For history loving foodies, there was no better reason for a road trip. Even though we had to get up pretty early to be on the bus by 8 am for the 3 hour trip (some of us without our morning coffee), it was worth it. Besides, we were promised a stop midway at a place that served the “best coffee in Alberta”. Right on time, we boarded the bus at the North Edmonton Seniors Association (NESA) Center and off we went, coated with sunscreen and mosquito repellent, chatting and looking forward to what we would see since most of us had never been to the area.
On the way there we took the less traveled route past Radway where a pipeline was being installed, then through Smoky Lake to Highway 36, straight up north passing miles and miles of different types of heavily treed areas to Lac La Biche. We proceeded directly to our first stop, the historical Lac La Biche Mission Provincial and National Historical Site, where we were scheduled to have a taste of home cooking followed by a guided tour of the premises.
Because we had arrived early, we had an opportunity to examine the historical displays in the visitor's center and gift shop. In the exhibit room adjoining there was a temporary display called Brides: Past and Present featuring gowns, shoes and china objects belonging to women who had been married in the region.
Soon the call to lunch came and we made our way across the lovely grassed area on a restored wooden sidewalk to the Convent dining room. The Convent, built in 1894, is one of two original buildings of the site. A nearby church built in the mid 1920s also stands to replace the original church completed in 1885 that had been destroyed by a cyclone in 1921.
As we entered the dining area a wonderful smell of cooking greeted us and stayed while we were seated at beautifully set tables. The staff, some in costume, was introduced and quickly began to attend to our needs. It was announced that we were going to be served home-made beef stew and deep-fried bannock (seconds available), followed by a dessert of fruit crisp topped with homemade ice cream.
This brought applause and sounds of obvious delight--especially for the ice cream. How often do you get offered that treat these days! Also we observed that an old fashioned dumb elevator was being used to bring up the food from the kitchen below making the meal more historically authentic.
After the meal we waited in the nun's sitting room of the convent until our guide finished helping with the clean up. We learned that the mission was started by Roman Catholic priests in 1853 and had served many purposes in the past. We toured through a dormitory for resident students, a schooling area, an infirmary, an office and a chapel. Several rooms also had displays of the old fashioned ways of doing laundry, sewing, weaving, printing as well as an intimidating display of old medical instruments used in the infirmary. A room was also dedicated to the native cultures showing various costumes and artifacts used during the era.
We also learned that the area is rich with historical events leading to the development of the province of Alberta as we know it today. The famous explorer David Thompson was said to be the first white man to have visited Lac La Biche where he over-wintered and established the first fur trade post in 1798. He chose this strategic location because of the connection to both the Saskatchewan and Athabasca river systems, which serve the Hudson Bay and the Artic Ocean watersheds. Soon other rival companies built posts but when the fur trade business waned, these posts were abandoned in 1823. However, a population of the fur-trade voyageurs remained in the area as settlers. As it grew, an aged voyageur Joseph Cardinal invited the Roman Catholic Church to visit the area in 1944 with the hope of having a source of spirituality brought to the community. Later in 1853, Father Remas initiated the construction of the mission and named it Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, and by 1856 a small missionary community was in place.
In addition to serving the local population, the mission served as a warehouse and transportation center throughout Northern Alberta and what would become the North West Territories. However, this activity started to disappear with the coming of the railway in 1883 to Calgary after which most of the goods for northern missions traveled to Edmonton then to Athabasca before being shipped north.
A farm and other enterprises were also established to help sustain the mission. For example, it was Western Canada's first commercial production wheat field and home to the first printing press. The wheat field was so prosperous it helped sustain other missions in Alberta. To grind the wheat, the first water powered gristmill was erected at the mission site in 1863.
Later it was modified to create Alberta's first water-powered sawmill. The sawmill was used to construct some of the earliest sawn lumber buildings in Alberta. In 1877 the Mission became a center for publishing religious materials, including in native languages, and published some of the first books in what would become Alberta.
We finished our informative tour with a visit to the nearby church, then gathered at the request of the Mission's staff for a group picture in front of the Convent. Following an exchange of fond farewells in the hot sun of the afternoon, we happily hopped on our air-conditioned bus to our next stop, the memorial to David Thompson located in town on the shore of the lake.
After a short time spent gazing at the lovely lake and the statue of David Thompson and crew, it was time to get back on the bus and head home to the busy bustling noise of the big city. Fittingly, the route back included Highway 63 where several bumper-to-bumper situations were encountered. While our skillful bus driver navigated us safely home through them, we reflected on what a nice break it had been to sample the serenity and calm nature of the Lac La Biche region.
Perhaps we will return some day soon to visit again for another reason. The area has over 100 lakes, approximately 250 kilometres of trails and most of Alberta's Class A beaches. Nearby is Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park where many species of birds both local and migratory can be found there nesting over the summer. Lac La Biche (translated means Red Deer Lake) has a population of close to 3000 and serves the regional Lakeland area with a population of 10,000 residents. The area contains mostly French, Cree, Metis, White Russian, and Lebanese cultures, which makes for many interesting and varied festivals during the summer.
For more information on Lac La Biche events visit www.LaclabicheNOW.com, or enjoy #LaclabicheNOW. You can also call the town office at 780-623-9696. For more information on the Lac La Biche mission visit www.laclabichemission.com or call 780-623-3274. The mission is available for group bookings for bilingual tours, catering, facility rentals. Rates available upon request. It is open from the first weekend in May to the end of August.