Utikuma Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83O
Lat / Long56.8666667, -115.4500000
56°52'N, 115°27'W
Area288 km2
Max depth5.5 m
Mean depth1.7 m
Dr. Basin Area2,170 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinPeace River Basin
Camp GroundNone
Boat LaunchHand/Small Boat
Sport FishNorthern Pike, Lake Whitefish, Walleye, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusNo Data
TP xNo Data µg/L
CHLORO xNo Data µg/L
TDS x331 mg/L
Photo credit: Alberta Environment


Utikuma Lake is a very large, isolated lake set in the wilderness of Improvement District No. 17 (Central). The hamlets of Gift Lake and Atikameg are the closest population centres (FIGURE 1). The nearest towns are Slave Lake, 80 km to the southeast, and High Prairie, 100 km to the southwest. Utikuma Lake has good recreation potential but access is limited and no recreational facilities have been developed. Secondary Road 750, which extends north from Highway 2 at a point 17 km east of High Prairie, skirts the western side of the lake. Access to the lake from Highway 88 (formerly Highway 67), which runs north from Slave Lake and skirts the eastern shore of Utikuma Lake, is possible from a road that branches west from the highway midway along the eastern shore. Although there is no formal boat launch, a small boat can be launched from this side of the lake. Launching can be difficult, however, because boats must be carried to the lakeshore and the water is less than 1-m deep for several hundred metres from shore (FIGURE 2).

The lake's name is Cree for "big whitefish" (SATA Systems Inc. 1983). Members of the Whitefish Lake Band live on Utikoomak (Whitefish) Lake Reserves 155, 155A and 155B (FIGURE 1). In 1983, the band population was 678 people. Reserves 155 and 155A border the northwest and north shores. Band members are descended from Woodland Cree who lived in the area in the late 1700s. In 1907, after Treaty No. 8 was signed, the three reserves were surveyed and a total of 4,845 ha of land was allocated to the band. The Gift Lake Metis Settlement, which comprises 83,951 ha of land, borders the western shore of Utikuma Lake and extends west past Gift Lake. The settlement was established in 1938 to provide land for descendents of the Métis who had followed the fur trade into the area during the nineteenth century. In 1984, 482 people lived in the settlement (Alta. Native Aff. 1986).

Water quality data are limited, but low transparencies during summer suggest the presence of large quantities of algae. Aquatic macrophytes, which grow densely around the shoreline, can interfere with motorboats in shallow areas during late summer. There are no boating restrictions specific to the lake, but general federal regulations apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). The commercial fishery in the lake was very important until a severe winterkill occurred in March 1989. No licences were issued for the 1989/90 season, and recovery of the fish stocks was expected to take several years. The lake also supported domestic and recreational fisheries. To protect spawning lake whitefish, the portion of Utikuma River that flows from Utikumasis Lake into Utikuma Lake is closed to sport fishing from 15 September to 15 December each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Utikuma Lake is an important waterfowl production, moulting and fall staging area. The population of Canvasbacks using the lake during summer is particularly large.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Utikuma Lake has a large drainage basin that includes many rivers and small lakes (FIGURE 1). Because of the large size of the lake, however, the area of the drainage basin is only 7.5 times greater than that of the lake (Tables 1, 2). The Mink and Utikuma rivers drain most of the northern and western portions of the watershed and flow into Utikumasis Lake. The outflow from this lake, the Utikuma River, empties into the western side of Utikuma Lake. Several smaller rivers drain the southern and eastern sections of the drainage basin. Utikuma Lake's outlet, the Utikuma River, is located on the north shore in Utikoomak Indian Reserve 155A. It flows into the Peace River via the Muskwa and Wabasca rivers.

Utikuma Lake's drainage basin is situated on the Utikuma Uplands Section of the Northern Alberta Plains Physiographic Region (Pettapiece 1986). The northwestern, western and extreme southern portions of the watershed lie on the Heart River Upland District, an undulating to hummocky morainal (till) upland. The remainder of the watershed is part of the Utikuma Plains District, a hummocky to undulating morainal plain. Elevations range from 762 m along the southern boundary of the watershed to 645 m on the shore of Utikuma Lake.

