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Excerpted from Calling Lake Spirit, Vol. 10, June 2023 Courtesy of the Forest History Association of Alberta

The forests around Calling Lake began to form following the last ice age 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Early inhabitants of the forest were Indigenous hunters and gatherers, living on and with the land. There is evidence that they also managed their environment using fire to clear certain forest areas for ease of travel and to encourage the plants and animals on which they depended for life. Those early inhabitants were also the first “loggers” of the forest, using the trees for cooking and warming fires, and for shelter. (Alberta Forest Service 1930-2005: Protection and Management of Alberta’s Forests; Page 2)

Shaped by wildfires in the late 1880s, the forests of today are a mix of white spruce, black spruce, jack pine, aspen and poplar trees. Early residents of Calling Lake and area used the forest for hunting, gathering, and building houses, sheds, barns and fences. The first buildings were constructed with logs; later, with lumber sawn and hewed by hand with cross-cut saws and adzes.

Logging and Sawmilling​

Situated on the Athabasca River, Athabasca Landing had an active timber industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With the river as the main travel corridor, sawmills, planer mills and other companies were set up to built boats and scows, provide cordwood to steamboats and create lumber for construction up and down river. Logging was done in the forests along the river, with the logs floated down the river or hauled by horse-drawn sleighs to the mills. In the May 9, 1913 Northern News, the Athabasca Lumber and Supply Company Ltd. ran an advertisement selling lumber, informing farmers in the area of their species and costs. Fir brands were $23 per thousand, cedar shiplap was $25 per thousand, No. 2 shingles were $2.65 per thousand, and rough lumber for cribbing wells was $23 per thousand. (Reflections From Across The River, A History of the Area North of Athabasca, 1994)

Chester Day at his log house in Calling Lake, 1930s; Evergreen 1966-67

Mr. and Mrs. Samuelson at their log house west side of Calling Lake, 1933; Evergreen 1966-67

Bob Logan building the Calling Lake Health Centre with logs and lumber, 1956; Evergreen 1966-67

Although Calling Lake was more isolated in the early 1900s, the settlers required the forests to supply firewood and shelter. Buildings were made with logs or lumber cut on site or brought in on the bush roads from the south. Mrs. Caroline Gambler recalls Peter Gambler making his own lumber when he built his first house. “It was very hard work for two men to cut the lumber by hand with a saw. The roof was of poles with strips of birch bark laid on top. The birch bark was covered with dirt. The roof did not leak.” (Evergreen, 1966-67; Page 14) Other documented “firsts” include Jim McIntosh owning the first steam engine to power his sawmill to cut lumber, and Nick Tanasiuk building a shingle splitting machine and later a sawmill at their farm at Rock Island Lake. (Evergreen, 1966-67)

In the 1940s and 1950s commercial logging began in the area. With new engines and technology, small sawmills were set up by the Bissels, Crawfords, Wiselkas, Mikklesons and Wallaches. The new technology happened at the same time as the increase in settlement, which created greater demand for lumber to build homes and outbuildings in the area between Athabasca and Calling Lake. As the regulator of Albertans forests, the Alberta Forest Service began issuing timber berths and permits in the forests around Calling Lake.
Ellefson sawmill at Calling Lake. Slim Ellefson working the headsaw, April 1956. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Rudy Wiselka and Mike Padlewski (at right) buck logs at the Wiselka sawmill, April 1956. George Wiselka and sawyer Mike Padlewski purchased timber and set up the sawmill east of McCullough Lake. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Rudy Wiselka’s D4 cat with winch, August 1958. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Small sawmills were built and/or transported to the location of the timber, where crews would cut and skid the trees to the millsite for sawing into dimension lumber. Most all the operations would start with the frost in the late fall and remain until break-up. The sawn lumber would be loaded by hand and trucked out to lumber yards to the south. Most of the sawmills and camps were moved as well and readied for a different logging location the following year. Some operators had multiple year permits and were able to leave their sawmill and camp in place for future logging. Many of the local farmers and settlers would farm during the summer months and log during the winter months. Sawmill locations were scattered throughout the area, from the Pelican Hills to Amadou Lake, south to Calling Lake and McCullough Lake.
Two trucks hand-loaded with sawn lumber for market, fall 1958. Photo: Rudy Wiselka

