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Seven Hills a popular destination for generations

On a cold winter day on the prairies, the temptation is pretty strong to stay inside near the heater with a good book or movie. In St.
Steve Richards pilots nephew Oren Bradshaw
Steve Richards pilots nephew Oren Bradshaw

On a cold winter day on the prairies, the temptation is pretty strong to stay inside near the heater with a good book or movie.

In St. Albert, though, there’s one place that seems certain to lure people out of the warm comfort and into the cold, and it’s likely been this way for more than 100 years.

Mission Hill, also known as the Seven Hills if you go back a few decades and just “the hill” if you go back much further than that, has attracted St. Albertans and even those beyond our borders for generations. There’s really nothing like the feeling of hopping onto a sleigh or toboggan and pointing yourself down the hill.

While the very cold weather over the weekend meant there wasn’t as much of a crowd as you might typically find, those who braved the chill were enthusiastic about it.

Angelina Tshuma, on the hill with her husband and kids, said since moving to St. Albert from Toronto last year they’ve only just recently discovered the hill, but it’s already becoming a regular stop for them.

“It is absolutely awesome,” she said. “We love it; it’s the best. I don’t remember any as good as this in Toronto. We’ll be coming here every year for sure.”

Her son Michael was offering no complaints, saying the size alone makes the hill so great.

“It’s really long, and I like how it goes down a really long way,” he said.

And just how long is the run from the top to the bottom?

“We’re too busy screaming to count.”

Kendi Alvarez was out riding with his friends and parents. He said while he often spends time inside playing video games, he was happy to be able to get out on Mission Hill Saturday morning.

“I like this one because it’s so high,” he said. “And I get to ride with my friends.”

Both Alvarez and the Tshumas had more modern foam-and-plastic sleds, and were getting some considerable speed with them. For much of the hill’s history, however, the traditional wooden toboggans and sleighs were the more typical choice.

Toboggans predate European settlers in North America, having been used in several First Nations cultures as a way of transporting goods and people across the snowy prairies. As early as 1881, and likely earlier than that, they caught on as part of settler culture in Canada with groups like the Montreal Tobogganing Club.

Vino Vipulanantharajah, the archivist at the Musée Heritage Museum in St. Albert, said there are photos and stories of sledding on Mission Hill dating back to at least the 1920s.

It has played a significant enough role in this city’s history that it is set to be recognized with a panel as part of the Founder’s Walk, the first phase of which is already in place with vignettes on signs around historical landmarks in the Mission neighbourhood.

“For Phase 2, one of the panels will be about the hill and about all the activities they did on the hill. That’s coming up this year,” he said. “It’s one of St. Albert’s big things.”

Vipulanantharajah noted many of the stories he has heard about the hill have to do with people sustaining injuries on it as a result of sledding, although the hill itself has been landscaped to minimize some of those concerns.

The Seven Hills were smoothed out a bit some time in the late 1960s, and the different slopes themselves were put in some time prior to then. Back in the early days of the last century, residents recall two distinct slopes at the site with a ledge in between them.

“It wasn’t the seven hills that it is today,” said Ann Marie Venne (nĂ©e Blair), who grew up in a house at the corner of Mission and Mount Royal near the hill.

“The seven hills were put in in the ’60s or ’70s; before that it was one big hill that came down from the convent to where the brick school was, and from the brick school there was another hill that went down into the valley.”

She spent many a winter out on the hill, or skating on a pond at the bottom near what is now Father Jan School, and in fact until very recently still had one of the sleds she would slide on as a little girl.

For Christmas one year, Venne said she received a wooden sled with metal runners, and was so excited to try it out because it had a rope with which you could theoretically steer the sled.

“The first day I took it to school, I came down the big hill from the convent and I couldn’t steer it very well,” she said. “I ended up hitting the veranda and made quite a dent in the metal on the front of this sleigh. You can see where it hit the school.”

She gave that sleigh to her two grandchildren, and it still sees plenty of action – albeit on the hill near Robert Rundle School closer to where she now lives rather than on the big hill in Mission.

Every Christmas, the family bundles up and heads out to spend the afternoon out on the toboggan hill.

“It just began that in the afternoon they go sliding,” Venne said. “One of the little guys this year said, ‘Well this is a tradition.’”

Ray Pinco, chair of the St. Albert Historical Society, said he can remember sledding down that hill in the 1940s, and the sleds people used in those days weren’t always lightweight, or what we would not consider safe.

Large wooden bobsleds, made with heavy lumber and wrought-iron runners, were not uncommon.

“These were homemade and really quite substantial,” he said. “They were big, heavy machines, really, but they were toys. You could put half a dozen kids on that and have quite a joyride.”

That said, he doesn’t recall anything too serious in the way of injuries, even before the hill was smoothed out a bit.

“The sled would tip over or if the driver wasn’t careful and hit a tree, yeah there were people getting hurt,” Pinco said. “I don’t remember anybody being seriously hurt; just bumps and bruises.”

He said the bigger bobsleds were a lot less common than the traditional toboggans and sleds, and it wasn’t at all unheard of for people to just make do with what they had. A piece of corrugated cardboard will take you a long way down a snowy hill.

It has been nearly a decade since he hurtled down the Seven Hills, on a sled, toboggan or otherwise, but it’s not something he necessarily misses.

“At my age, I don’t miss it at all. It’s hard work going back up,” Pinco said.

These days, there are actually quite a few seniors who get to relive the sledding days of their youth through a view from their windows in the Chateau Mission Court, a seniors’ housing complex at the bottom of the Seven Hills.

“I live up on the second floor and I’ve got a nice view of the hill,” Margaret Hackner said. “I can see them coming down.”

It very much reminds her of her own youth, when she and her family would travel from Edmonton to use the hill, which has always been a fairly popular spot even for those outside of St. Albert.

Marge McKenzie said while she really appreciates the opportunity to watch the kids, she often feels a little bad for them as well.

“I was thinking we should take up a collection and put in a tow rope for them,” she said. “They come down the hill so quick then it’s a long hike back up there again.”

Cathy Evans was not in St. Albert when she was a girl, but has spent her fair share of time hauling her own kids’ and grandkids’ sleds up that hill.

“Lots of times my brother would come in with his kids, and we’d all go tobogganing together and go back to our place for something to eat,” she said. “It’s really wonderful; there are some very good memories.”

And it was the family get-togethers, building those memories, which appealed to Donna Brown when she moved into St. Albert in the 1970s.

“It was just fun getting outside with the family, getting some fresh air, and then coming back and having some hot chocolate,” she said.

Sledding down that hill, whether on a toboggan or a wooden bobsled, a piece of cardboard or a foam-and-plastic sled, has been a tradition in St. Albert for longer than anyone alive today can remember.

Pinco summed it up best, when asked how long people have been sliding down that hill: “Probably ever since there have been people around the hill.”

And it’s not likely to stop any time soon.