by Brenda Allan (nee Anderson)
The thick wood of the boards sloped gradually up and over the sand and the seaweed sludge at the edge of the lake and levelled off over the water. The 4 x 4’s forming the edge of the pier were held in place by huge iron bolts. When I first toddled along that wooden walkway those timbers were knee-high. The last time I saw the pier intact was on a late-night stroll in 1972 to say good-bye to friends.
The structure was an integral part of the life of the town. When walking the pier you could go up the whole length, double back, cross over to the south arm and continue on down to the Boathouse where there was a concession at one end selling ice cream, cotton candy, hotdogs and postcards.
On a hot summer day we kids would grab our towels from the line where we had hung them to dry the day before and head out to walk the three blocks to the lake. Most times we were barefoot or if we could find our flip-flops (or thongs as they were called then), we wore those.
Anyway, the bottoms of our feet were as tough as leather. Sometimes we took a couple of empty pop bottles along. That way we could stop at Long’s confectionary, just past the bank, and trade them in for black jaw-breakers or the paper straws sealed at both ends that held powdered sugar, flavoured lime or strawberry. Then it was on past the hardware store, the movie theatre, the Dutch bakery, the pool hall and Kanten’s 5 & 10¢ store.
When I got older I would usually cross the street before the pool hall because only the older boys and men were allowed in there. Sometimes they would stand in the doorway holding a pool cue. It made me feel shy and nervous. So I would cross the street and pass Turner’s Meat Market and then the hotel which was the last building on the main street. The barroom that was attached sometimes revealed a dark and mysterious interior if the door was opened and an odd odour would waft out, a blend of stale tobacco smoke, bitter beer and alcohol.
After that we could cross the road that ran along the lakeshore, scoot through the sharp grass growing up through the sand … and we had arrived … at the beach.
Not every day was a carefree day, though. After our family had moved to Sylvan Lake as year-round residents, Mom insisted that we take swimming lessons. The lessons were held in the mornings in the early summer. Those mornings were nothing like the summer days I remembered from our holidays, when the sand and the wood of the pier radiated a heat most appreciated by those coming out of long northern winters; when you’d have to pick up your feet quite quickly to avoid that slow burn, and you could spread your towel on the hot sand after emerging from the fresh water, lay down and let the warmth soak through to the whole front of your body.
No … the same sand and the same water took on quite a different quality. Swim lessons taught me endurance and they taught me tolerance but they didn’t really teach me how to swim well. The two weeks of lessons were always the coldest of the summer. I don’t remember them ever being cancelled, and … was it fair that the swim teacher got to stay up on the pier with a sweatshirt on while we kids shivered our way through jellyfish floats, treading water and dog-paddling with blue fingernails and lips? The best part was climbing up onto the pier when the lesson was over and the relief of wrapping my skinny body in a big towel. When our teeth stopped chattering, my sister and I would walk home and hope that the next day would be warmer.
This began my relationship with the pier. The pier observed me growing up, trying out my first two-piece bathing suit and hoping a certain boy would try and push me into the water. The pier stood solid in winter when we skated on the frozen lake and in spring when we dared each other to test the ice ’til we broke through and then sloshed home with icy soaked socks inside our boots.
The pier provided a home for the muskrats who built their twiggy nests under the ledges and we loved to watch for them and stop the boys from dropping rocks on their tiny swimming heads.
The pier absorbed our adolescent angst when the girlfriends would go storm-walking and scream into the white-capped waves that surged over the boards splashing us with cold spray.
The low edge of the pier, down by the boathouse, hid our secret packs of cigarettes that no one knew we smoked.
The pier witnessed my first kiss and soaked up later tears shed for real or imagined boyfriends.
That old pier gave many, besides me, a destination, a starting point, a gathering place and was a recognizable part of the history of the town.
It stood for many years. Walking the circuit over the water, arms linked with friends, on those wooden planks that snagged bathing suits and absorbed suntan oil, is something I will always remember.
Brenda Allan (nee Anderson) is a former resident of Sylvan Lake. Her family lived in the town from 1963 to 1976 and ran the Steam Baths built by her grandfather in the late 1940s. Brenda moved to Edmonton and now lives in Powell River, B.C. on the Sunshine Coast.