Arch truck hauling logs to sawmill landing; February 1962; Photo: Rudy Wiselka

Wiselka sawmill east of McCullough Lake, March 1962. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
In 1955, Roland (Slim) Ellefson moved his sawmill from Mirror Landing (Smith) to Calling Lake to access new timber opportunities. The sawmill operated until 1966 when it was sold to Federated Co-op. Calling Lake Logging and Slashing Co-op Ltd., an initiative of local residents, then began sawing at Calling Lake, lasting until the early 1970s. With the timber assets from the cooperative up for sale, Rudy Wiselka and Frank Rojowski started Double R Forest Products in 1971. This new sawmill was built and designed with a large wood yard that allowed them to transport the logs or trees from the bush to a stationary sawmill site. This created a stable work force and longer-term employment; logs and trees could be cut and hauled in the winter; the lumber could then sawn and planed all year long. Frank Crawford, another long-time logger in the area, built a permanent mill on his home quarter south of Calling Lake on Highway 813.
New Double R Forest Products sawmill building at Calling Lake, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Safety booth for head saw, Double R Forest Products, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Double R Forest Products sawmill, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Trees hauled into the Double R Forest Products sawmill yard, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
New sawmill building with trees in the yard, Double R Forest Products, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Aerial view of new Double R Forest Products sawmill at Calling Lake, winter 1971–1972. Photo: Rudy Wiselka

Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) opened a huge pulp mill in 1992, and new access was built to Calling Lake for their deciduous timber operations. Double R Forest Products was sold to Tara Forest Products in 1992, and both Tara and Crawford coniferous timber quotas were sold to Vanderwell Contractors in the late 1990s. Both Vanderwell and Al-Pac continue to operate in the Calling Lake area.

Construction of Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) pulp mill north of Grassland, October 1992. Photo: Bruce Mayer

Paul Wallach: Logging and planing on the farm

After learning the trade by working at sawmills in Alberta and BC, Paul Wallach began his own sawmill business in 1946, initially cutting timber from supply areas or “berths” in the Calling Lake and Lac La Biche areas. In 1954, he expanded the business to include planing, operating as Wallach’s Planing Mill. The planer added value to the boards, making them smoother and more consistent in dimension – and enabling him to provide custom sizes. While his sawmilling occurred during the winter months, much of the planing of the rough sawn lumber was done each summer on his farm east of Athabasca. A tribute in the forestry newsletter Trails & Tales following his death in 2014 adds this about his work:
Besides operating the sawmill and planer, Paul Wallach farmed three quarter sections east of Athabasca, primarily growing wheat and canola. In summer and fall, he also used his trucks to haul supplies for Alberta Transportation, a job that took him to nearly every corner of the province.

Alberta Forest Service​

From the late 1880s to 1930, the federal Dominion Forestry Branch managed Alberta forests. In 1930, resource responsibility transferred from federal hands to the Alberta government, and forest management shifted to the Alberta Forest Service (AFS). For many years, the area around Calling Lake sat within the Edmonton Fire Ranging District, later the Northern Fire Ranging District. The priority to fight wildfires was limited to areas around major watercourses or community development. In the 1940s and 1950s, timber cutting was managed through the timber inspector’s office in Athabasca. J.D. (Dexter) Champion, timber inspector at the time, operated a checking station on the south side of the Athabasca Bridge to inspect loads of timber being trucked south.

With the energy boom of the late 1940s, the Alberta Forest Service began investing in wildfire and forest management in the northern parts of Alberta. The Lac La Biche Forest Division was created in 1955, and Calling Lake became part of this new division, along with Wandering River, Beaver Lake and La Corey. Until the 1950s and 1960s, the rangers were also game guardians, combining fish and wildlife work with their wildfire and timber work.

