(article used with permission by County of Minburn, Alberta)
The area of Akasu
is located 10 km east of Vegreville along Highway 16, near the hamlet of Lavoy. An age-old historical site, it encompasses both Akasu Lake and Akasu Hill, a grandiose geological phenomenon within a vast prairie landscape. The area, which was once a hub of activity, is flanked by legends and enmeshed in mystery and enchantment.
Most of the original settlement structures in the Akasu area are gone, as are most traces of the Cree and Stoney tribes who once migrated to the area. A scant amount of physical history still exists, but if you close your eyes and breathe in the stories of old, you can feel the vibrancy of the past coursing through your blood.
Oral accounts affirm that long before the winds of settlement blew upon the land, Native inhabitants of our province trekked to the Akasu region. Because of the towering, majestic landmark, the area was a prominent and visible rest stop for the weary nomads. The south side of the hill which served as a stopping point for Natives traveling between the North Saskatchewan and the Battle rivers, was a place for souls in need of inspiration. Various Cree tribes spent much time at the base of the hill reflecting on their faith, their beliefs, and the reasons for their travels and pursuits. Today, evidence of Native life in the area has been found by local farmers: arrowheads, tomahawks and petrified pemmican have been unearthed, thus confirming historical records.
The name Akasu
(pronounced Ahk’su), which is not duplicated anywhere in Alberta, is Cree and means “sick.” The origin of the name itself is not known. Though the real story has been slowly swept away by the fingers of time, early explorers have referred to theories regarding how the name came into being. Some say old Natives trekked to the hill to die upon it, while others speak about the water in the adjacent lake containing a large amount of alkali. This alkali contaminated the water and made the Natives ill when they used it for drinking and cooking. Still others attribute the name to the smallpox epidemic of the 1870s, when many Natives lost their lives.
The historical diary of Charles Napier Bell makes reference to the area. His writings refer to the hill as Sickman Mountain, but say nothing of the lake, which was known as Lac de I’homme Malade by early French explorers and the Métis. Similarly, the Cree likely termed the body of water The Lake of Sickness, or may have used the words akasu, napew, and sákahikan (meaning sick, man, and lake, respectively) to refer to the lake.
One Native legend
speaks of a great brave who chanced upon the area. In a time of immense illness he collapsed on the land, unable to carry on with his journey. As he coughed and sneezed, great gusts of dust were puffed from the land. As his infirmity persisted, the billows of earth were washed out of the ground, forming a crater that would become Sickman’s Lake. The dust was carried a short distance and settled in one area, creating what we now refer to as Akasu Hill.
We may never know which story, if any, is accurate, but there is proof of the existence of a local woman who nursed ill Natives. Mary Whitford undertook to aid those who were faced with disease. Though not all diseases were curable, serving her fellow man in times of great suffering became her life’s work. A rare type of mud at the base of the hill was used as medicine to help fight off the medical problems faced by the Natives of Akasu.
By the early 1900s
the nomadic Native tribes of the area had largely scattered, their rich knowledge and love of the land vanished for all time. Settlers from far-away lands, including various countries as well as parts of Canada, converged on the area. These hopefuls used the land to carve out a new and promising future for themselves and their families. It was a time of dreams and aspirations for everyone, as they worked to build their homes from the dust.
For a short time, the area, referred to as the altered version “Sickman” rather than “Akasu,” boasted a joyful variety of bustling people. The hill itself remained an important piece of life after the Natives left. The picturesque mound, which reminded early settler Janet Dinwoodie of the hills of her home country of Scotland, was home to Dinwoodie Post Office. This was the primary postal outlet in the immediate area. Janet’s husband, Richard Dinwoodie, was the postmaster there, and ran a store on Sickman Hill, until his untimely death in 1906. He was the first man buried in what is now known as Dinwoodie’s Cemetery #237, on the south side of Akasu Hill.
The pioneer spirit of all involved (including Joseph Lavoie, whose name was anglicized to form the name of present-day Lavoy, by which Akasu lies) caused the entire area to come alive. Sickman’s Lake, as it was called in the past, was a hub of excitement during the early 1900’s. The scenic lake, which lies just north of the hill, was an exquisite option for holidaying families. With pristine, sandy beaches, clear water, and an abundance of fish life, Sickman Lake was a favourite choice for long, sunny days of enjoyment.
The Hydraulic Stone Manufacturing and Construction Company bought the land around 1906 and used the sand and gravel in manufacturing its blocks. In a letter released in the Vegreville Observer, the company stated they turned part of Akasu Beach into a resort with 40 lots, for the pleasure of the locals. A lot sold for $100.00 and was a steal for those who spent their days in the water. A boathouse was erected on the shores of the pristine lake, where boats were sold or rented.
An abundance of summer picnics were held on the shores of the lake, with children playing, parents lounging, and the lilting sounds of joyful laughter floating on the breeze. Many weeklong campouts were held at Sickman Lake, including the first ever Boy Scouts camp in 1914.
Criticism from the local paper and other sources prompted a reversion to the name “Akasu,” as opposed to the unappealing name of “Sickman.” This change occurred in January of 1918, and was intended to attract more tourists to the area.
At 736.4 metres, Akasu Hill is the highest geodetic elevation between the Obed Summit and the Canadian Shield, within the boreal plains terrestrial ecozone.
How To Get There
From the West: From Vegreville, take Highway 16 due east for approximately 8 km. Turn north on Akasu Road. Follow Akasu Road for 5 km.
From Vegreville, take Highway 16 due east for approximately 14 km. Turn north on Range Road 133 and follow for 2 km.
From the East: From Ranfurly, take Highway 16 due west for approximately 12 km. Turn north on Range Road 133 and follow for 2 km.