Steele Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83I/12
Lat / Long54.6500000, -113.7666667
54°38'N, 113°46'W
Area6.61 km2
Max depth6.1 m
Mean depth3.2 m
Dr. Basin Area255 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinAthabasca River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishYellow Perch, Northern Pike
Trophic StatusHyper-Eutrophic
TP x64 µg/L
CHLORO x25.0 µg/L
TDS x153 mg/L
44
Photo credit: unknown

Introduction

Steele Lake is a very quiet and pretty lake set in one of the best examples of boreal northern forest close to a major population centre. It is located in Improvement District No. 17, about 180 km north of the city of Edmonton. To reach Steele Lake from Edmonton, drive 150 km north on Highways 2, 18 and 44 until you are just beyond the hamlet of Fawcett, turn east on Secondary Road 663 and drive for about 17 km, then turn north and drive for 10 km to reach Cross Lake Provincial Park. The park was established on the west side of the lake in 1955 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). By 1985 it had expanded to its present size of 2,076 ha (FIGURE 1). It completely surrounds the lake and offers a 90-site campground, a group camping area, pump water, a day-use area, picnic shelters, sewage disposal facilities, a boat launch, a playground and a beach (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1989). Although winter camping is permitted, no services are available.

The lake was first named Cross Lake for its shape and it is still called that locally. It was renamed Steele Lake for Ira John Steele DLS, a soldier killed in World War I (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976; Boyd and Cochrane 1981). There was some attempt to farm in the area in the 1940s, but the land and climate were not suitable and few homesteaders remained. Fur farming, trapping and hunting are the most prevalent land uses now (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.).

The lake is popular for boating in summer and angling for pike and yellow perch year-round. All boats are prohibited in some posted areas of the lake and motor boats are restricted to 12 km/hour in other posted areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). All inlet streams to and all outlet streams from Steele Lake are closed to fishing for a designated period during April and May to protect spawning fish. As well, fishing within 25 m of the fishway is prohibited year-round (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). The lake water is attractively clear in the early summer, but algal blooms discourage swimmers by early August in most years.

Steele Lake is in an area of northern boreal forest that offers an excellent opportunity for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts to see species and habitats not seen in more southerly parts of the province. Forty-three plant communities have been identified within the provincial park, as have 212 species of vascular plants, 26 species of mosses, 25 species of lichens, 5 species of amphibians, 139 species of birds and 20 species of mammals (Peters and Nalte 1973; Luck 1981 [a]; 1981 [b]; Finlay and Finlay 1987).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The Steele Lake drainage basin is very large compared to that of many Alberta lakes; it is 37 times the area of the lake (Tables 1, 2). The basin lies in the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion; the area south of the lake is in the Dry Mixedwood Subregion and the area north of the lake is in the Moist Mixedwood Subregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). Most of the basin is flat to depressional with numerous hummocky peat bogs where the vegetation is typically black spruce, tamarack, Labrador tea and Sphagnum moss, with areas of open bog where marsh marigolds are delightful in the spring. Soils here are Mesisols and Fibrisols (Kjearsgaard 1972; Greenlee 1975). Examples of this habitat are found immediately south of Steele Lake and in the low area extending northeast of the lake. The basin also includes areas of higher ground on undulating or gently rolling glacial till where the vegetation is primarily trembling aspen with some willow, balsam poplar, white birch and a few jack pine and white spruce. Soils on these uplands are Orthic Gray Luvisols with areas of Eluviated Eutric Brunisols (Kjearsgaard 1972; Greenlee 1975). The campground in the provincial park is a good example of this habitat; similar areas interspersed with bogs are found north of Steele Lake. A large area north of the lake was burned in 1968 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.).

The basin is almost entirely uncleared and undeveloped except for parts of the provincial park. Less than 1% of the basin has been cleared for buildings, roads or agriculture, 9% is covered by water bodies including Steele Lake, and 90% is forest and bog.

