The Sikome Aquatic Facility in Fish Creek Provincial Park welcomes an estimated 200,000 visitors each year during the three months that it is open for business. Courtesy Alberta Parks

Sikome Aquatic Facility buoyed by upgrades

While Alberta is landlocked, and most of Calgary’s manmade lakes are private, Calgarians still like to spend a warm, summer day at the beach every now and then. Thankfully, there’s still one public body of water within the city where people can go for a swim or throw down a towel to catch some rays.

Nestled in Fish Creek Provincial Park, the Sikome Aquatic Facility has been one of Calgary’s most popular summer attractions since it opened in 1978.

The facility consists of an open-air swimming lake surrounded by a beach, lawn, children’s playground and change rooms. It currently draws an estimated 200,000 visitors over its three-month season and up to 15,000 per day on weekends. While those are impressive numbers, Sikome’s location in southeast Calgary is in one of the fastest growing sections of the city amd means traffic should continue to rise.

In part to accommodate the growing crowds, the facility recently underwent some upgrades.

“The enhancements include new sand, upgraded change rooms and a beach vendor hut where visitors can purchase needed items such as sunscreen, bug spray and wet wipes,” said Kimberly Van Nieuvenhuyse, public affairs officer with Alberta Environment and Parks.

“In addition, extra aquatic safety staff and gate staff were hired to improve visitor safety. The additional staff also allows us to offer swimming lessons this year, which is a unique opportunity for Calgarians to take lessons in a lake environment.”

Prior to 2016-17, the facility at Sikome had received minimal upgrades due to a lack of capital funding. There were times when the south side of the lake had to be closed and the season shortened to reduce operating costs.

“The fees are not a deterrent. To me, if you’re willing to pay the fee it means you’re willing to respect the area, and that’s a good thing. This is somewhere you can go with the whole family, whether they swim or not.” – Kristin Pritchard, Deer Run resident

In 2016, a nominal user fee was implemented at Sikome. Fees are reinvested back into the Sikome Aquatic Facility to ensure its continued operation and upkeep.

“With increased resources, the full lake is now accessible,” said Van Nieuvenhuyse.

“This will enhance the experience for visitors to Sikome while ensuring an affordable and accessible summer outdoor experience for park users.”

While there was a drop in the number of recorded visitors to Sikome for 2016, it’s hard to point the finger at user fees or any one factor.

“It was unusually wet in Calgary last summer,” said Van Nieuvenhuyse. “To put it in perspective, there were only eight dry days in the entire month of July, one of the rainiest on record in Calgary. Many summer destinations experienced lower attendance numbers.”

It’s also tough to accurately compare past attendance. Prior to the fee system, individuals who entered and exited multiples times would be repeatedly counted. Thanks to park improvements, Van Nieuvenhuyse said Alberta families are more likely to stay and make a day of it.

For regular visitor and Deer Run resident Kristin Pritchard and her three children, the improvements were well worth the fees.

“I find the overall appearance of the lake is better and the water and washrooms are cleaner,” said Pritchard.

“I’ve lived in the community for 20 years and always liked Sikome, but it’s safer and more appealing since the upgrades. For example, though they’ve always had rules against smoking and drinking, now they have someone at the gate checking bags to make sure the rules are enforced.”

Far from just tolerating the new fees, Pritchard actually welcomes them.

“The fees are not a deterrent. To me, if you’re willing to pay the fee it means you’re willing to respect the area, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “This is somewhere you can go with the whole family, whether they swim or not.”

Perhaps the only negative for Pritchard and her fellow visitors is that with Calgary’s brief summer, they can only enjoy the facility three months a year. For that short time, however, a regular trip to Sikome is something many are warming up to.