Situated east of Edmonton with the North Saskatchewan River basin is the world’s second largest Ecomuseum and Alberta’s most celebrated cultural landscape. Known as “Kalyna Country” literally, the land of the high bush cranberry this unique heritage conservation area encompasses a picturesque territory that is four times the size of Prince Edward Island.
It is a region steeped in the provinces’ native history, a place where aboriginal tribes roamed for millennia and where today their proud descendants can still be found at Saddle Lake, Goodfish Lake and Frog Lake First Nations Reserves. Names of great chiefs like Onchiminahos and Poundmaker are woven into the very fabric of the land, which is dotted with ancient campsites, former battlefields and hallowed burial grounds. Of special significance are the famed “ribstones” near Viking, where native hunters would go to seek divine guidance and to pay tribute to their quarry, the mighty buffalo.
Europeans first entered Alberta’s western plains through the North Saskatchewan valley in the mid-18th century. Beginning with Anthony Henday in 1754-1755, renowned explores like Peter Pond, Peter Fiddler, David Thompson and other mapped the unfamiliar wilderness and forged early commercial links with central Canada and the outside world. With the help of Cree guides and the hardy Scots, French and the Métis adventurers, the Hudson Bay and Northwest Companies established a succession of six trading posts form Fort George – Buckingham House east of Elk Point to the original Edmonton House-Fort Augustus, opposite present day Fort Saskatchewan. A witness to this period in Kalyna Country history was the talented artist Paul Kane who left a visual and written record of his 1846-1847 travels between Fort Pitt and Fort Edmonton, on horseback, by river and on foot.
A short time later, the Victoria Settlement was founded along the banks of the North Saskatchewan, signaling the beginning of the agricultural development of east central Alberta. Missionaries arrived to serve these early settlers and to evangelize the local Native population, now comprised of Plains and Woodland Cree who had migrated with the fur trade westward form Hudson’s Bay. Among the dedicated men of the cloth who brought Christianity to the changing wilderness were a Frenchman, Father Albert Lacombe, A Scot George McDougall and an Ojibway, Henry Bird Steinhauer.
Of course, as the settlement of the Canadian West proceeded, it became necessary to establish law and order on the untamed frontier. Thus in 1874, members of the Company of the newly formed North West Mounted Police crossed the length of Kalyna Country on the way to their first posting at Fort Edmonton. One of the leaders of this ‘trek west” was arguably the greatest mountie in the force’s history, the legendary Sam Steele. Who later became a military commander and was knighted for his many accomplishments. Another similarly honoured early visitor to east central Alberta was Sir Sandford Fleming, who oversaw the surveying of the Canadian prairies and thought the first intercontinental railway should be built through the very heart of Kalyna Country.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the region was transformed by a massive influx of homesteaders. These included central Canadians, Americans and farmers from the British Isles, but by far the largest group came form the former Austro-Hungarian crown lands of Galicia and Bukovyna, which are today part of Ukraine, Poland and Romania. Ukrainians in particular were drawn to the free lands outside of Edmonton, and by the outbreak of the Great War they had helped to make Kalyna Country the largest agricultural colony to be established by East European immigrants in Western Canada. Furthermore, it wasn’t just Ukrainians, Poles and Romanians who settled in the vicinity of Alberta’s future provincial capital, but Moravians, Mennonites, Germans and Jews also came to the region from the predominantly Slavic part of Europe. With the arrival of the Scandinavians, Slovaks, additional French settlers and even some Japanese, who founded a small community west of Redwater, Kalyna Country acquired the distinctive multicultural character that still flavours many of its communities to this day. One obvious reminder of the unique traditions brought by the early immigrants are the onion-shaped silhouettes of the Eastern Rite churches, over 100 of which were built by Ukrainian pioneers on the territory of the Ecomuseum alone. An excellent place to begin exploring this rich spiritual legacy is the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village on Highway 16, or the nearby Basilian Fathers Museum in Mundare.
Initially crisscrossed by a network of Indian trails the meandering path eventually gave way to rough-hewn tracks, and still later to today’s modern, paved highways. However, one can still experience the leisurely atmosphere of travel in bygone times on the historic Victoria Trail, the oldest functioning road in Alberta.
Naturally, the coming of the railroad in 1905 heralded the beginning of an exciting new era in the history of east central Alberta, marked by the appearance of boomtowns that sprang up along the tracks like mushroom after a nurturing rain. The trains not only carried grain and local products to distant markets, they brought urban culture and distinguished visitors to the countryside, including Kings, Queens and Hetmans and several prominent church leaders. Sadly, this chapter of Kalyna Country’s past in now coming to an end, as trucking has become the primary means of commercial transport. Nevertheless, seizing on the opportunity presented by the dismantling of abandoned railway line, Kalyna Country communities form Heinsburg to Waskatenau created the multi-use Iron Horse Trail, an all-season recreational resource that welcomes outdoor enthusiasts to the region who are keen to take in some country air.
Similarly, while seventeen ferry crossings once linked neighbouring communities on opposite sides of the North Saskatchewan River, these have now been replaces by a series of bridges spanning the majestic river valley at strategic intervals throughout the Ecomuseum. Still, if you are interested in taking a route once plied by York boats and steamships, you can always come by canoe or now hire a jet-boat to whisk you across the shimmering waters of the North Saskatchewan.
Today, it is easier than ever to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and the rich culture inheritance of east central Alberta. With more than 40 local museums, over 600 km of multi-use trails, year-round festivals and special events, there are many things to see and do, whether on a day-trip, weekend getaway or a fun-filled family vacation.
Written by Jars Balan
Our historian and one of our proud founders of Kalyna Country 1992.