Stepping through time

The bounty and beauty of the body of water known as “Calling Lake” attracted humans as well as animals long before recorded history – perhaps from “time immemorial,” as Indigenous oral history says. This suite of rooms explores the broad sweep of the journey from those early times to the community of Calling Lake today – a mix of First Nations, Métis and settler households as well as cottagers living alongside the Jean Baptiste Gambler Reserve.

If you have any memories, photographs or artifacts to contribute, please contact the history committee.

Calling Lake
Calling Lake. Photo: Calling Lake Community Society

Why Calling Lake? Origin of the name​​

The community of Calling Lake takes its name from the body of water that forms its backbone. First Peoples here call it ᑭᑐᐤ ᓵᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ (Kitow Sâkahikan) or “the lake calls out” in Cree, a nod to the growling moans emitted as the ice breaks up each spring. Perhaps the sounds are caused by submerged gas pockets, or freeze-thaw cycles, or high water levels – or, according to legend, to the call of a maiden in a storm, lured to death by a spiteful spirit.

By A Lake of Sparkling Blue, A history of Calling Lake School by Dora Shwaga (1997) tells of several legends related to the name.

Excerpted from By A Lake of Sparkling Blue, A history of Calling Lake School by Dora Shwaga, 1997, pp. 3-4

Legends related to the naming of “Calling Lake”

The name Calling Lake was given because of the “calling” sound that can sometimes be heard coming from the lake on a clear calm day. This recurring natural phenomenon has never been scientifically explained, but many legends have been told.

One legend tells that the sound is made by the ice when it freezes hard and is cracking.

Another legend tells of an Indian out in the middle of the lake, who calls for help because his canoe is capsized by a sudden storm. The same legend explains why the Indian people years ago would not travel directly across the lake, but would follow the lakeshore when they needed to reach the opposite side.

A historical survey of school districts compiled in 1927 for the Provincial Archives states: “Another story is that when the lake is high, whether in winter or in summer there is sometimes a sound like distant blasting.”

A fourth legend tells of a submerged gas pocket out in the lake bottom that creates this sound as the gas is released.

There are probably many other versions too, but my favourite is the following prize-winning essay written in 1944-1945 by June Davidson, a student in Cloe Day’s Grade 9 class at the Whitelaw High School in the Peace River area.

Read more
Pasquou the self-sacrificing maiden, from By a Lake of Sparkling Blue, p. 4
Pesiskiniseeo the monster, from By a Lake of Sparkling Blue, p. 4

Our history in brief ​​

Excerpted from Calling Lake Community Society Strategic Plan, 2021-2024

Thousands of years before explorers and settlers turned their attention to this area, Indigenous peoples visited the shores of Calling Lake. Studies carried out in 1964-1967 by Dr. Ruth Gruhn of the University of Alberta (Gruhn 1981) found evidence of early occupation at sites near the Calling River, on property owned by Ken Sutton. Researchers consider these sites characteristic of seasonal hunting or fishing camps. Calling Lake Elders recall an oral tradition that says First Nations people followed a migration pattern, living at Calling Lake for a time to fish off the lake and then moving to Rock Island to hunt.

The Calling River, which leaves Calling Lake at the southeast corner of the lake, meanders east until it discharges to the larger Athabasca River, connecting this area to a major waterway. This transportation corridor of the 1700s brought traders, settlers, missionaries and Indigenous peoples from the east. From established settlements such as Lac La Biche, they spread out to hunt, fish, farm and trade in areas such as Calling Lake. Some eventually settled here, running traplines, hunting and fishing, opening businesses, offering services, starting a school, building a community.

In the late 1800s, the federal government negotiated Treaty 8. Originally signed by the Woodland Cree at Grouard, it was later signed in other communities, including Wabasca (in 1899 by Chief Joseph Bigstone). The signing of the Treaty led to the establishment of several “Indian Reserves,” including Jean Baptiste Gambler Reserve at Calling Lake.

Journalist Charles Mair passed through this area in 1899 as secretary to the Métis Scrip Commission. He noted the need for an improved wagon road (“instead of the present dog-trail”) from Wabasca to Rock Island Lake, past Calling Lake and on to Athabasca Landing – a need that persisted for decades. He also described the Commission’s stop at the mouth of the Calling River, one of the places where scrip payments were distributed to those identifying as Métis, and of meeting one of Calling Lake’s oldest inhabitants, Marie Rose Gladue. Mr. Mair remarked that the common language spoken at that time was mostly Cree with a bit of English and French.

After Alberta became a province in 1905, the area northeast of Lesser Slave Lake, including Calling Lake, was placed under the administration of Improvement District 17 East (North). In 1995, it was incorporated as the Municipal District of Opportunity.

In the late 1950s, the government opened Calling Lake to “cottagers.” Lots were drawn for and developed over the next 10 years or so. As the municipality developed and as land was made available by various means, it became possible for more people to stay, and the community started to take on the character as we know it today.

