Saddle up with the quad squad in Canada

In the UK, the rasping throttle of a quad bike often means a stag do is about to tear up the countryside. But in the wilds of Canada, says Marcus Waring, even the most devout petrolhead can get in touch with his inner environmentalist

Think of quad bikes and you probably think of muddy stag weekends in Wales; groups of (mainly) men tearing up green fields while the organisers look on with concern, pondering the implications for their personal-liability insurance in the event of a mass collision. But the versatility of these four-wheeled machines, based on motorbike engineering, has seen the range of adventures open to petrolheaded explorers increase dramatically in recent years.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the forest trails around Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta, Canada. For starters, you get in touch with your inner Jeremy Clarkson, rumbling through the Boreal (Northern) Forest with guides Tony and Norm on a bright- yellow 400cc Polaris quad with finger throttle. And if you sign up for one of the region's increasingly popular wilderness survival courses, your inner Ray Mears might just come along for the ride too.

On the three-hour Greyhound bus journey north from Edmonton, Westlock County's ordered fields and clumps of trees give way to woods and a hint of dark hills low on the horizon. Clouds hang moodily over burnt stubble and maudlin cows. Fortunately, it is sunnier in the town of Lesser Slave Lake (population 8,000), a settlement whose adjacent 1,168 sq km of water led to this part of Alberta becoming known as "Big Lake Country".

The town's name derives from the Slavey, one of the many tribes of indigenous Canadians who inhabited the region. Great Slave Lake (28,400 sq km, for the record), lies 600km to the north in Canada's Northwest Territories. Today, Lesser Slave Lake is popular with campers, motor-home tourists - and quad bikers; around 80 per cent of local families own one.

In Norm's spacious gravel driveway on the outskirts of town, Tony, sporting a camouflage romper suit, hands me a pair of orange waterproof trousers and a quad bike. Norm and Tony both work at the local pulp mill -forestry, oil and gas are king up here, and the vast tracts of forest are their playground for fishing, hunting and "quadding".

Across Highway 2 and into the woods, the path is dotted with large puddles as it bucks and twists between aspen and spruce trees. The frequent stream crossings mean keeping your feet up and the power steadily applied. Roots and deep puddles cause only minor delays; the quad's huge tyres seem able to overcome most obstacles thrown at them.

Two hours and seven kilometres of bump and grind later, at a trapper's cabin a curious bear has torn a hole through the wall. Grizzlies are rare, black bears more common. Inside, someone has been playing cards, using empty bullet casings for chips. In the trees around the hut, more cards have been pinned up and used for target practice. Maybe it was a losing hand.

As we cross a patch of muskeg, a peaty and poten-tially treacherous boreal bog formed when a body of water is covered by debris, Norm tells me that where the bogs deepen further, the odd bulldozer has been known to go missing. The path is a redundant trail originally carved by mining companies and now used by quad bikers, hikers and local wildlife.

"There aren't ghosts out here," says Tony, "but wolves are ghostly creatures. You'll see one, look away for a second and they just vanish into thin air. Even when you're carrying a loaded rifle, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up."

Camp is near a bend in the shallow river called Nine Mile Creek, 20km from Slave Lake, and waiting there for us is Kelly Harlton, a 42-year-old wilderness expert who is about to teach us the basics of bushcraft. His bushy red beard and quick smile belie his areas of expertise: bear awareness training; knife skills; identifying edible plants; and starting fires.

Kelly has rigged up a parachute above a blazing fire as a temporary shelter, and another Norm and Maggie, two Cree Mohawk First Nations people, are making bush tea. Cree Mohawks originally guided fur traders across Canada, using journey songs to find their way. Like those used by Australia's Aborigines, these are musical maps, geographical references passed down the generations as oral history. Today, explains First Nations Norm, the Cree language is spoken by relatively few people and facing a battle for survival.

Some words necessarily get lost in translation. "Someone recently told me my family was dysfunctional," says Norm. "I didn't understand this word, so asked my uncle what this person meant. He thought a while and said, 'Moh kwiyask puckso' - "Your chainsaw isn't firing right."

With their guests well fed on bear, moose and buffalo soup, the two Norms, Maggie and Tony leave us for the night, and the quiet closes in. The next nearest town is Assinboine, 130km away across rough country.

Lesson one from Kelly is how to make a traditional Canadian bow bed. Using two long branches laid on the forest floor, the idea is to pile leaves between them so that you are off the ground. Then garnish with several sprigs of fragrant spruce - and finally cheat by laying down a rollmat topped with a sleeping bag.

My fellow camp-ers are Marianne, a librarian from Edmonton, and Debbie, a teacher from Slave Lake. Opting to hike to our wilderness camp, they have brought along Ike, a dog pragmatic enough to carry his own food in a saddlebag.

Despite his love of nature, Kelly doesn't dislike quad bikes. He used his own quad to carry our equipment in, highlighting the practical side of these machines for accessing those hard-to-reach places as well as their enjoyable qualities. "When you actually get on one and ride through your first mudhole," he says, "you realise they are fun."

