Skeleton Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83I/10
Lat / Long54.6166667, -112.7333333
54°37'N, 112°43'W
Area7.89 km2
Max depth17 m
Mean depth6.5 m
Dr. Basin Area31.7 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinBeaver River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNorthern Pike, Lake Whitefish, Walleye, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusNorth:Mesotrophic
South: Eutrophic
TP xNorth: 36
South: 47 µg/L
CHLORO xNorth: 10.0
South: 20.0 µg/L
TDS xNorth: 181
South: 191 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Skeleton Lake is a local and regional focal point for water-based recreation. Consequently, this popular lake is quite extensively developed and is used each year by hundreds of Albertans. It is located in the County of Athabasca, 160 km northeast of the city of Edmonton and 6.5 km northeast of the village of Boyle. To reach the lake from Edmonton, take Highway 28 northeast to Highway 63. Travel north on Highway 63 to its junction with Secondary Road 663, then turn east and drive until you are about 5 km past Boyle. Local roads from Secondary Road 663 lead north to the summer villages of Mewatha Beach and Bondiss, on the southern shore of the lake (FIGURE 1).

The lake's name is a translation of the Cree Cheply Sakhahigan, which means "place of the skeletons" (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). A Cree chief is buried near the entrance to the Boyle Old-timers Golf Course along the eastern shore of the lake (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979).

The early local history of the area reflects, to a large extent, the harvest of natural resources such as fur, fish and timber (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979). Large stands of spruce around the lake attracted logging activity-one sawmill operated on the lakeshore sometime after 1915 and another operated at Bondiss from 1923 to 1940. Log booms were frequently seen on the lake during this period. The Northern Alberta Railway reached the vicinity in 1914, bringing homesteaders and providing the means to ship lumber and fish to local markets. The area immediately north of Boyle was settled mostly by immigrants from the Ukraine (Alta. Cult. Multicult. n.d.). The major economic activity in the region eventually became mixed farming.

The more recent history of the area reflects the importance of the lake's recreational resources. In 1946, a private resort opened at the end of the southeast bay on the site of one of the former sawmills, and later, the summer village of Bondiss grew around the resort. Seasonal cottage development is the predominant form of recreational land use at Skeleton Lake. In addition to the summer villages of Bondiss and Mewatha Beach, several subdivisions are located on the lakeshore. As well, the Edmonton Region Boy Scouts Association has a camp on the eastern shore of the lake that provides canoe training and wilderness outings for members. A public golf course is located just south of this camp (FIGURE 2).

Public access to Skeleton Lake is available, but there are no provincial campgrounds or large recreation areas. There are two public boat launches in subdivisions in the north basin (FIGURE 2), but no day-use area. Another boat launch is located in the south basin, just south of the narrows. The summer village of Mewatha Beach has a day-use area with picnic tables, fire pits, toilets, a water pump, and a shallow, sandy beach with a designated swimming area. A public boat launch is located nearby, in a public reserve south of the day-use area. The summer village of Bondiss offers two day-use areas. One is located south of the golf course (FIGURE 2) and has a boat launch, picnic tables, campstoves, toilets and a playground. The second area is located on the point of land that juts into the southeast bay. It was being developed in 1988; when finished, it will have picnic tables, toilets and a playground. Two commercial campgrounds, one within Bondiss and the other just west of the boundary of Bondiss on the southern shore, offer a variety of facilities to overnight campers and day users.

The most popular recreational activities at the lake during summer are fishing for northern pike and yellow perch, swimming, sightseeing, general relaxation, power boating and water skiing. In winter, ice fishing and general relaxation are the favoured activities (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979). Boat speeds are restricted to 12 km/hour in posted areas. As well, power boats towing water skiers or surf boarders are prohibited in the narrow channel that joins the north and south basins (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). There are no sport fishing regulations specific to Skeleton Lake, but provincial limits and regulations apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Skeleton Lake is very fertile. Blooms of blue-green algae turn the water green in both basins during summer, but average concentrations of algae in the south basin are higher than in the north basin. Large aquatic plants are common along the entire shoreline and are particularly dense throughout the narrow channel that joins the two basins.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The area of land that drains into Skeleton Lake is about four times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2). Precipitation, surface runoff and groundwater are the sources of inflow. Several small intermittent streams flow into the lake, mainly from Organic soil areas. The outlet is a small creek located at the southeast end of the lake (FIGURE 1) that drains eastward to Amisk Lake; it is often blocked by beaver dams.