Approximately 500 people live in the municipal district full-time, another 250 live on the Jean Baptiste Gambler Reserve, and the part-time cottager population is close to 2,000.

A short “river of time” 

The following “river of time” draws from our initial research into Calling Lake history. We are already adding entries, with particular focus on long past and Indigenous people and events. If you have an entry to suggest, please contact the history committee.

Adding to the timeline

As we hunt and gather, a more comprehensive timeline of Calling Lake history is taking shape. If you have an entry to suggest, please contact the history committee. We are searching for information about all pieces of the puzzle,  but especially about the earliest days, including times known mostly through Indigenous oral history.

Historic maps of Calling Lake

Maps depicting Calling Lake and the surrounding region through the years show changes over time as well as continuity. While Calling Lake has always been in the picture, it has been called by various names. As our history gathering continues, we welcome more maps and hope to learn more about the stories behind them.

This map, likely drawn by Peter Fidler in the early 1800s, names the body of water we know as Calling Lake by another name: “Talking Lake.” Curious! Note also the HBC label by the lake, indicating a Hudson’s Bay Company post.  This map came to us from Blair Jean, who with Allison McKinnon has written extensively about the history of the Clearwater River watershed. Someone posted the map on Blair’s very informative “Blair Jean Author Historian” Facebook page, and he kindly passed it on. 

We shared the map with Mark Lund, another great friend of Calling Lake History Gathering, and he passed it to Andreas Korsos, who has carefully studied maps of historic fur trading posts. Korsos responded that he has found no record of a post at Calling Lake, but that short-lived outposts were common as the HBC and rival North West Company played hopscotch in pursuit of furs. Korsos adds: “I would suspect that if there was a post at Calling Lake it was seasonal and likely of not long life.” 

Every answer raises another question. Have you ever heard that Calling Lake was once called “Talking Lake” – or that the HBC set up a post here? If so, contact us.

In this 1885 map, what we now know as Calling Lake is labeled “Quito Lake.”

In this 1885 map, posted at, the lake we know as Calling Lake is labeled “Quito Lake.” Sheila Willis, who has also done extensive research and writing on this region, notes that this map also spells Saulteaux River in an unusual way, adding “I suspect he was making his map by lamplight or he was writing based on his own language accent, or he needed glasses.”

Sheila Willis also notes that Calling Lake is called “Echo Lake” in Through the Mackenzie Basin, a journal kept by Charles Mair while traveling with the 1899 Treaty Commission, which made a stop near Calling Lake, at the Calling River. A Cree word for “Calling” or “Echo” is  “Kito.”  Perhaps that helps explain the label “Quito Lake.”

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
This 1918 map of Calling Lake and area is extracted from Sectional Map No. 415 of the Surveyor General of Dominion Lands. Some land in the region was not yet surveyed, as shown by the lack of section markings. With thanks to Margaret Anderson of Athabasca Archives and Don Page at the Alberta Human Footprint Mapping Project for sharing these sectional maps.
These two maps show the community of Calling Lake in 1989 and again more recently. The 1989 map was created by a Calling Lake Grade 2 social studies class and printed in By a Lake of Sparkling Blue, the school history.

Heritage sites & signs

Heritage signs and buildings throughout Calling Lake recall specific aspects of our past, thanks to previous work by the Calling Lake Trails Association, the Seniors Society and others. Those heritage stops include the Calling Lake Historical Centre, located in the community’s original firehall. There’s also a memorial near the site of the original Catholic Church, information canopies at Jeremy Nipshank and Ben Auger Parks and a salute to Bob Flowers at the end of the Poplar Street boardwalk. 
Catholic Church memorial and photos of the original church (completed in 1947) before and after the addition of a bell tower
Jeremy Nipshank Park, honouring an active community member who served in the Second World War

Calling Lake today

Now part of the Municipal District of Opportunity No. 17, Calling Lake is home to a blend of Indigenous, settler and cabin households. About 500 people live in the hamlet  full time, another 250 live on the Jean Baptiste Gambler Reserve (part of the Bigstone Cree Nation) and nearly 2,000 are cottagers who come here part time.

Located immediately north of Calling Lake Provincial Park along Highway 813, Calling Lake is about 59 kilometres north of Athabasca and 113 kilometres south of MD headquarters in Wabasca. Services include the J.B. Gambler Store, opened in 2022 on the reserve, and Moosehorn Market, which has passed through several hands over the decades.  Interpretive signs in parks and at the Interpretive Centre at the heart of the community provide glimpses of the area’s past.

The community hugs the eastern shore of Calling Lake, long known for its beauty and bounty of fish. Opportunities to explore this scenic region  include Calling Lake Provincial Park and day-use areas such as Jeremy Nipshank Park and Ben Auger Memorial Park.

Find out more about Calling Lake today at Community.

A project of the Calling Lake Community Society

Land Acknowledgement

Recognizing that we are all 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.

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