French Creek, the major inlet stream to the lake, enters at the east end of the north shore (FIGURE 1). Other smaller streams enter the south and north shores and groundwater probably flows into the lake as well (Borneuf 1973). The outlet, also called French Creek, leaves at the end of the narrow southwest arm of the lake, and flows into the Pembina River, which then joins the Athabasca River.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Steele Lake is a large, cross-shaped lake set in a shallow depression. The lake basin slopes gently to a maximum depth of 6.1 m in the centre and in the northeast arm (FIGURE 2). Much of the lakeshore is sandy (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.) and a beach has been developed near the campground.

The water level of the lake is quite variable (FIGURE 3). Between 1975 and 1987 there was a 1.2-m difference between the extreme high level and the extreme low level. Alberta Environment built a sheetpile weir across the outlet in 1974 to stabilize the lake's elevation, but beaver dams upstream of the weir now also have an influence (Lindner 1988). The weir is equipped with a step-pool fishway that allows the outflowing water to drop in a number of small steps rather than in one large cascade. Small pools (approximately 1 m² in area) between the steps allow fish ascending the fishway to rest between jumps. From 1976 to 1985, the annual average fluctuation in lake levels was about 0.5 m. Figure 4 shows how the area and capacity of Steele Lake would change with a change in lake elevation.

The large drainage basin provides abundant runoff to the lake and the residence time of the water is approximately two years (TABLE 2), which is shorter than the residence time of most lakes in central Alberta (Mitchell 1986).

Water Quality

The water quality of Steele Lake has been monitored jointly since 1983 by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]).

Steele is a freshwater lake. It is well buffered, and calcium and bicarbonate ions strongly dominate the chemical composition (TABLE 3). The lake is shallow enough to mix vertically most of the summer. The water temperature in summer is usually uniform from the lake surface to the bottom, and although dissolved oxygen becomes depleted in the lower strata, there was sufficient dissolved oxygen for fish on all summer sampling dates. In March 1985 and in January 1987, the water was anoxic below 4.5 m (FIGURE 5). In most winters, the dissolved oxygen concentration remains high enough to overwinter fish; however, severe fish kills have occurred in some years (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Steele Lake is hyper-eutrophic, as indicated by a mean summer phosphorus concentration of 64 µg/L and a mean summer chlorophyll a concentration of 25 µg/L (TABLE 4). Phosphorus levels were lowest in May in all years monitored and increased only slightly through June (FIGURE 6). Chlorophyll a concentrations were also low at this time and the water was clear. In July and August, when the dissolved oxygen concentration was low and the temperature was high even at the lake bottom, phosphorus was released from the sediment. This stimulated algal production and reduced water clarity. During the summers of 1983 through 1986, the highest chlorophyll a concentration was 105 µg/L on 18 August 1985; the Secchi depth at this time was only 0.75 m (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]). On 2 August 1985, campers noticed many dead bats and ducks lying on the water, which appeared to have a "blue-green sheen". Over 1,000 bats and 24 Mallards and American Widgeons were found dead. The Provincial Veterinary Laboratory in Edmonton examined specimens and concluded that death was due to poisoning by Anabaena flos-aquae, the blue-green alga that made up most of the algal bloom (Pybus et al. 1985).

Biological Characteristics

Plants

There is no information on algae or macrophytes in Steele Lake, except for the presence of a toxic strain of Anabaena flos-aqua.

Invertebrates

There are no data on invertebrates in Steele Lake.

Fish

Steele Lake supports a popular year-round sport fishery for northern pike and yellow perch; both are native to the lake. A severe winterkill in 1954 almost eliminated the once-abundant perch population (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The lake was stocked with a few perch in 1965, but natural recruitment was likely more effective in replenishing the population (Watters 1989). Perch are now frequently caught by anglers. A partial summerkill of perch occurred in August 1977 and a partial winterkill occurred in 1979/80 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

There are no commercial or domestic fisheries on Steele Lake.

