Aerial View of Zama City, looking south. Photograph courtesy of Curtis Johnston.

Much of Alberta’s natural resource wealth is found in the northern parts of the province, but despite the importance of our northern reaches, many of us do not often think about the north until we are somehow forcibly reminded to do so. One of these moments occurred on Thursday, July 12, 2012 when much of north-western Alberta was blanketed with smoke. People in Edmonton awoke to hazy skies and the unmistakable smell of smoke in the air. So, where did this smoke come from? Most were surprised to hear that it came from a massive forest fire near Zama City, about 700 km north.

News reports about the fire and its location had people asking “Zama City? Where is Zama City? And what kind of name is that anyways?”

Zama refers to a place and a few geographical features. These names are presented in order of their official adoption.

Zama River

The Zama River rises in the wetlands around Bootis Hill about 30 km northwest of Zama City and flows generally south for approximately 85 km before entering Hay Lake. The river was named by Ernest Wilson Hubbell of the Dominion Land Survey. Hubbell was born in Brockville, Canada East (later Ontario) in 1862. He joined the military and served as a Lieutenant during the Riel Rebellion, following which he attended the Royal Military College in Kingston, graduating in 1881. A few years later, he was employed by the Dominion Land Survey.

As chief of a survey party, Hubbell traveled extensively throughout western Canada. He recorded the name “Zammah River” in his 1921 field notes. That same year, Hubbell drew a map of Hay Lake. On this map he notes the “Zamah River” being on average two chains wide, four feet deep, having a current of two mph and flowing through muskeg and swamp. He also notes an “Indian trail” on the river’s west side. In a letter dated  21 March 1922 to the Geographic Board of Canada (GBC), Hubbell noted that “[d]uring the season of 1921, I traversed Hay Lake, Northern Alberta, and named rivers … being unable to identify those streams with any others previously recorded.” He further explained that the name “Zammah [is] the transliteration of the name of the Slavey Chief whose trail follows up this river.” The GBC accepted the name during its 4 July 1922 meeting, but altered the spelling to Zama River; no explanation being given for the alteration.

Other surveyors have also commented on the river, notably B. M. Rustad in 1965, who noted in Section 34 of Township 116-7-W6, that the Zama River was 13 feet wide and flowed through “gently undulating country well stocked with Poplar and Spruce to 12 inches diameter, Willow and Alder.” The Dene Tha’ people (formerly known as the Slave or Slavey Indians) identify the river by the traditional name Kólaa Zahéh, which translates as “Old Man River.” There is some thought that this may be a reference to Dene chief Zamba or Zammah referred to by Hubbell, but it is more likely to be a reference to First Nations spirituality and creation stories.


National Topographic System Map Sheet: 84 L/15 – Habay


59° 15’ 11” N & 119° 10’ 58” W (approximate location of head waters) to

58° 31′ 38″ N & 118° 50′ 13″ W (at point of entry to Hay Lake)

Alberta Township System:

Sec 18 Twp 118 Rge 7 W6 (approximate location of head waters) to

Sec 31 Twp 113 Rge 5 W6 (at point of entry to Hay Lake)

Description: Generally south for approximately 85 km (47 km strait line) until it enters Hay lake about 50 km NE of the Town of Rainbow Lake and 105 km WNW of the Town of High Level. 

Zama Lake

Zama Lake is located about 50 km southwest of Zama City. The lake also appears to have been named by E. W. Hubbell, DLS. Oddly, the Zama River does not directly enter Zama Lake; Zama Lake and Hay Lake are connected by a substantial wetland. Although the name for both the river and lake were recorded in 1921, the name Zama Lake was not officially adopted until November 6, 1944. The Dene Tha’ do not use the name Zama Lake, but use traditional names to identify the lake. Some of the Dene Tha’ use the name K’ah Woti Túé, which translates as “Main Blind Lake” (referring to a hunting or duck blind). The Dene around Assumption on the Hay Lake Reserve identify the lake with the name Tulonh Mieh, which translates as “Where the Water Ends.” This is thought to be a reference to the lake being the western-most of the Hay-Zama Lakes group.

Location (approximate centre of lake)

National Topographic System Map Sheet: 84 L/11

Latitude/Longitude: 58° 45’ 00” N & 119° 05’ 00” W

Alberta Township System: Twp 112 Rge 7 W6

Description: Approximately 25 km NE of the Town of Rainbow Lake and 115 km WNW of the Town of High Level.