The topography of the drainage basin is quite variable. The land is undulating (2 to 5% slope) in the southern and western portions and moderately to strongly rolling (10 to 30% slope) in the eastern and northern areas. Steep escarpments are present along the south shore of the north basin near the narrows (Pedol. Consult. 1978). The majority of the watershed is underlain by the marine shales and ironstone concretions of the Lea Park Formation, which is capped by several metres of morainal drift, or glacial till. The till is clay-loam textured, and has slow to very slow permeability rates. It is frequently overlain by a thin, sandy glaciofluvial veneer (Pedol. Consult. 1978).

Skeleton Lake is located in the Dry Mixedwood Subregion of the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). The dominant soils in the drainage basin are moderately well-drained Orthic Gray Luvisols that developed on clay-loam textured till (Pedol. Consult. 1978). They are often found in association with well-drained Orthic Gray Luvisols that developed on the sandy veneers overlying the till. Both soils are located throughout the watershed on undulating to strongly rolling land. They support a tree cover that consists primarily of trembling aspen and secondarily of white spruce, balsam poplar and white birch. Isolated areas of rapidly drained Orthic Regosols are located on level to undulating land along the southern portions of the lake. These soils developed on sand that has been exposed by the receding water levels. When vegetated, they support a cover of balsam poplar, white spruce and shrubs. Organic deposits are significant throughout the watershed. Soils developed on sedge peat support sedges, reeds and coarse grasses, with occasional bluffs of willow and white birch, whereas soils developed on moss peat support an association of black spruce, Labrador tea and Sphagnum moss.

Most agricultural activity in the drainage basin takes place in the southern and northwestern sections. The main crops are forage and coarse grains, with some improved land devoted to pasture. Resource extraction is limited. A gas plant is located west of Mewatha Beach (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979). The lakeshore has been extensively developed for residential use. The first cottage subdivision was established in 1958 when eight lots were subdivided at Bondiss. In 1960, 132 lots were subdivided along the southwestern shore at Mewatha Beach. By 1978, a total of 479 lots had been created on the lakeshore; 75% of them had been developed for cottage use (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979). In response to the increasing development pressures, Skeleton Lake was placed under the jurisdiction of the Regulated Lake Shoreland Development Operation Regulations, which were administered by Alberta Environment. These regulations restricted lakeshore development until a lake management plan was completed and an area structure plan was adopted by the County of Athabasca (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979; 1980). The purpose of the area structure plan was to provide goals, objectives and policies that would ensure responsible future management of the lake and its surrounding shoreland. In 1988, the plan was in the process of being revised. As of January 1989, a total of 513 lots had been registered at the lake, and 85% had been developed (Alta. Mun. Aff. n.d.).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Skeleton Lake is divided into two basins (FIGURE 2). The north basin is separated from the south basin by a shallow, weedy narrows. During the late 1940s, when lake levels were low, the two basins were separated by exposed land at the narrows. The north basin is small and deep, with steeply sloping sides that reach a maximum depth of about 17 m (TABLE 2). The larger south basin slopes gradually to a maximum depth of only 11 m. The littoral zone extends to a depth of about 3 m (Mitchell 1979) and occupies about 28% of the lake's area (FIGURE 3).

The elevation of Skeleton Lake has been monitored since 1965 (FIGURE 4). The water level declined during the late 1960s to the historic minimum of 623.15 m in September 1968. The lake level rose during the early 1970s to the historic maximum level of 623.85 m in July 1974. This is a maximum fluctuation of 0.70 m.

Skeleton Lake provides drinking water for the village of Boyle. A pumping station is located in the summer village of Mewatha Beach. The annual water allocation for Boyle is 185,000 m3. Between 1985 and 1987, the village withdrew an average of 174,000 m3/year (Alta. Envir. n.d.[d]).

Water Quality

The water quality of Skeleton Lake was studied monthly by Alberta Environment in 1978, 1979, 1985 and 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Mitchell 1979; Alta. Envir. 1985), and in 1989 by volunteer citizens from the summer village of Bondiss (Mitchell 1989). The studies from the two earlier years provided a data base for the development of the Skeleton Lake Area Structure Plan. Similarly, the later studies were requested so that changes in water quality over the six-year interval could be detected and recommendations incorporated into the 1988 area structure plan. The lake was also sampled once in August 1984 and once in March 1985 by researchers at the University of Alberta (Prepas n.d.).