Wildlife

Cross Lake Provincial Park provides an excellent and easily accessible example of Boreal Mixedwood forest. The 139 species of birds found in the park include Blackburnian Warblers, American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers. At the lake and in the marshes are Swamp, Song, LeConte's, White-throated and Savannah sparrows, Common Loons, and grebes. The forest areas harbour Great Grey Owls, White-winged Crossbills, and Bay-breasted, Blackpoll and Palm warblers. Twenty species of mammals live in the area, including moose, deer, snowshoe hares, woodchucks, mink and bog lemmings (Peters and Nalte 1973; Luck 1981 [a]; 1981[b]; Finlay and Finlay 1987).

J.M. Crosby

References

Alberta Environment. n.d.[a]. Devel. Op. Div., Design Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[b]. Envir. Assess. Div., Envir. Qlty. Monit. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[c]. Tech. Serv. Div., Hydrol. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[d]. Tech. Serv. Div., Surv. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife. n.d. Fish Wild. Div. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. 1988. Boating in Alberta. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

-----. 1989. Guide to sportfishing. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Alberta Hotel Association. 1988. 1988 Alberta campground guide. Prep. for Travel Alta., Edmonton.

Alberta Recreation and Parks. n.d. Parks Div. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

Alberta Research Council. 1972. Geological map of Alberta. Nat. Resour. Div., Alta. Geol. Surv., Edmonton.

Borneuf, D. 1973. Hydrology of the Tawatinaw area, Alberta. Alta. Res. Counc., Edmonton.

Boyd, E. and M. Cochrane (ed.). 1981. Hardships and happiness. Fawcett Hist. Book Club, Fawcett.

Energy, Mines and Resources Canada. 1973. National topographic series 1:50 000 831/12 (1973), 831/13 (1973). Surv. Map. Br., Ottawa.

Environment Canada. 1982. Canadian climate normals, Vol. 7: Bright sunshine (1951-1980). Prep. by Atm. Envir. Serv. Supply Serv. Can., Ottawa.

Finlay, J. and C. Finlay. 1987. Parks in Alberta: A guide to peaks, ponds, parklands & prairies. Hurtig Publ., Edmonton.

Greenlee, G.M. 1975. Soil survey of Cross Lake Provincial Park and interpretation for recreational use. Alta. Inst. Pedol. Rep. No. M-75-1. Univ. Alta., Edmonton.

Holmgren, E.J. and P.M. Holmgren. 1976. Over 2000 place names of Alberta. 3rd ed. West. Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon.

Kjearsgaard, A.A. 1972. Soil survey of the Tawatinaw map sheet (83-I). Alta. Inst. Pedol. Rep. No. S-72-29, Univ. Alta. Bull. No. SS-12. Univ. Alta., Edmonton.

Lindner, D. 1988. Alta. Envir., Design Const. Div., Edmonton. Pers. comm.

Luck, S. 1981[a]. Cross Lake study area: Resource assessment (Part I-Resource inventory). Alta. Rec. Parks, Parks Plan. Div., Edmonton.

-----. 1981[b]. Cross Lake study area: Resource assessment (Part II-Resource assessment). Alta. Rec. Parks, Parks Plan. Div., Edmonton.

Mitchell, P.A. 1986. An assessment of water quality in Steele (Cross) Lake. Alta. Envir., Poll. Contr. Div., Water Qlty. Contr. Br. Unpubl. rep., Edmonton.

Peters, J. and D. Nalte. 1973. An ecological survey of Cross Lake Provincial Park. Alta. Ld. For., Parks Plan. Div., Edmonton.

Pybus, M.J., D.P. Hobson and D.K. Onderka. 1985. Mass mortality of bats due to probable blue-green toxicity. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Strong, W.L. and K.R. Leggat. 1981. Ecoregions of Alberta. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.

Watters, D. 1989. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton. Pers. comm.


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