WAPISIW – swan ᐊᐧᐱᓯᐤ KINÊPIK – snake ᑭᓀᐱᐠ KINEPIKOS – garter snake ᑭᓀᐱᑯᐢ SÂKÂHIKAN – lake ᓵᑳᐦᐃᑲᐣ
Sylvan Lake is a clear shallow lake situated in the Red Deer River Basin in south central Alberta. It was originally known to the Cree as Kinepikos Sâkâhikan, Snake Lake. On John Palliser’s map of 1859 it was noted as Swan Lake – the Cree being Wapisiw Sâkâhikan. The records show that the name of the lake was officially changed in 1903 to Sylvan when the post office was established. The name derived from the Latin noun silva meaning forest, as the lake was thickly surrounded by heavy timber.
THE FRANCOPHONES ARRIVE
Sylvan Lake presents a wonderful example of the true Canadian Mosaic as immigrants flocked to the unexplored countryside and shores of the lake. As yet unexplored, excepting by the Cree and Nakoda who knew the riches and abundance of their lands and lakes, the shores of Sylvan did not appear as habitable as other lakes and areas of the region. Thick with woods and steep shores, a settlement would require a great deal of hard labour clearing and preparing of land.
Such a challenge would by no means discourage Alexandre Loiselle an American Francophone. The thick timber groves provided a key opportunity for him to set up the sawmill he had brought with him from Michigan. It was 1898, and Loiselle and his son Louis set about to clear the land on the furthermost southern shore and erect the sawmill nearby. He was joined by a family from France, the Archambeaus, who did not require the timber as they built their home from stone in the French tradition. The house still stands today in the Village of Sylvan Lake.
The clearing on the shores of Sylvan Lake and the activity of the sawmill soon attracted other settlers to the area. It was 1902 and Loiselle and Louis built a store to sell general goods and supplies to the arriving homesteaders. The post office was established the following year. They then built a hotel to accommodate the many holidaymakers who were arriving to enjoy the waters and shores of Sylvan Lake. The hotel was completed by 1905 and the beginning of a small town site was now evident. The population around the lake had grown from a mere 2-dozen to around 100 and continued to grow.
THE BEGINNING OF LITTLE EUROPE
At the same time that Loiselle was harvesting the trees for his sawmill, he was clearing land for homesteading. Others were also finding land to clear around the lake. Settlers from Estonia had travelled from Europe and across Canada to homestead in Alberta. At the beginning of the 20th century the Canadian government led by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier advertised in northern and eastern European newspapers the opportunity to homestead in the Canadian prairies for those who were willing to clear land for farming. To many Estonians this was the ideal opportunity to escape from the impending political repression. For many of the emigrants believed it was easier to build a new life in the New World than to live under repressed political and social conditions in their homeland.
However, the first Estonian pioneer to settle near Sylvan Lake was in 1899 when Hendrick Kingsep and his family, including his brother Kristjan and his family, arrived. The area around the lake provided an abundant supply of timber, the lake was thriving with fish and fresh water was available. Kingseps were soon joined over the next few years by the Kasks and Pihts and others. And in turn they were followed by more Estonian settlers, Northern Europeans and a few Russian families.
By 1903 there were 61 persons of Eastern & Northern European dissent growing the community around the Sylvan Lake area. However, it was not just the Estonians who were leaving their country because of political strife. Finland was also threatened by Czarist Russia and they too were aware of the opportunities in the New World offered by Laurier. Many Finns made their journey to Alberta via Michigan; others crossed Canada in the hardships with determination and hope for a brighter future. Even the Swedes found Alberta a place of ‘abundance and hope’. Settlements were established on the west area north of the Sylvan settlement.
Farming for the Sylvan pioneers was challenging, especially under the cold Albertan winters and dry windy summers. The agricultural community came together to challenge the elements and strengthen farming practices with the development of an agricultural cooperative. The Kingseps and Russian pioneer Njuhan Neithal, were instrumental in the cooperative as well as other community initiatives including the building of the school.
As more immigrants settled the area to farm and establish local businesses, some of the original Estonian families moved on to other Albertan communities, including the Kingseps, to pursue larger tracks of land.
