Taking Initiative!

The Clear Hills Watershed Initiative’s Lake and Creek Names Research Project 

The Clear Hills Watershed Initiative is working on a research project to uncover the local, historical and traditional names used by area residents to identify the creeks and lakes in their region. The Initiative is concerned with water use and quality, and educating the residents of the region about the local water supply. The Initiative believes that researching the names of their creeks and lakes and disseminating that information will raise the profile of these creeks and lakes and will increase the pride and value that people place on these resources.

Volunteers of the Clear Hills Watershed Initiative naming project  making research notes on maps of the region. Eureka River Hall, March 31, 2012.

The Alberta Geographical Names Program was first approached by the Clear Hills Watershed Initiative in 2010 when they were seeking information on having new geographical names officially adopted. The group has been actively interviewing many of the older residents of the region, with particular attention to the trappers, First Nations people and the men and women who have lived and worked in the backwoods of that section of northern Alberta. What the researchers are discovering is that although many of the creeks and lakes in Clear Hills County are not officially named on maps, there are numerous local and historical names used to identify them. The researchers are also discovering the origin stories behind some of the existing official names. These names are often descriptive of the feature’s physical characteristics or commemorate original settlers or trappers that have worked in the area. In all these, local and historical names shed some light on the history of the Clear Hills region.

Sherri Larsen, organizer of the group and a driving force behind the naming project, invited me to attend a meeting of the Initiative’s naming group and to speak at a community supper held at the Eureka River Community Hall on March 31, 2012. What I saw when I arrived was a group of people who are proud of their heritage and who are dedicated to uncovering as much of that heritage as they can while the sources, many of whom are senior citizens, are still able to relate their knowledge. People with knowledge of the region’s back country and waterways are identified and interviewed. Notes are taken about the names they use to identify water features and these names are then annotated on the appropriate 1:50,000 NTS Map Sheets for the region.

At the community dinner these maps were laid on large tables for viewing. As people came into the hall, a number of them drifted over to the map table and made comments on what was named and what wasn’t. Spirited discussion often followed about what such-and-such a creek or lake was named and who had had their trapping cabin on it or which forestry road went by.

Following dinner I gave a short speech to the assembled residents focused on the importance of geographical names as navigational aids and reminders of our heritage. However, with all of my degrees and experience the importance of the Clear Hills Naming Project was succinctly summed up by a junior high school student, who presented a school project about his favourite place in the county. For him this was “Stoney Lake” (officially named Montagneuse Lake). He remembered important gatherings of family and friends and other members of the community at the recreation area on this lake and that lake and those events made him feel connected to his community. He also said that he was able to get most of his information about the lake from his grandfather.

That in essence sums up the role of place names – they are more than navigational aids and points on a map. They represent our community values and history. The knowledge of many of these names and the origin stories behind them lie with many of the older members of our community.

Following the speeches, even more people found their way to the maps and more comments were made, more creeks were identified and more stories were exchanged. As with most community-based heritage, people often believe that they do not have any knowledge of any value or interest; that nobody wants to know what it was like so many years ago. However, it is usually the people who believe that they have nothing interesting to tell that possess the most valuable information of all. It is important for this knowledge of the past to be passed on to the next generation. The volunteers working on the Clear Hills Naming Project are seeking to record this naming and community heritage while the opportunity is still there.

As the Clear Hills Watershed Initiative uncover more historical and local names for their creeks and lakes, they hope to submit them to the Alberta Geographical Names program to be officially adopted. Keep checking this blog, there should be many more interesting names and stories coming out of Clear Hills County in the near future.

Since the March meeting, the Naming Project has acquired the services of a researcher, Dallas Bjornson. Dallas will be spending most of the summer talking to people and recording their stories about the water features in the area. If you can assist the volunteers of the Clear Hills Watershed Initiative in their geographical names research, they would be pleased to hear from you. Contact information can be found at the Initiative’s website under the “Naming Our Creeks and Lakes” link on the website’s main page.

To learn more, visit the Clear Hills Watershed Initiative website.

Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator

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