Zama Lake Indian Reserve No. 210

The Zama Lake Indian Reserve No. 210 is an irregularly-shaped, 2,307 hectare (5,700 acre) reserve located just west of Zama Lake. The reserve is one of seven administered by the Dene Tha’ people. The Zama Lake reserve was created by provincial Order-in-Council No. 547/50, which was signed on May 15, 1950. To “enable Canada to fulfil its obligations under the treaties with the Indians of the Province” the order set aside the land, and transferred title to the Dominion of Canada, to be known as the Zama Lake Indian Reserve No. 210. This transfer was confirmed by Order-in-Council 594/50, which was signed on May 22, 1950. There are no official or permanent settlements on the reserve and it is administered from the band office at Chateh on the Assumption reserve about 30 km to the east.

Location (approximate centre of reserve)

National Topographic System Map Sheet: 84 L/11

Latitude/Longitude: 58° 44’ 12” N & 119° 14’ 27” W

Alberta Township System: Twp 112 Rge 8 W6

Description: Approximately 23 km NE of the Town of Rainbow Lake and 115 km WNW of the Town of High Level. 

Zama City

Imperial Oil Seismic Crew in the Zama Lake/Rainbow Lake Region, Summer 1950
Glenbow Archives (S-236-46) .

Zama City is a hamlet administered by Mackenzie County. It is located approximately 115 km in a straight line (150 km by road) northwest of High Level. It is a service centre for the Zama oil field, which is possibly the largest oil and gas field in the province. According to the 2011 Census of Canada, there are 93 permanent residents in Zama City, but the hamlet often supports a transient workforce population approaching 4,000 people.

The oil fields of the Zama region were discovered between 1965 and 1969. It is unclear exactly when the community was founded. The 1:250,000 NTS Map for the region (Bistcho Lake) produced in 1963 shows the nearby airfields, but no town site. A local history of the High Level area, Notes of the North,published in 1977, suggests that a small community had been established by 1968. It may have been originally known as “Cameron Corner” after an early oil company, but soon became known as Zama City, after the nearby lake and river and the oil field it depended on (It is assumed the “city” was intended as irony). The name of the community was officially recognized as Zama City on September 10, 1980. Although still a relatively isolated northern outpost, Zama City boasts most of the services and facilities one would expect to find anywhere in the province.

In mid-July, 2012, a massive forest fire near Zama City threatened the community, coming within 10 km of the hamlet. Residents of Zama City were evacuated on Wednesday, July 11. The fire was held off and the evacuation order was lifted on July 20, allowing residents to return to their homes.


National Topographic System Map Sheet: 84 M/02 – Moody Creek

Latitude/Longitude: 59° 09’ 09” N & 118° 40’ 50” W

Alberta Township System: Sec 7 Twp 112 Rge 4 W6

Description: Approximately 115 km NE strait-line of the Town of High Level (150 km by road).

 Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Provincial Park

The Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Provincial Park is a large park that encompasses the wetlands surrounding Hay Lake and Zama Lake. The park is 486 square kilometres (188 square miles) in size and is made up of a complex network of rivers, creeks, lakes, floodplains, and muskeg. The wetlands are on three of the four major duck migration roots and are a significant habitat for numerous other types of waterfowl and furbearing mammals. The park is also serving as a re-introduction site for wood bison. In 1982, the Hay-Zama Lakes wetland was recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which has been promoting wetlands conservation since 1971. The Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Provincial Park was created by Order-in-Council 202/99, which was signed on May 5, 1999.

Location (approximate centre of park)

National Topographic System Map Sheet: 84 L/15

Latitude/Longitude: 58° 45’ 56” N & 118° 58’ 53” W

Alberta Township System: Twp 112 Rge 6 W6

Description: Approximately 37 km NE of the Town of Rainbow Lake and 105 km WNW of the Town of High Level.

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

Additional Resources: 

More information about these Ernest Hubbell and the Zama group of geographical features and places can be found at:

Alberta. Tourism, Recreation, Parks & Culture, “Alberta Parks: Hay-Zama Lakes Wildland Park,” [document] available from

Alberta Land Surveyors Association, “Ernest Wilson Hubbell,” Alberta’s Land Surveying History,available from

Mackenzie County, “Communities: Zama City,” available from

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