Soil survey information is not available for the northwestern section of the watershed. West of the lake, the soils are primarily Orthic Gray Luvisols that formed on glacial till, and secondarily, Organic soils that formed on Sphagnum moss bog and Orthic Gray or Podzolic Gray Luvisols that formed on shallow outwash materials. The remainder of the watershed is generally poorly drained, with areas of muskeg. Organic soils that formed on Sphagnum mosses are predominant in the poorly drained locations, whereas Gray Luvisolic soils are present on till or outwash materials in better drained areas (Wynnyk et al. 1963).

Utikuma Lake is situated in the Moist Mixedwood Subregion of the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). The dominant trees on moderately well-drained Gray Luvisols are trembling aspen and balsam poplar. White spruce grows on imperfectly drained Gleysols and Gray Luvisols, black spruce and willows grow on poorly drained Organic soils and Gleysols, and sedges grow on very poorly drained Organic soils.

There is some agricultural activity on the Indian reserves and on the Métis settlement, where about half of the land is capable of producing crops such as oats, barley, canola, perennial forage and vegetables, but the amount of land under cultivation is unknown (Alta. Native Aff. 1986). The forestry and oil and gas industries are active throughout the watershed.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Utikuma Lake is one of Alberta's largest water bodies (TABLE 2). The single, very shallow basin declines gently to a maximum depth of 5.5 m near the centre of the lake and then inclines rapidly toward a small central island. There were 10 islands in the lake when the 1971 hydrographic survey was conducted (FIGURE 2). At least two of the islands are large enough to be permanent, but the number of smaller islands varies with the water level. The total area of the islands is approximately 14 km2 (En. Mines Resour. Can. 1976).

The elevation of Utikuma Lake has been monitored since 1969 (FIGURE 3). The water levels refer to an assumed benchmark rather than geodetic elevation. The range in lake levels over the period of record was 1.14 m. The lowest elevation (29.50 m) was recorded in September 1969, and the highest (30.64 m) in May 1974. Water levels were generally higher during the period from 1971 to 1979 than they were from 1980 to 1987. During the more recent period, the range in lake levels was 0.50 m. Figure 4 illustrates changes in the lake's area and capacity with fluctuations in water level.

The lake level has been controlled since 1948, when Ducks Unlimited (Canada) and the Government of Alberta installed a timber weir at the outlet (Alta. Envir. n.d.[c]; Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.). In 1973, the structure was upgraded to a sheet-pile weir with a stop-log bay; it is maintained by Ducks Unlimited (Canada).

Water Quality

Water quality data for the lake are limited. Fish and Wildlife Division sampled the lake during August 1968 and from June to September in 1976 (Smith 1969; Walty 1976) and monitored temperature and dissolved oxygen concentrations in March 1979 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Utikuma is a well-buffered, freshwater lake (TABLE 3). During the open-water period in 1976, the temperature of the water column was uniform from surface to bottom except for a short period in early August (FIGURE 5). Dissolved oxygen concentrations remained above 5.0 mg/L throughout the open-water period (FIGURE 6). In March 1979, dissolved oxygen concentrations declined from 7.0 mg/L at the surface to 3.8 mg/L near the bottom sediments (FIGURE 6). In contrast, in March 1989, a severe winterkill occurred when the entire water column went anoxic (Walty 1989).

Detailed chemical data are not available, but the low average Secchi transparency (0.9 m) recorded in Utikuma Lake during the open-water period in 1976 suggests that concentrations of algae are quite high.

Biological Characteristics


The plant community in Utikuma Lake was studied in August 1968 and from June to September 1976 by Fish and Wildlife Division (Smith 1969; Walty 1976). The relative abundance of phytoplankton species in both studies was determined from net plankton hauls. In 1976, nine species of green algae (Chlorophyta) and five species each of blue-green algae (Cyanophyta) and diatoms (Bacillariophyta) were identified. From July through September in 1976, the bluegreen species Aphanizomenon flos-aquae was more abundant than the other phytoplankton species.