Skeleton Lake has fresh water with high levels of bicarbonate; the dominant cations are calcium and magnesium (TABLE 3). The ionic composition of both basins is very similar, but they have different temperature patterns. The north basin, which is deep and protected from wind, is thermally stratified throughout the ice-free period, whereas the south basin mixes periodically and stratifies only during relatively calm periods (FIGURE 5). In the north basin during summer, thermal stratification results in anoxic conditions below a depth of about 9 m (FIGURE 6). In the south basin during summer, dissolved oxygen gradually becomes depleted with depth, and in each year sampled, the concentration of dissolved oxygen in water near the sediments declined to less than 1 mg/L. During winter, both basins became anoxic below depths of about 9 to 10 m (FIGURE 6). The upper layers of water, however, were well oxygenated.

The trophic status of the two basins also differ: the north basin is mesotrophic, whereas the south basin is eutrophic. The north basin has about half as much chlorophyll a, less total phosphorus, and generally more transparent water than the south basin (TABLE 4). The basins also exhibit different patterns of chlorophyll a over the ice-free period. In the strongly thermally stratified north basin, chlorophyll a levels are highest in May or June and in October (FIGURE 7). In the shallower south basin, chlorophyll a levels are high continuously from July through October. The different pattern occurs because the south basin mixes periodically during summer. Mixing circulates phosphorus-rich water overlying the sediments into the upper water, where it replenishes the nutrient supply to growing algae. In the north basin, nutrients are trapped in the bottom water except when the lake mixes in spring and fall.

The productivity of Skeleton Lake has remained stable over the period between the two studies. The average concentrations of chlorophyll a and the average Secchi depth in 1985/86 were very similar to those values recorded in 1978/79:

North Basin
South Basin

Chlorophyll a (µg/L)
Secchi depth (m)

Although chlorophyll a levels in the two study periods are similar, there are differences among the four years sampled. In 1978 and 1986, considerably higher concentrations of algae were measured than in 1979 and 1985. Values for 1985 and 1986 are given in TABLE 4. These variations are probably related to weather conditions, since several lakes in central Alberta have exhibited similar patterns.

The theoretical external supply of phosphorus to Skeleton Lake is estimated to be 682 kg/year (TABLE 5). The largest contributions are made by surface runoff from forested land (33%) and precipitation and dustfall (30%). The phosphorus supply that enters the lake in sewage effluent from residential areas and campgrounds has not been measured, but it is estimated to be about 2% of the external total phosphorus load. Phosphorus loading from internal sources such as bottom sediments and groundwater has not been estimated, but is probably high in the south basin.

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton in the two basins of Skeleton Lake was studied monthly by Alberta Environment during 1978, 1985 and 1986, and by researchers at the University of Alberta on 14 August 1984 and 12 March 1985 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Prepas n.d.; Mitchell 1979). The average algal biomass in Skeleton Lake differs between years. In 1985 and 1986, chlorophyll a concentrations indicated that a greater average biomass of algae was present in 1986 than in 1985 (TABLE 4); actual biomass measurements supported this conclusion. In 1986, the average algal biomass was 37% higher in the north basin and 60% higher in the south basin than in 1985. Average algal biomass differs between basins, as well. In 1986 (TABLE 6), the average biomass in the south basin (4.78 mg/L) during the open-water season was almost 3 times the biomass in the north basin (1.78 mg/L).

The species composition of algae in the two basins is similar. In 1986 (TABLE 6), species of blue-green algae (Cyanophyta) such as Anabaena flos-aquae, A. spiroides, Aphanizomenon flos-aquae and Lyngbya limnetica were dominant in both basins on most sampling dates from June to October. Species of green algae (Chlorophyta) and Euglenophyta were not common in either basin, and golden-brown species (Chrysophyta: Ochromonasglobosa) formed more than 20% of the biomass only in the north basin in late May. Diatoms (Bacillariophyta) formed more than 20% of the biomass in the north basin in June (Melosira islandica) and October (Cyclotella sp.) and in the south basin in May, June, August and October (Stephanodiscus niagarae). Cryptophytes (mostly Cryptomonas erosa, C. Marsonii, C. ovata and Rhodomonas minuta nannoplanctic) were an important part of the biomass in May only in the north basin and in October in both basins. Pyrrhophyta, particularly Ceratium hirundinella, were common in July and August in the north basin and in June and July in the south basin.

Aquatic macrophytes were surveyed by Alberta Environment in September 1978 (FIGURE 8). Much of the shoreline in the south basin was not surveyed because dense blue-green algal growth obscured observation. Therefore, blank areas on Figure 8 do not necessarily indicate an absence of plants. The dominant species of emergent vegetation in the main basin was bulrush (Scirpus sp.). Small stands of common cattail (Typha latifolia) grew in protected areas and cattails, or cattails associated with sedge (Carex sp.), lined the edges of the narrows. A large bed of bulrushes grew in the centre of the channel and a large stand of reed grass (Phragmites communis) occupied the southern entrance to the narrows. Dominant species of submergent vegetation included large-sheath pondweed (Potamogeton vaginatus), Sago pondweed (P. pectinatus), Richardson pondweed (P. richardsonii), coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum), northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens), star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and stonewort (Chara sp.). Most species were observed growing to greater depths in the clearer water of the north basin than in the south basin.


