'Something I'm very proud of': Group set to celebrate 50th anniversary of Elbow River Trail

It was the summer of 1971 when 40 University of Calgary students were joined by 10 high school students who all went to work linking city landmarks with a trail system.

Brent McCorquodale and Rob McKenzie applied for a federal government grant called Opportunities for Youth to create a trail along the Elbow River, from the Glenmore Reservoir to the Calgary Zoo.

"We weren't trying to re-invent the wheel or anything," said McCorquodale. "Lets use what we've got and improve it and there's some places where there was none and we needed the access to get along further, and so we created some of it."

The student-led project received $46,500 in federal funds that were to be used for wages. They needed another $26,000 from the City of Calgary for materials and tools.

Rod Ball had experience as a builder with his dad and was tasked to making stairways on the path around the south end of the Glenmore Reservoir.

His partner was Rick Million and all the work had to be done by hand, without power tools.

"We were basically out here slugging away by hand," said Ball. "Bucksaw, pounding in with sledge hammer three-foot spikes and everything was hand done, all holes were drilled by a brayson bit and we loved it."

Donna Parks was a kinesiology student at the time and was no stranger to hard work.

She says it was tough building the trail through brush, roots and rocks, but Parks has many fond memories of how much fun everyone had for the three-month-long summer project, wearing bikini tops and work boots.

"Back then we were working on our tans covered with dirt," she said.

"But Terri (Higgins) would work with one boot and one flip flop so that she could tan her feet evenly and the next day she would switch over."

They worked 10-hour-days, four-days-a-week and at the end of the job received $1,000 each, which would almost cover a year's tuition at the university.

The project was finished early so McCorquodale gave the crew the week off with pay. That didn't sit well with the city or then mayor Rod Sykes.

"I was on the carpet with the mayor of the time," said McCorquodale. "He said, 'Brent, you can't do that,' and I said, 'can't do what?' 'Well you can't just pay these kids and give them a week's holiday and tell them have a nice life.'"

So the group went to work planning a grand opening for the new trail. Debbie Norrie wrote an invitation to Grant MacEwan, Alberta's then lieutenant-governor, who accepted.

"He came down from Edmonton and we have the picture with the Elbow River Trail, the old sign, it had a boot on top and he was just a gracious man and he came down and officially opened our path."

The trail system has been used by hundreds of thousands of people who likely don't realize it was a student-led project that got it all started.

"I've got grandkids that use these (trails)," said Ball. "My kids come and ride bikes and we ride bikes around here on weekends and now it's all beautiful asphalt and stuff the infrastructure is incredible, we did it all with red shale and it was pretty rudimentary but it was a start and everything has to have a start."

"My daughter," said Norrie. "It's her birthday, she said today, 'Mom, you know you are part of Calgary history, I'm really proud.' I'm sure my grandkids are tired of hearing about it, but they're proud of me so it was an honour to be part of it."

"When you get of a certain age and you start to think about what legacy you have," said Parks. "Aside from family this is my legacy, it's something I'm very proud of but it's something I think Calgary is proud of."

Parks says if any of the other 46 trail workers are interested in getting together this summer for a  low-key reunion, please contact her via email