In the 1968 survey, macrophytes were widespread, with dense beds of plants in most of the bays. Most vegetation was submerged, but beds of emergents were also common. Emergent vegetation covered 18% of the surface area. In 1976, macrophytes along a portion of the eastern shore were identified. The single emergent species recorded was bulrush (Scirpus sp.). Submergent species included star duckweed (Lemna trisulca), stonewort (Chara sp.), coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum), Richardson pondweed (Potamogeton richardsonii) and northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum ex-albescens).


The large zooplankton species in Utikuma Lake were sampled by Fish and Wildlife Division with tow nets both in August 1968 and from June to September in 1976 (Smith 1969; Walty 1976). In both studies, cladocerans, particularly Daphnia spp. in 1976, were generally more abundant than calanoid copepods.

In August 1968, benthic invertebrates were sampled once at each of 31 locations, mostly at depths of 2 m or less. The average total density was 3,741 organisms/m2, which was considered quite high. Midge larvae (Chironomidae) accounted for 71% of the total numbers and 93% of the total volume (89 mL/m2), and scuds (Amphipoda) accounted for 22% of the total numbers and 2% of the total volume. Leeches (Hirudinea), snails (Gastropoda), aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta), clams (Pelecypoda) and mites (Acarina) were found in smaller amounts.


Eight species of fish have been reported in Utikuma Lake: northern pike, yellow perch, lake whitefish, burbot, cisco, walleye, white sucker and spottail shiner (Dietz and Griffiths 1978). Cysts of the tapeworm Triaenophorus crassus were reported in Utikuma Lake whitefish during the 1940s and in 1960, but no cysts were found during the 1970s (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976). The lake is managed for recreational, commercial and domestic fisheries. The catch by the domestic fishery is not known. Between 1981/82 and 1987/88, an average of 56 domestic licences were issued each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

The lake was fished commercially each year from 1942 to 1948 (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976). Joint records were kept with nearby Utikumasis Lake during this period and until 1966. The total catch from the two lakes declined from an average of 72 112 kg/year for the period from 1942/43 to 1946/47 to 1,400 kg in 1947/48. Following a prolonged summer drought in 1947, there was a partial winterkill in Utikuma Lake in 1948 (Smith 1969). Commercial fishing was discontinued until the 1959/60 season. Catches improved markedly after 1961/62. The largest total catch (390,593 kg) was taken in 1987/88, when a record 896 licences were issued (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Between 1968/69 and 1987/88, the average annual catch was 273,006 kg. Approximately 50% of this catch was whitefish, 27% was northern pike, 22% was cisco and less than 1% was walleye. In March 1989, a severe fish kill occurred in Utikuma Lake and no licences were issued that year for the commercial or domestic fisheries. Fish from nearby Utikumasis Lake were expected to migrate downstream and supplement the remaining stocks in Utikuma Lake (Walty 1989).

Few data are available for the sport fishery. Winter creel surveys were conducted for one day in February 1983 and for 5 days during February and March 1984 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1984, 80 anglers fished for 294 hours and caught 82 pike, 4 burbot and 5 whitefish. The catch rate for pike was 0.28 fish/hour.


Utikuma Lake is an important area for waterfowl. Three of its islands support colonies of White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.). California Gulls, Common Terns and Western Grebes have also been observed on the lake. A large number of ducks use the lake for moulting and staging. There is, however, a shortage of upland nesting sites and loafing areas. Most duck species that moult at the lake are divers such as Canvasbacks, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead. Utikuma Lake is particularly important to the continental Canvasback population. In 1975, it was estimated that as many as 40,000 Canvasbacks moulted on the lake during July and August. This was about 20% of the continental population (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Other ducks that nest at the lake in large numbers include dabblers such as Mallards, Gadwalls and Green-winged Teal, and divers such as Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, Canvasbacks and Lesser Scaup. Production of dabblers such as Blue-winged Teal, Shovelers and Pintails is minor (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.).

M.E. Bradford


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