AND THEN CAME THE HOLIDAY MAKERS
Holidaymakers also continued to come, tenting on the shores or staying at Loiselle’s hotel. In 1913 the first tour boat was launched to tour visitors around the lake. With the Alberta Central Railway in 1913 going through the area, even more visitors came to Sylvan Lake. It was then in 1913 that the settlement of Sylvan incorporated to become a village. In 1914 the Canadian Pacific Railway followed and the area was opened to more farming and the ability to transport the grain.
The lake and the surrounding area were booming. The regatta came to the lake in 1923 and then the construction of the large boathouse (pavilion). The business made it possible for visitors to rent canoes, kayaks, boats and even swimming costumes. The larger pier was erected in 1928 and jutted into the lake allowing for swimming, boat mooring and the first water slide. Cottages were springing up everywhere around the lake especially with the growth of car ownership in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The boom was on and Sylvan Lake was definitely a super summer resort destination.
THE NATURAL HABITAT
There is a variety of fish in abundance in Sylvan Lake including northern pike, yellow perch, walleye, and burbot. The northwest shore of the lake is excellent for bird watching especially along the rolling hills of the upland areas as well as along the marsh and the shore of the Sylvan Lake Natural Habitat area.
In Reflections of Sylvan Lake by Katie Kaila, a Finnish immigrant wrote …
‘All of a sudden the snow and ice disappeared. The air was filled with the music of frogs and birds. It was the spring of 1901. Our creek became a river full of fish. The men made a willow basket to fit into a narrow spot in the creek; in no time, it took four men to lift it out. The women were ready to clean, salt, and smoke the fish in the sauna bath.’
Today this creek at Kuusamo Krest, on the undeveloped northern west shore, is the only habitat where ungulates, waterfowl and fish are in abundance together in the Sylvan Lake watershed.
TODAY’S HOLIDAY AMENITIES
Sylvan Lake hosts a town, 5 Summer Villages and 6 subdivisions. There are two provincial parks with trails, of which one has a beach and boating access. Kiwanis and Girl Guides manage a camp at the northeast shore. There are marinas, a giant waterslide, public boat launches, playgrounds, picnic areas and 7 private camping facilities. There has been golfing in the area since 1931. Sylvan Lake sports hotels and restaurants, and plenty of shops in the town. Sylvan Lake is alive with activity but also supports the serene and natural environment.
THE LAST WORD
While exploring the lake ponder a moment and think of those who came before. … Sylvan Lake, a mosaic of culture, a mutual triumphant spirit and pioneers who knew that hard work and hope would bring them prosperity and political freedom in the wilds of Alberta.
An aerial view of the beach ca.1930
Photo credit: Glenbow Museum Archives
Size of lake: 42.8 square kilometres
Greatest depth: 18.3 metres
Boat launches: 2 public launches & 8 private with many accesses around the lake
Fishing potential: Good
Hiking & trails: Walking & nature trails with signage
Restrictions on boating & fishing, if any: Posted restrictions apply; maximum 12 kph
Summer Villages (5): Birchcliff, Halfmoon Bay, Jarvis Bay, Norglenwold & Sunbreaker Cove
Year settled: Early by Cree & Nakoda; 1898 by Francophones
Access to Summer Villages (when open/accessible): All year round
Appeal to families & children: High
Appeal to people with passion for topic: Good – History, Swimming, Nature, Boating, Fishing
Scenic appeal of site: Good
Accommodations: 2 provincial campgrounds, resorts, inns, RV camping
Amenities: Day use areas with shelters, water, picnic tables and more
Additional/nearby recreation & accommodation: Resorts, inns, B&Bs, golf, RV campgrounds, waterpark, marinas, playgrounds, aquatic centre, parks, trails and more
FURTHER READING & BIBLIOGRAPHY
Source 1 www.town.sylvan-lake.ab.ca
Source 2 www.albertasource.ca/abestonians/history/1901_settlements.html History of Estonians in Alberta
Source 3 www.abheritage.ca/francophone/en/people/communities_sylvan_lake.html history of Francophones in Alberta
Source 4 www.alberta-lakes.sunsite.ualberta.ca Patricia Mitchell & Ellie Prepas, Atlas of Alberta Lakes