Last year was a period of stark contrasts, locally and on the world stage. Most years have their ups and downs, but the local challenges in 2023 included a close call with wildfire, resulting in the evacuation of Swan Hills. Depending on your perspective, this event could also be viewed as a major win because the wildfire did not reach our doorsteps, and the town still stood when we were able to return eight days later. 2023 also brought its share of high points and successes in Swan Hills, including winning the SnoRiders SledTown ShowDown Provincial Championship for the second time.
The year started off relatively slow in 2023. One of January’s most memorable events was another return to normalcy after the pandemic, as the Swan Hills Fire Department (SHFD) was able to host a significant event for the first time since 2020. While the SHFD had held a formal gala in years past as their major annual fundraising event, they tried something new for 2023 with a very well-received Las Vegas-style duelling pianos performance. January also marked the beginning of a significant challenge at the Swan Hills Healthcare Centre (SHHC) that still affects the hospital today with vacant CLXT (Combined Lab and X-ray technician) positions in the lab. Without these specialized healthcare professionals, the hospital is still unable to provide diagnostic imaging services or fully utilize the medical laboratory as we head into 2024.
February was all about the sledding! With promotional videos for the Golden Triangle dropping in mid-January to set the mood, the Swan Hills Snow-Goers first led a guided tour of some of the local snowmobile trails on February 11 as part of the Alberta Snowmobile Tours being offered by the Alberta Snowmobile Association in various locations across the province before hosting another successful annual rally on February 25 with 225 total registrants (including 43 youths).
March was a little more eventful than the previous two months, starting off with formally welcoming Swan Hills’ 2023 New Year’s baby, Tripp Rein Parkin Scott. Next, Swan Hills celebrated its first Swancicle Days since 2020, and the community turned out for it in a big way. Things really shook up on March 16 when Swan Hills residents felt small tremors from a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in the Peace River region of the province. March ended on a high note as Swan Hills edged out the Town of Whitecourt to take the Provincial Championship in the SnoRiders SledTown ShowDown for the second year in a row.
Students from Swan Hills School took center stage in April, beginning with a Healthcare Skills Day at the SHHC for students from grades 9 – 12 that included multiple hands-on stations highlighting different healthcare professions and some of the tasks they regularly perform. In mid-April, the school’s junior high students got the chance to present and demonstrate the skills they had been learning in their elective classes with a Project Showcase. The Students’ Union was also finishing up renovations to the Student’s Lounge by the end of the month, including an electric fireplace in a faux stone hearth.
May started strong with a couple of excellent community events, including a fantastic Hogwarts Tea at the library that delighted Swan Hills’ Harry Potter fans and another successful Community Cleanup. However, unprecedented wildfires in Alberta soon took over news reports with stories of evacuations all over the province. One could feel the tension in the air as three large wildfires ignited in the Swan Hills region, one of which stretched all the way to just south of High Prairie due to the prevailing winds at the time.
The town was put on a wildfire advisory on May 15 after being notified by Wildfire Alberta that the winds were expected to change direction, blowing the largest of the nearby fires toward Swan Hills. The town received a mandatory evacuation order the next afternoon that lasted for eight days. The Town of Barrhead stepped up in a huge way to house and care for most Swan Hills evacuees, with assistance from the Town of Westlock. Town administrative and public works employees remained behind with the SHFD, RCMP, local essential businesses, and inter-municipal mutual aid partners to mount a herculean effort to protect the town from the encroaching fires. Fortune smiled on Swan Hills as wind conditions and some timely precipitation also helped to keep the fire at bay until circumstances had finally improved enough to allow the residents of Swan Hills to come home on May 24.
Swan Hills students from grades 3 – 7 got to experience a little slice of the pioneer life on June 8 during Pioneer Days at the Fort Assiniboine Museum. Devonian Park in downtown Swan Hills also really took shape through the month of June, with trees and plants being planted and benches, garbage cans, and signs detailing information about Swan Hills being installed. The town turned out on June 17 to support the young entrepreneurs participating in another outstanding Lemonade Day. And then the month ended with multiple municipalities in the province experiencing evacuations due to flooding, including parts of Fort Assiniboine and Whitecourt.
Despite the rainy weather, the Town’s Canada Day festivities were well attended, with a BBQ at the Community Family Park and the Swan Hills Hospital Foundation holding its Duck Race on the hill by the Town Office. The proceeds from the 2023 Duck Race were donated to the Alberta Cancer Foundation in support of their fundraising campaign to replace the aging mobile coaches and specialized equipment used by the Screen Test (mobile mammography) program. Fort Assiniboine celebrated its bicentennial with three days of events and activities from July 7 – 9, drawing visitors from all over the province. As July came to a close, mushroom foragers rejoiced as the rainy weather over the previous month began to bring about a bumper crop of wild mushrooms in the area.
In another instance of “what in the heck is going on with 2023?” a hole appeared in the bottom of the bridge crossing the Athabasca River southwest of Fort Assiniboine in mid-August. Alberta Transportation responded quickly and repaired it within a couple of days, but drivers passing the work site had an alarming view of the Athabasca River glimpsed through the hole. Later in the month, Fort Assiniboine held its Hamlet Hoedown, delighting visitors with fireworks, rodeo events, entertainers, lawn mower races, children’s activities, a farmer’s market, and a host of activities.
As Swan Hills children and youth headed back to school, the community welcomed the new principal at Swan Hills School, Sherry Pfannmuller. Students were also thrilled to meet Grizz, the new school mascot. The Annual Community Registration Night was a great success, with a couple of new additions: the Swan Hills Sharks swim club and Pickleball. The students at Swan Hills School wrapped up the month by raising $4,126.25 for the Terry Fox Foundation for the Annual Terry Fox run.
Swan Hills School hosted their annual Halloween Howler volleyball tournament, with 26 games over the two-day event. The Div. 3/4 Students’ Union (SU) raised money with a raffle table full of incredible prizes before hosting a dance for students and tournament players as part of the festivities. And, of course, Swan Hills’ children and youth enjoyed Halloween, sporting some fantastic costumes.
The Swan Hills community remembered the fallen with the Annual Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Swan Hills School and the 50+ building, although the school’s ceremony was about a week earlier than usual due to the new week-long November break. The Swan Hills Christmas Craft Sale, presented by the Swan Hills Keyano Quilters, made its joyful comeback in November, featuring a wide selection of distinctive and captivating items along with delectable treats. Lite Up proved to be delightful this year, featuring Santa as a special guest, hot chocolate by the bonfire, and an impressive fireworks display that almost didn’t happen. The fireworks had been cancelled a couple of days ahead of the event due to a high risk of wildfire because of dry and windy conditions, but a last-minute snowfall the day before Lite Up saved the day and allowed the fireworks to go forward as originally planned.
December was all about Christmas, as is usual for this time of year. Unfortunately, an unknown party (or parties) decided to follow in The Grinch’s footsteps in their approach to Christmas by breaking into the Keyano Centre, 50+ club, Curling Club, and Arena, stealing any available cash they could get their hands on. On a much happier note, the Swan Hills School staff held their second Stuff A Bus food drive this year, surpassing their incredible accomplishments from last year in filling the shelves at the Swan Hills Food Bank. EMS and the Community Peace Officer joined the RCMP in operating a check stop where they offered drivers candy canes and winter safety messages while warning of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol in the yearly RCMP Candy Cane Campaign.