It was a cold, blustery February afternoon and I hopped under some warm furs inside a dogsled while a Cree musher drove through the tiny Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan and onto the frozen surface of Lake Athabasca. The dogs yelped excitedly as the sled picked up speed and glided across the snowy landscape and I felt as if I was being transported back in time. A little less than sixty years ago, dogsleds were the primary mode of transportation in this remote northern community.
Founded in 1788, Fort Chipewyan was the first European settlement in Alberta and from the very beginning, residents have eagerly anticipated winter for the freedom it brings. When the ground is frozen, you can travel for long distances and access other communities by dogsled, snowmobile or by car on a 518 km (322 mi) ice road that is constructed each winter and connects the community with Fort McMurray, Alberta and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. During the summer months, land travel becomes impossible due to muskeg and marshes and the only way for the 850 residents of the community to reach the outside world is by plane or boat.
Part of the appeal of this little place is its remoteness and a visit there is made all the more special because it takes some effort to get there. Those who travel the ice road in winter or arrive by plane in the summer, discover a tiny northern town with an active and friendly populace comprised primarily of First Nations and Métis people. And even though few local residents travel by dogsled anymore, it’s quite possible that dogs still outnumber people in Fort Chipewyan.
More Alberta Originals
Exploring Alberta’s oldest places will take you on an intrepid journey from the northern edge of the province to its southwest corner and in-between.
No exploration of Alberta first sites would be complete without a visit to Alberta’s first building, the Father Lacombe Chapel. In 1861, Father Albert Lacombe constructed a log building with Métis helpers to serve the new St. Albert Roman Catholic Mission. Still standing, Alberta’s oldest building became the centre of a French speaking Métis settlement called St. Albert. At the site, historical interpreters take you back in time to the early 1860s and you learn about the man who lived among the First Nations, assisted in creating a Cree translation of the New Testament, brokered peace treaties, negotiated construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and founded many schools.
Alberta’s first major crude oil discovery took place outside Leduc on February 13, 1947. Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre is now an interactive oilfield museum that houses more than 200 exhibits, 13 acres of outdoor exhibits, has two working demonstration rigs, and is home to the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. The Centre contains artefacts, photos, archives, interpretive displays, and oilfield equipment designed to give the public a taste of life in Alberta’s oil patch.
The first oil well in western Canada is in a place you would least expect to find it – a national park. If you drive along the winding Akamina Parkway, in Waterton Lakes National park, you’ll discover a National Historic Site of Canada commemorating the first oil strike in Western Canada in 1902. This region of the Canadian Rockies was known to First Nations for natural oil seeps. Oil exploration began in the early 1890s before the area was designated a national park. Though it was only viable for a couple of years, it was the first productive well in Canada’s western provinces and the monument and interpretive panels tell its story.