The map of Alberta is dotted with names like Mink Lake, Merganzer Bay, and Marten Hills. In fact, about 1 in 10 of the 9000 official place names of Alberta has something to do with animals. It's a little less than 900 names. And more than likely these are aboriginal in origin and they've been passed down from the aboriginal tongue or in English or French. This in turn is a pretty good indication that some of these date from the hey-day of the fur trade. So these are possibly the oldest names that we have.
The French and English speaking fur traders were here from the late 1700s and they used aboriginal names for the geographical (land) features they encountered. Since the European fur traders dealt with many tribal groups, it only made sense to continue using the names already familiar to their suppliers and guides. Why change a good thing right?
Aboriginal people most often named their world in a practical way. From the names that have survived from pre-contact times, it appears that many geographical features were named according to their physical attributes. Such as "big", "little" or "smoky", or by the food source that would be available at the site, such as "jackfish", "buffalo" or "duck".
In Canada, the most used animal name is "moose", but in Alberta that honour goes to another animal. In Alberta, the front-runner is none other than the nation's symbol: the beaver. And perhaps this reflects a fur trade influence. There are at least 53 cultural and geographical features named after some form of the critter, including the town of Beaverlodge, and Beaver County. There are also 7 Beaver Lakes, 6 Beaver Creeks, 5 Beaver Dam Creeks and 4 Beaver Rivers in Alberta.
Anything with the name of Amisk or Castor refers to the rodent. Amisk is the Cree translation, and Castor, or "Castore" is the French or Latin form of the word. One of the first residents of Amisk named the village streets "Gopher", "Squirrel", "Lynx" and "Badger". As for Castor, which is located 140 kilometres east of Red Deer, the region was crawling with beaver when the town was incorporated in 1909.
When the Scots came to what is now known as Red Deer in central Alberta, they mistook the elk in the area to be the same as the red deer back in their homeland. The town of Red Deer is just one of many places in Alberta that's named after an animal. And interestingly enough, the non-moose members of the deer family run a close second after the Beaver as a namesake.
When taken as a group, there are at least 51 places that bear the name "Caribou", "Deer", "Elk", "Red Deer", "Ponoka", which is Blackfoot for "Elk", "Labiche", which is French for red deer, and "Waskasoo" and "Wapiti" which is Cree for red deer and elk respectively.
The moose itself holds third place with about 33 names with "moose" or "moosewa" - Cree for moose. In the northeast, for example, you'll find the Moosehills, Moosewa Creek and the former village of Moosewa just east of Elk Point. The Moosewa post office ran from 1912 to 1929, but the name was later changed to Lindbergh.
But the list of animals doesn't end with the moose. A close 4th is the buffalo or bison, which has at least 32 names, including those with "bull" in the name, along with "Buffalo" and "Moosetoose", which is Cree for bison.
Following right behind are the bears. There are about 31 names that include "Bear", "Grizzly" or "Moosqua", which is Cree for bear. Sometimes people are inspired to name features after some of the Creator's less appreciated species. You can imagine what was endured while visiting such places as "Black Fly", "Mosquito" and "NoseeUm" Creeks…Or even "Horse Fly Lake".
Also well represented are birds and reptiles, including bittern, kerloos, loons, pelicans, ravens, whiskey jacks, frogs and Rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake Lake is located just 20 kilometres southeast of Medicine Hat.
Even some exotic species from South America and the plains of Africa made it onto the map of Alberta. Near Grande Cache are " two ll'ed Llama" Creek, Flat, and Mountain. The geographical names inventory database does not give a reason why they are named in this way.
And half way between Jasper and Banff, outside the parks, are "Lion" and "Lioness" Peaks on Reliance Mountain. Lion and Lioness Peaks owe their names to the imagination of one Eric Hopkins. But it was the money making spirit that caught the imagination of those who named some lakes on CFB Wainwright.
Within the area of CFB Wainwright can be found a pair of water bodies called "Yak Lakes", which is confusing at first. But apparently this name dates from the early part of the 20th century when the Wainwright Buffalo Park experimented with cross breeding. Sounds like an episode of South Park! Remember pig and elephant DNA just don’t mix! Some yak were imported and cross-bred with buffalo, resulting in Yakallo. The offspring were sterile (could not reproduce), so the experiment didn't go that far, which is why we don't hear of Yakallo today.
They also mated bison and cattle, yielding cattalo, and this explains the existence of Cattalo Lake in CFB Wainwright. The Cattalo Bridge was built across Ribstone Creek in the 1950s by the Department of National Defence, and it also takes its name from the Cattalo breeding program at CFB Wainwright. Who knows what will happen with the technology scientists use today. They could produce some strange animals to name places after.