Calling Lake Ranger Station, looking east, early 1960s. Photo: Ernie Stroebel
Chief Ranger Ernie Stroebel leaning against truck, Calling Lake Ranger Station, early 1960s. Photo: Ernie Stroebel

Many of the early fire or forest rangers were located around Athabasca and travelled to Calling Lake on horse, foot or dogsled. Names from the past include Axel Smith, Charlie Carter, Gisli Gislason, Ludwig Silver (1941–1944) and William (Bill) McPherson.

In 1949, Bill McPherson became the first ranger to be stationed in Calling Lake. He had moved to the area in 1938, homesteading just south of Frank Crawford’s place. Bill retired in 1961, and Ernie Stroebel took over as Chief Ranger. Houses for the rangers were built in the late 1950, early 1960s. Following Ernie, Chief Rangers included Dennis Howells (1964), Ray Olsson (1976), Glen MacPherson (1980), Rick Stewart (1982) and Don Podlubny (1991).

The Calling Lake Ranger Station was closed with centralization of government forestry offices in the mid-1990s. The Athabasca Forest Area office in Athabasca then managed the old Smith, Calling Lake, and Wandering River districts. Today, Calling Lake is part of the Lac La Biche Forest Area, with a wildfire base located at the old ranger station site.

Ernie Stroebel with the motorboat MB Calling River, also called the Inchworm because of its slow travel, on the Athabasca River where the Calling River joins, early 1960s. Photo: Ernie Stroebel
Calling Lake Ranger Station, mid-1960s. Photo: Joe Smith
Over the years, three wildfire lookouts were constructed in the Calling Lake area. The Pelican Mountain Tower, constructed in 1954, was first staffed by local trapper Fred Meyer; it closed in 1976 with construction of a new lookout northwest of Calling Lake, near Wabasca and the Rock Island River inlet. The Rock Island Lookout was constructed in 1976–1977 and first staffed in 1977. The Amadou Lake Crawl Tower was built in 1960 at the start of the Amadou Lake road (now Husky road). The 50-foot wood structure, used only during high fire hazards, was destroyed in the 1968 wildfires.
Tower person Fred Meyer (right) at Pelican Tower, summer 1960. Photo: Ernie Stroebel
Hand-drawn map of the Calling Lake Crawl Tower location, at the start of the Amadou Lake road, early 1960s. Source: Alberta Forest Service
Pelican Tower and cabin, summer 1960. Photo: Ernie Stroebel
Forestry staff were also responsible for the construction of the forestry road from Calling Lake to the Calling River; stop-over cabins at the Calling River, Rock Island River, and the Calling Lake airstrip; and airstrips at the Pelican Mountain Lookout and Calling Lake. Part of the old Calling Lake forestry airstrip now includes the ball diamonds in Calling Lake. Forestry also built a ferry at the Calling Lake River, where people and equipment could be moved across the Athabasca River. They also built the motorboat MB Calling River to move the ferry, but also do wildfire patrols along the Athabasca River.
Calling Lake Ranger Station, garage and houses, winter 1986–1987. Photo: Jeff Henricks
Rock Island Tower, Calling Lake District, Lac La Biche Forest, 1986. Photo: Alberta Forest Service

Wildfires​

Alberta’s forests have been shaped by wildfires for centuries; the forests around Calling Lake are no different. While there were large wildfires in the late 1800s, the 1968 wildfires are the ones remembered from recent time. Windrow burning in the settlement areas along a line from Rocky Mountain House north to Whitecourt, Slave Lake and then east to Athabasca and Lac La Biche resulted in hundreds of wildfires. Of those,185 started between May 17 and May 25, 1968.

A number of wildfires burned in the Calling Lake area. These wildfires, all human-caused, originated from the settled area to the southeast. The largest one, spotting across the Athabasca River near the Lac La Biche River, threatened the community of Calling Lake when it burned east of the community to the northwest.

