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A big rock, a big boom, and now - big ideas Add to ...

Everything seems to be larger than life in Alberta. The mountains. The sky. The trucks.

It is only fitting that Alberta should also be home to North America's largest glacial erratic - a particularly impressive curiosity for geologists as well as sightseers who pass through Okotoks, a commuter town about 40 kilometres south of Calgary's city limits.

Plunked down on the rolling prairie of the Sheep River Valley sits "Big Rock," a massive boulder dropped there randomly 10,000 years ago, far from Jasper, where it originated when the glaciers were in retreat during the last ice age.

Big Rock was a reference point for aboriginal people on their travels and went by various names, but it was the Blackfoot word okatoks, which translates to rock, that stuck.

Today, it no longer stands alone. One of Alberta's most desirable and environmentally friendly boom towns has grown up around it.

As he surveys the erratic and nearby Rocky Mountains, Okotoks Mayor Bill McAlpine isn't surprised by his community's allure.

"Just take a look," he says.

Nowadays, Big Rock is fenced off for its own protection, in an attempt to keep visitors away. Against the prairie sky, it's difficult to appreciate how big Big Rock really is. Although broken into two pieces, it weighs more than 18,000 tonnes - the equivalent of about 450 grey whales - and cuts an imposing silhouette the size of an apartment complex, measuring 40 by 18 metres, and nine metres high.

Ed McNally named his successful Calgary-based company, Big Rock Brewery, after the oddity in 1985. The entrepreneur has been busy pouring popular beers with unusual names, including Warthog and Grasshopper, ever since.

Okotoks shares his - and Alberta's - pioneering spirit.

In 1906, it boasted 1,900 residents and all the amenities - hotels, hospitals and blacksmiths - of a bustling boom town. Some 50 years later, when Calgary didn't have an establishment where women and men could share in a few glasses of cheer, Okotoks wasn't nearly as prudish and the town, according to local lore, became a popular drinking spot for Calgarians. In the past decade, Okotoks has gone from barely 10,000 residents to more than 22,000.

It became a Statistics Canada headline - posting the fastest population growth for any community of its size in Canada in 2006 - and boasts residents who are younger and more affluent than anywhere else in the province.

In 1998, anticipating the boom, municipal officials affixed a population cap of 30,000 to preserve the town's water lifeline, the Sheep River, which was also carved by ancient glaciers.

With that, the town with the big rock became a big leader in sustainable development.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called Okotoks "the greenest community in Canada."

The town is home to the Drake Landing Solar Community, considered the first of its kind in North America, which collects energy from the sun with an eye to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by five tonnes a year at each of its 52 homes. The residences are considered 30 per cent more efficient than most ordinary homes.

This year, Mike Holmes, Canada's most famous handyman, will start developing his first "Holmes Community," dubbed Wind Walk, at the southern edge of town. With 450 dwellings and 80,000 square feet of parks, schools, retail and civic space, the community will aim to reduce its demand on the power grid by relying on solar, wind and geothermal technologies.

Michael and Jennifer Rioux abandoned Calgary in favour of Okotoks in 2005.

"The whole of Okotoks seems to be moving in the green direction," Mr. Rioux said.

The couple are committed to shrinking their environmental footprint.

They hang their clothes to dry, installed energy-efficient appliances and low-flow showers and toilets, signed up for wind power, collect water in rain barrels, produce half a bag of garbage a week, and employ biodegradable poop-and-scoop bags for their miniature dachshunds.

For his efforts, Mr. Rioux was selected to carry the Olympic torch as it winds through southern Alberta this week on its way to Vancouver for next month's Games.

"We're just glad to be in that environment and take part, doing what we can," he said.

"We have no plans to leave."

With so many people like the Riouxs drawn here, Okotoks may be forced to reconsider its population cap. "We're getting so much pressure. We don't know if we'll be able to maintain it," Mr. McAlpine said.

Okotoks officials hoped to sign a planning agreement last night with the neighbouring municipal district, which is also seeing a boom in building, pledging to work together on future development.

"Everybody agrees there's a lot more people moving here, but we've got to decide where to put them," Mr. McAlpine said.



DAYS 81, 82 & 83


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