The relative abundance of zooplankton in Skeleton Lake was studied by Alberta Environment in 1978 (Mitchell 1979). Fifteen zooplankton species were identified in the north basin, and 21 species in the south basin. The most abundant species throughout the lake were two copepods, Diaptomus sicilis and Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi. In the north basin, the cladocerans Daphnia galeata mendotae and D. retrocurva were abundant as well. The small cladoceran Chydorus sphaericus, which inhabits shallow, weedy areas in early summer and deeper water during blue-green algal blooms, was abundant in the productive south basin. Rotifers did not form a large portion of the zooplankton numbers, although they were relatively abundant in May and June. The dominant species were Kellicottia longispina, Keratella cochlearis and Sychaeta sp.

Recent data for the benthic invertebrate community are not available.


Eight species of fish are known to inhabit Skeleton Lake: lake white-fish, northern pike, walleye, cisco, burbot, yellow perch, white sucker and spottail shiner (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The lake is managed for domestic, commercial and recreational fisheries. There are no data available for the domestic fishery.

Commercial fishing records for Skeleton Lake date back to 1944. Until the mid-1950s, the main catch was cisco, and harvests were as high as 29,940 kg, as in 1953/54. The lake was closed to fishing from 1956 to 1959. By the early 1960s, the focus of the fishery changed from cisco to lake whitefish (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976; Brown 1980). Whitefish harvests have ranged from a 1963/64 high of 14,218 kg to a 1972/73 low of 181 kg. During the early 1980s, catches of all species were low. In 1983/84 and 1984/85, no licences were issued, and in 1985/86, the single licensee took 260 kg of whitefish and a total of 79 kg of walleye, white suckers, burbot and northern pike. Since 1985/86, the whitefish catch has been used for collection of roe for production of caviar. After the eggs are taken, the rest of the fish is used for animal food (Sullivan 1989). In 1987/88, 10,782 kg of whitefish were taken by 10 licensees (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Both the whitefish and cisco in Skeleton Lake are heavily infested with cysts of the tapeworm Triaenophorus crassus, and are not sold for human consumption.

Skeleton Lake has one of the more important and popular sport fisheries in the Lakeland Region of Alberta. Northern pike and yellow perch are the main catches. Prior to 1988, the walleye population was quite small. Little or no recruitment had occurred in recent years and the population appeared to consist only of older individuals. In 1988, Skeleton Lake became a high priority lake in the provincial walleye enhancement program. That year, the lake was stocked with 150,000 5-cm-long walleye fingerlings. Stocking was to continue through 1989 and 1990, after which, the sport catch was to be monitored (Berry 1988).

A creel survey of the sport fishery was conducted during 1985 (Sullivan 1987). Northern pike and yellow perch were the main catches, and a few walleye were taken. It was estimated that, from May to August, 5,349 anglers fished for 11,131 hours (TABLE 7). Approximately 39% of the northern pike caught and 49% of the yellow perch caught were released. On a regional basis, the average harvest/angler-hour for 22 lakes in the Northeast Region surveyed between 1984 and 1987 was 0.22 for northern pike and 0.32 for yellow perch (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In comparison, the harvest per unit effort at Skeleton Lake was lower than average for northern pike (0.16 pike/angler-hour) and almost twice the regional average for yellow perch (0.53 perch/angler-hour). Only 21% of the anglers interviewed caught one or more pike and 32% caught one or more perch. The mean size of the pike and perch was considered average. During the survey period, Skeleton Lake received moderate angling pressure of 14.5 angler-hours/ha. Most of the angling effort was concentrated around the shoreline.


The main species of waterfowl present on the lake are grebes, Common Loon, Lesser Scaup, Mallard and Bufflehead. Prime waterfowl nesting and habitat areas are those areas that support abundant emergent vegetation. Although the lake is not a good production area for Mallards, they are quite abundant along the southern and eastern shores (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979).

The forested shorelands around the lake provide fairly good habitat for white-tailed deer, moose, black bears, coyotes, porcupines, varying hares, skunks, mink, muskrats, beaver and squirrels. Upland game birds that frequent the area are Sharp-tailed and Ruffed grouse (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1979).

M.E. Bradford


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-----. 1989. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., St. Paul. Pers. comm.