Calling Lake firefighters battling May 1968 wildfires. Photo: Joe Smith
Tool crib and camp at the Calling Lake airstrip, May 1968. Photo: Joe Smith
Operating a dozer for Pac Construction, Mike Pozniak recalls that after the wildfire jumped the Athabasca River, “the fire went north then switched to the west and threatened the community of Calling Lake. Every Cat and able-bodied firefighter was actioning the fire to prevent burning the community. At the Calling Lake stopover cabin, east end of the airstrip, Mrs. Pat Uchytil was cooking for the overhead team. The fire made it just shy of the community, going around the south side of the lake. The muskegs and creeks were dry, and the Cats could build fireline anywhere. After a couple of weeks, a few light showers came along to help the situation. The Cats worked both day and night shifts building kilometres of fireline. After about a month, the fire was finally controlled.” (FHAA Tales & Trails, February 2019, Issue #18) Many timber salvage permits were issued to log and saw the burned timber before the wood deteriorated from bug infestations.
Canadian Forest Service map showing the 1968 wildfires around Slave Lake and Calling Lake, fall 1968. Map: Canadian Forest Service, Marty Alexander

Reforestation

Planting of harvested cutblocks became a mandatory requirement in Alberta in the mid-1960s. Companies had the option of doing the reforestation work themselves or paying the AFS to do the work. Most opted for the latter. Prior to mandatory reforestation, logging was done on a diameter cut basis, where the larger size trees were removed, leaving the smaller trees to form the new forest. Before trees are planted, heavy equipment is used to create mineral soil sites for planting. The planted sites are monitored over the years to ensure the appropriate number of trees are growing, and that a new forest is being left for future generations.
Double R Forest Products cat pulling a Bracke scarifier in cleared Maintain Our Forest cutblocks, early 1980s. Photo: Rudy Wiselka
Ranger Ernie Stroebel standing on an International TD14 dozer during scarification (debris removal) of a crawl tower area, 1962. Photo: Alberta Forest Service

Maintaining Our Forests Program

Sheep grazing in a Maintaining Our Forests reforestation cutblock, part of a research project to determine their value in reducing aspen and grass competition for planted spruce, summer 1987. Photo: Alberta Forest Service
In 1979, the Alberta Forest Service began the Maintaining Our Forests (MOF) program, in partnership with the federal government. The objectives of the program were to convert young, very dense aspen stands to white spruce. The areas burned in the 1968 wildfires were a prime target in the Calling Lake area. Work started in 1979 with the clearing and burning of the standing aspen and poplar, the site preparation, and lasted until the mid- to late-1980s, when the final tree planting programs were completed. Various site preparation treatments were done in the Calling Lake area: blading with a dozer, leaving furrows with a ripper or Marttiini plow, scalping duff off locations with a Bracke scarifier, and leaving mounds of soil with a mounder. Sites were monitored over the years to ensure successful regeneration. The site preparation and planting has been monitored for years as well by both the provincial and federal governments. A recent compilation of research projects was produced by Vanderwell Contractors and the Canadian Forest Service through funding from the Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta. Signs have been posted describing the work done, how it was done and when. A majority of these sites are along the “C” or Al-Pac connector resource road. Take a look on your next drive down the connector road.
A project of the Calling Lake Community Society

Land Acknowledgement

Recognizing that we are all Treaty people, equally responsible to know our shared history and journey forward in good faith, we acknowledge with respect that Calling Lake stands on land, and alongside water, where Indigenous peoples have gathered, hunted, fished and held ceremonies from time immemorial. Knowing that J.B. Gambler Indian Reserve #183 is part of Bigstone Cree Nation within Treaty 8 Territory, and that we are within Métis Nation of Alberta District 22, we wish to understand the spirit and intent of promises made so that we can take action to create a just and caring future built on truth and reconciliation.

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