A cherished local landmark in Hay River, N.W.T., turned 20 this weekend.
The Hay River Heritage Centre opened in the former Hudson's Bay Company Building on Vale Island on Aug. 26, 2000.
Local dignitaries, donors and board members gathered Sunday for a private celebration marking two decades of history.
Tom Lakusta, chair of the Hay River Museum Society that operates the site, told CBC Radio's Trail's End that rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 forced a smaller celebration than what was originally envisioned.
"It was a real painful decision not to have it open," he said. But "when we received the rules from the chief public health officer, it became clear that a full, open celebration just wouldn't be possible at this time."
The Hay River Heritage Centre has more than 900 square metres of exhibit space dedicated to local history, from Hay River's early mission days to the beginning of the commercial fishery and the 1963 flood.
Most exhibits focus on settler history, as the nearby Dene Cultural Institute in K'atl'odeeche First Nation holds many local Indigenous artifacts.
The centre is also acquiring a house barge and a tugboat from Great Bear Lake, which will someday host exhibits on uranium mining in the North. It's also restoring part of the iconic Hay River Hotel, locally known as "The Zoo," which was demolished last year.
Yet, the crown jewel of the collection, according to Lakusta, is a "fish trackway" — 400-million-year-old fossilized footprints of some of the first animals to ever walk on land.
"There are only three or four places in the world that have that kind of display," he said. "These are [six-foot] fish that are moving to land for the very first time in recorded history."
Sunday's celebration included the presentation of some research on the fossil record, plus speeches from two of the centre's founders, who helped lead the push for a local museum in the 1970s.
Local and territorial leaders also spoke, and attendees were given guided tours of the centre.
Lakusta said the gathering was really about celebrating a local gathering place — one that brings residents together dozens of times a year.
"It brings people back over and over again," he said.