He also knows North Alberta is lucky to have thousands of square kilometres of Crown, or government, land in which to use them. "The [authorities] did aerial surveys in the south [of Canada] recently and found an alarming number of quads, dirtbikes and motorbikes, so the government is now restricting access to certain areas," he explains.

When the first star appears at 11pm we bed down, drifting away to the sound of the river. In the morning, coffee boils as Kelly cooks sausages and pancakes. "Welcome to Day Two Hair," Marianne declares. Then it is time for the learning to begin.

"Around two people a year are killed by bears in Canada," Kelly says, wielding his cut-down 12-gauge shotgun. Given that last year 400 people died on Alberta roads, while 17 died when struck by lightning, bears may not pose the biggest hazard, but from a standing start a 500kg grizzly can cover 100 metres in around six seconds, so it's best not to encourage them.

For this reason, further up the trail we make bear-proof caches for our food, high up in the trees, out of paw's reach. To quench our thirst we drink water tapped from a birch tree and sample some of the edible local flora. Tall longwort, for instance, tastes like an oyster blended with grass.

"[Human beings] have gone wrong with farmed food in the last 10 years," says Kelly as he talks me through more of the local delicacies available from Mother Nature. "Three rosehip berries have the same amount of vitamin C as a whole orange."

Indeed, researchers have found that traditionally First Nations people's diets consisted of around 5 per cent of plants, consumed for medicinal purposes. "They mainly ate meat," says Kelly. "Animals glean calories from the forest, which in turn [fed them]." During our fire-starting lesson it is hard not to feel a certain primeval rush seeing sparks nurtured into flames under the afternoon sun.

Rolling dry strips of bark, into a ball, or "rats' nest", we add a piece of lint which is ignited by a zirconium striker. When smoke appears, the trick is to add shavings from the forest floor. "Once you can make fire, your chances of surviving greatly increase," Kelly explains.

Kelly helps me build a shelter for the night, using three big logs, two long branches and a springy bed of river elder saplings topped with branches of spruce. It feels like a comfortable hammock, and once a tin of bush tea is boiling over a blazing fire, all we are missing by way of creature comforts is a Jacuzzi.

Before supper a deep, loud slapping sound from the river turns out to be caused by a large beaver swimming downstream. Sleeping next to a fire you have made yourself in a forest in the middle of nowhere is a unique experience, even if you do wake to find it cold and grey during the night. As I digest my breakfast, which includestall longwort, a throaty rumble announces Norm arriving on his quad bike to take me back to civilisation.

Enjoyable as it is to get in touch with Mother Nature, there is little to beat the thrill of haring through the wilds at high speed. On the sun-dappled, deserted trails, we manage to reach 40kph; it may not sound very fast, but the cumulative impact of logs and rocks is sufficient to shear off the screws holding my plastic luggage box in place.

As we reattach it back at chez Norm, I inspect the outdoor kennel he has built for his dogs. It is connected to the main central heating system - now that's survival.

Marcus Waring travelled with Canadian Affair (canadianaffair.com, 020 7616 9999). Flights from London to Edmonton start at £149 per person, car hire costs from £19 a day. The Wildside Wilderness (wildside.ca, 001 780 849 8375) three-day package costs Can$260 (£131), including use of quad bike, two nights' camping, survival skills tuition and food. Four-day, three-night packages are available at Can$365 (£184). For more information on holidays in Alberta: travelalberta.com

Four square: a brief history of the ATV

Quad bikes, also known as all-terrain vehicles or ATVs, are essentially four-wheeled motorbikes. The first production-model ATV was made by Honda in 1970, but with three wheels it was relatively unstable. The first quad to be mass-produced for recreational use was Suzuki's Quad-Runner LT125, which came on the market in 1983.

They can have either manual or automatic transmission, and steering is done via a set of handlebars. The engines are similar to those of a motorbike, typically ranging from 50 to 1000cc.

Today's bikes fall into two broad categories: "sport" ATVs are two-wheel drive and capable of speeds of up to 120kph; while four-wheel-drive utility vehicles are primarily designed to handle rough terrain and have a top speed of around 100kph. There are even amphibious quads (AATVs), invariably with six to eight wheels.

In the UK, where they are increasingly being used in agriculture as well as for recreation, they are not without their detractors; one of the principal objections to their use is the environmental damage careless riders often cause.

Famous casualties of quad bike accidents include the comedian Rik Mayall, in 1998, and the rock star Ozzy Ozbourne, in 2003. In Britain, as in the US and Canada, there are a number of fatalities every year.

In Canada, Alberta is one of a number of provinces with a thriving off-road community keen to change public perceptions of ATVs. Trails are overseen by the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association (AOHVA), a body formed over 25 years ago to promote the then fledgling pastime. Working in conjunction with the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, the AOHVA manage recreational access to public land and try to ensure that environmental damage is kept to a minimum.

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