Until 1940, travel to Athabasca meant two days on a rutted trail. Many opted to use waterways, taking advantage of the community’s proximity to Calling Lake, the Athabasca River and other liquid avenues. Airplanes also filled the gap, especially for whisking fish to market. Other modes of transport varied widely, from dogsleds to horses and mules to homemade contraptions. Plus the tried and true travel by foot.


Robin, Calling Lake's first plane, owned by J.H. (James) McIntosh


Topics on tap for this suite of rooms include the following. If you have any memories, photographs or artifacts to contribute, please contact the history committee.



In earlier eras, waterways served as highways for transportation and commerce. After all, getting anywhere by land meant traveling meandering, often muddy trails on foot or by horse. Calling Lake’s proximity to other rivers and lakes opened routes for people to come, initially to hunt, fish and trap – and later to live. Indigenous peoples often used waterways to follow the seasonal cycles of the animals and plants that met their daily needs. Fur traders, settlers, missionaries and lawmakers also used waterways to make their way here from all directions. 

Being linked to the Athabasca River via the Calling River gave this community access to a major trade route. Waterways also helped attract people from the Lac la Biche region, who would use the Lac la Biche River to reach the Athabasca River, then cross the river and follow the Calling River upstream.  Travelers from the Slave Lake area took the Slave River to Mirror Landing (now called Smith), then followed creeks and small lakes to Orloff Lake and continued south to Calling Lake. Those coming or going from Wabasca and other points north welcomed the opportunity to stop for food and rest at Rock Island Lake, which also connects to Calling Lake by a liquid umbilical cord. 

Although much of today’s commerce comes by paved roads and air routes, waterways remain key to Calling Lake’s heritage as a hub with vital connections to communities near and far in all directions. 


“Stanley Crawford recalled walking down the pack trails following the telegraph line to Athabasca. On the way back home they would build a scow to float their supplies down the Athabasca to Calling River. Next was walking the twenty four miles to Calling Lake. They were back again the next day with the team and wagon to pick up the supplies.” – Evergreen Yearbook, 1966-1967

Calling Lake’s link via the Calling River to the Athabasca River proved an asset in the days when waterways served as key highways for trade. Photo: Tawatinaw, Sectional Map No. 415, Human Footprint Mapping Project


There’s some evidence that Calling Lake may have gone by other names in earlier days. It shows up on this 1885 map as “Quill Lake” and elsewhere as “Talking Lake.”


Roads and trails

We can only imagine the network of trails made over the centuries by people and animals coming to Calling Lake seasonally to hunt, fish and forage. Some of those trails were widened and straightened over time as newcomers arrived with carts, horses and eventually cars. Logs laid side by side over low spots to create “corduroy roads” only slightly reduced the likelihood of being mired in the mud. Even after the rough road from Athabasca was graveled and given multiple bridges, the trip from Calling Lake took two days or longer by land. Into the mid-1950s, people talked about driving the route “slideways” after a rain.

As on the prairies, stopping places and villages sprang up about a day’s travel apart. Here people set up homes, offered lodging and traded with neighbours and travellers, making a living and a way of life. Some of those stops were seasonal, serving the people who followed the game. As the pace of travel quickened, these little villages shrank, leaving little more than a trapper’s cabin, graveyard or campsites. 

A history written by Avard Mann and the Kito Sakahekan Seniors Society in 2014 names these milestones in the upgrade of roads connecting Calling Lake with other communities:


  • 1917 – The road between Athabasca and Calling Lake is completed by Oscar Crawford and crew.

  • 1919 – Oscar Crawford is made road foreman and in a year vastly improved the time required to reach Athabasca. 

  • 1931 – Mr. Day and Mr. Joe Uchytil blaze a new road that is a more direct route to Athabasca.

  • 1951 – A bridge opens across the Athabasca River, making it possible to reach Calling Lake without relying on a ferry or ice bridge.  

  • 1958 – A road to Sandy Lake is completed by an oil exploration company. 

In the early 1990s, roads were added and upgraded to serve the Al-Pac pulp mill, which began operating in 1992. Other resource exploration has also added to the network of roads. 

After all that, these days the trip from Athabasca to Calling Lake takes little more than a half hour by car. 


“Our wagons were stuck in the mud, and the muskeg was bottomless. We built bridges, cut roads and put up corduroys. Some of our cattle drowned in the streams. So to cheer us up, we stopped for two days and decided to make some firewater. No mistake, it really was firewater. Our throats were in flames and brought tears to our eyes. One week later, we finally reached our destination, Calling Lake.” – Nick Tanasiuk, describing his initial journey from Athabasca in 1920

“A year ago I drove up to Calling Lake by car. The drive took me 40 minutes. My first trip there [in 1932] was by horses and wagon. That trip took two days of travel. I remember we stopped overnight at Monte Kirkpatrick’s place at Deep Creek. The following day we wormed our way through the timber over roads full of mud holes.” – Alfred Gorman in 1989, recalling his arrival to teach school in 1932

Cleophus Cardinal running a dogsled, an essential mode of northern transport in the days before snowmobiles and quads.
Jake Gislason’s most dependable means of transportation. In 48 years as the local mail carrier, his numerous conveyances included such home-made vehicles as an ahead-of-the-curve ski-mobile. Photo: Evergreen Yearbook, 1966-1967
The Crawford children make their way to school by dogteam. Photo: Evergreen Yearbook, 1966-1967
Jim McIntosh’s bombardier could go anywhere. Photo: Evergreen Yearbook, 1966-1967

Rock Island Lake, about 35 kilometres north of Calling Lake, is not shown on early maps, probably because it had just one main river, and that connects only to Calling Lake. Yet it became a key community for travellers needing food and lodging between Calling Lake and Wabasca. Their hosts included the Tanasiuk family, who are honoured at Rock Island Lake Campground for the role they played in the area’s development.

Air travel

With land travel difficult around Calling Lake in earlier days, airplanes entered the scene by the 1920s, flying fish, furs and people to destinations near and far. 

Robin, Calling Lake's first plane, owned by J.H. (James) McIntosh

James McIntosh brought the first privately owned plane to Calling Lake in 1924. Called “Robin,” it hauled fish and furs from remote northern communities to Calling Lake. From here, they would make their way by various means to Athabasca, Edmonton and points beyond. 

Mae McIntosh (left) of the local general store watches as pilot Charlie (Junior) Fix unloads furs at Calling Lake in 1961. Photo: Collyer family

“I knew Junior Fix mostly by reputation. He apparently walked away from several plane crashes. He liked to give people rides in his plane and try to turn them green by doing loops and other aerial manoeuvres. He was considered a skilled pilot.” – Wendy Ellefson, who lived in Calling Lake as a child while her dad ran the Ellefson sawmill

Keilbauch Plane,1941, Photo: Alice B. Donahue Library & Archives
Photo: Ike Glick

Ike Glick learned to fly while leading a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit in Calling Lake between 1955 and 1969. Flying a Cesna 170, and later the 180 docked here at Calling Lake, he would ferry people, supplies and news between isolated communities.

Click below to learn more about Ike’s flying days.

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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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