” – two distinct areas you won’t want to miss when you come explore by bike. The Muff is a long and narrow tunnel-shaped area, completely enclosed by nature. With stairs alongside,, you can hike up the side of the trail then go through the tunnel as many times as you wish! Not far away, Barley Brew is a quick and steep dive down the edge of a hill, as pictured below. Justin and Tracey look like pro’s and when I went to the edge and looked down with all my camera equipment, I wasn’t going to risk it. My plan was to stay focused on the photo-shoot and not completely exert myself athletically or physically, as this was only day one of the journey.

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Wait, the word depletion is more accurate than exertion in this case… As we rode through the valley and through numerous features I got what I call throttled. Throttled as in totally depleted mentally and physically from lack of: nutrition, preparation, stability, the list could go on…riding along the edge of the coulee, I feel heavy and unstable. The Blackfoot referred to this area as Aksaysim (“steep banks”), and I learned harshly how incredibly accurate this interpretation is. Why was I so unstable on the bike?

Justin and Tracey ride ahead as they are well-versed (and extremely admirable, consistent, tuned, you name it) on their mountain bikes, riding into the sun like we were in a movie. Then comes the wave of being unsure. You know, when your inner dialogue really kicks in and you start questioning everything. As they rode ahead I pedalled slowly, wiping the sweat from my brow as I entered my mind, wobbly and trying to maintain composure on this ride. Is my photo backpack too heavy? Did I drink enough water? Do I even have enough water? How hot is it outside? Is my seat too high? Did I have enough electrolytes? Do I have a sustainable source of energy to eat? I have an electric freaking bike, why am I so depleted? That’s the world I was in until we stopped for a break. I was starting to feel very “off” and it was becoming noticeable. I stop smiling as much when something is wrong and I’m not running around all-electric anymore. Although I did have some nutrition and water with me, it was gone at the start and when Justin and Tracey saw I was not-myself, they offered water and energetically-focused nutrition faster than I could ask for it. Why? Because they are badass and come prepared for a hardcore adventure. I sit down, being sure to avoid the nearby cactus then it hits me – I’ve discovered it! THERE IS THE SPIRIT OF OUTDOOR ADVENTURE. It was within Justin and Tracey and it shined on my whole existence in that very moment when I felt as though I was ready to throw in the towel. Almost called a helicopter to take me out of there, you know? Haha! Instead, I felt their spirit then and there. Like a punch of jet fuel. They have my back and I have theirs. This is now, dare I say – raw adventure. A rattlesnake goes by as I replenish nutrients and experience these thoughts and feelings…

I now feel grounded again. Back to reality. My focus turns to my muscles, my breath, the rhythmic inhalation and exhalation within. Keep the mind and body steady, Dax – the day isn’t over!

We then rode over to the far south end of Lethbridge where you’ll find Six-Mile Coulee, a six-mile long coulee filled with distinct features and playgrounds for mountain bikers. We rode into a feature called “The Playground” – the perfect place to photograph mountain bikers getting stoke in an unrealistic terrain! As if I spent four years at University here and had no clue this intense topographic playground for bikes even existed.

Nature at Your Back: Exploring the Helen Schuler Nature Centre

As you’re biking through the valley you’ll enter the Lethbridge Nature Reserve, located just north of Indian Battle Park. and it’s the location of the Helen Schuler Nature Centre. The Nature Centre has been offering environmental education programming since 1982 and I came back to experience the sights and sounds of nature in Lethbridge. This is the ideal spot for exercise enthusiasts and photographers, or those looking to explore nature in the city. Bikes are not allowed in the park, as it is a protected area home to a unique ecosystem and diverse wildlife, and this is one of only a few places in the world where three species of Cottonwood trees are found. You can fully embrace the sights and sounds under the bridge.

I’ve spent time here on two other assignments and to be honest – there is something new to experience every time. Apart from offering nature-based exhibits, art, interactive and fun outdoor programs, this team includes volunteers, staff, and community partners that are dedicated to connecting people to the great outdoors. I’m a stand for the people behind this work! When you visit you can explore numerous self guided walking trails which highlight the unique features of the park, or you can attend one of the regular programs with a volunteer guide.

The first day was significantly mind-blowing and challenging, and I felt a tangible and addictive “pulse” of adventure as we explored the coulees. This day couldn’t have been embraced with anything but an adventure mindset, as we rode 30km through an intricate array of trails and features including the famed Six-Mile Coulee, all accessible for mountain biking, hiking and trail running.

Stay tuned for Part II of my trek where I explore the Indigenous culture and spirit of this region.

BELOW: Looking to the mountainous landscapes south of Lethbridge towards Waterton, AB.

Dax Justin is a Canadian explorer and adventure photographer, currently based in Calgary, AB. His photos and stories are focused on connecting humans back to nature. His work is concerned with ocean health, Indigenous rights and distinctiveness, and our environment, covering stories such as eco-tourism in the Great Bear Rainforest, the human impact of marine debris, and trekking with Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay tundra. Dax is a newly-elected Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (FRCGS), Contributor to Canadian Geographic, a National Geographic Certified Educator, TEDx speaker and creator of the the ‘Explore in School‘ (EiS) initiative. You can explore more of his images and adventures on instagram.com/daxjustin or facebook.com/daxjustin.