Thunder Lake

The contents of this online version has not been altered or modified from the original 1990 publication. It is reasonable to assume that much of the data e.g. water levels, camp grounds/boat launches, etc. is out of date. For updated or additional information on any of the lakes in this atlas please go to Environment Alberta's water web site.

Basic Info
Map Sheets83J/2
Lat / Long54.1500000, -114.7500000
54°8'N, 114°45'W
Area7.03 km2
Max depth6.1 m
Mean depth3.0 m
Dr. Basin Area20.7 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinAthabasca River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishYellow Perch, Northern Pike
Trophic StatusEutrophic
TP x46 µg/L
CHLORO x16.6 µg/L
TDS x243 mg/L
Photo credit: D. Huet


Thunder Lake is an attractive recreational lake located in the County of Barrhead. It is situated approximately 22 km west of the town of Barrhead and 130 km northwest of the city of Edmonton. Thunder Lake Provincial Park, on the northeast side of the lake, can be reached by Highway 18 from Barrhead (FIGURE 1).

The lake's name is a translation of an Indian word that described the loud thundering sound made by the lake's ice cracking in winter (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). The first settlement in the area was at Fort Assiniboine, 23 km north of Thunder Lake. The North West Company established a trading post there in 1825, but had abandoned it by 1859. The area between Thunder Lake and Barrhead was settled between 1900 and 1910. In 1912, Barrhead was founded a short distance northeast of its present site. The town relocated in 1927 when the railroad arrived (Wynnyk et al. 1969). The railroad brought a new wave of settlers to the area surrounding Thunder Lake, but rugged topography and poor farmland discouraged much development near the lake (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). The first cottage development at the lake was started in 1958, and at present, Lightning Bay village and Thunder Lake community are situated on the southeast shore.

The lake was used for recreational purposes by local residents for many years, and in 1951, they petitioned the provincial government for a park. That same year, the Barrhead Kinsmen cleared a beach at the lake, and in 1958, the province established Thunder Lake Provincial Park (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). The park includes the three islands closest to the north shore of the lake. It is open year-round for day use, and from 1 May to Thanksgiving Day for camping. There are three camping loops with a total of 127 sites, a group camping area, a sewage disposal facility, tap water, playgrounds, a change house, a concession, picnic shelters, two swimming areas and beaches, two boat mooring areas, a boat launch and several walking trails. There are no boating restrictions over most of the lake, but in posted areas such as designated swimming areas, all boats are prohibited. In other posted areas, power boats are restricted to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

Algae turn the water in Thunder Lake green during summer and aquatic vegetation grows around much of the shoreline. During winter, levels of dissolved oxygen frequently become critical for the fish population, and winterkills have occurred several times since the late 1960s. The lake has been stocked with northern pike and yellow perch, and these species provide a popular sport fishery. A partial winterkill occurred in March 1989. There are no sport fishing regulations specific to the lake, but provincial limits and regulations apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Thunder Lake's drainage basin covers an area of about 21 km2 and is only 3 times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2). The land in the watershed is primarily gently rolling (6 to 9% slopes) to moderately rolling (10 to 15% slopes) and soils are mainly moderately well-drained Orthic Gray Luvisols. A large area of Organic soil is located south of the lake. The land is not highly rated for agriculture. Large areas east and southwest of the lake are rated as pasture and woodland, and the land to the south is rated as mainly poor to fair for agriculture. In some areas to the north, however, the agricultural rating is fair to fairly good (Wynnyk et al. 1969).

Much of the land south of the lake is forested, but most of the native vegetation to the north has been destroyed by land clearing and fires (Wynnyk et al. 1969). The watershed is part of the Moist Mixedwood Subregion of the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). The main tree species are trembling aspen and balsam poplar on moderately well-drained Gray Luvisols. Jack pine grows on rapidly drained Brunisols, black spruce and willows grow on poorly drained Organics and Gleysols, and sedges grow on very poorly drained Organics.

Most of the inflow to the lake enters via a diversion ditch that connects the northwestern corner of the lake with what is locally known as Little Paddle Creek, a tributary of the Paddle River. The diversion and associated control structure with stop-log bays, which is situated on Little Paddle Creek, was constructed in 1950 by Ducks Unlimited (Canada) and the provincial government to divert flood water into Thunder Lake (FIGURE 1). The purposes of the diversion were to prevent flooding along the Paddle River, raise the water level of the lake and increase waterfowl production areas (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). In 1986, Alberta Environment built a second control structure. It is situated on the diversion ditch near the ditch's diversion point from Little Paddle Creek. This structure allows control of the amount of water flowing into Thunder Lake (Alta. Envir. n.d.fa]). Water diversion is controlled by Alberta Environment, which is also responsible for maintenance of the two structures.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Thunder Lake is a medium-sized water body with a maximum length of 6 km and maximum width of 2.4 km. The western half of the lake basin slopes gently to a maximum depth of approximately 4.5 m, whereas the eastern half slopes more steeply to a maximum depth of 6.1 m (FIGURE 2). There are several islands in the lake; three of them are part of the provincial park.

Prior to 1963, Thunder Lake had no well-defined outlet, and land near the lake flooded when water levels were high. To control lake levels, Ducks Unlimited (Canada) and the provincial government began construction of a weir and canal on the north shore in 1963, partly within the park boundary (FIGURE 2). Water flows north from Thunder Lake to nearby Tiger Lake via this canal, then to the Paddle River via Little Paddle Creek. The control structure consists of two 1.8-m stop-log bays set in concrete walls. The bays allow variable control and have a range of about 1.65 m above and below the operating full supply level of 654.10 m (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) 1982). The structure is maintained and operated by Alberta Environment. During the spring runoff period, water is diverted into Thunder Lake until the lake's elevation reaches a maximum of 654.10 m. The elevation attained in spring depends on the amount of runoff available. During summer, the water level is gradually drawn down to about 653.83 m (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

Water levels in Thunder Lake were first recorded in 1960 and 1961, and have been monitored regularly since 1964 (FIGURE 3). In 1965, the year after the outlet control structure was completed, the lake reached its second highest recorded elevation (654.156 m). During a drought in 1967, the town of Barrhead used Thunder Lake, via the Paddle River, as an emergency water supply (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). That year, the water level dropped 0.47 m, and by September of 1968, the lake level had declined to the historic minimum (653.13 m). The elevation rose considerably during 1971, which was a year of high precipitation levels, and continued to rise until May 1972, when the historic maximum elevation (654.162 m) was reached. Since 1972, lake levels have been more stable. From 1980 to 1987 they fluctuated over a range of 0.36 m. This would result in only a small change in lake area (FIGURE 4).

Water Quality

Water quality in Thunder Lake has been monitored since 1983 under a joint program between Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]).

The lake has fresh water that is well buffered and hard. The dominant ions are bicarbonate and sodium (TABLE 3). Because the lake is shallow, it frequently mixes to the bottom during summer. Therefore, temperatures throughout the water column are either uniform or, during calm periods, slightly warmer at the top than on the bottom (FIGURE 5). Levels of dissolved oxygen are generally uniform from top to bottom as well (FIGURE 5). Thunder Lake often supports a high algal biomass during summer, so sediment oxygen demand from decomposing algae is high during winter and concentrations of dissolved oxygen frequently fall to levels that are critical for fish survival (FIGURE 5). In March 1985, the entire water column was anoxic and a partial winterkill was reported.

Thunder Lake is eutrophic. Average total phosphorus and chlorophyll a levels vary between years. Over the six years sampled from 1983 to 1988, the levels of these two variables were lowest in 1986 and highest in 1984 (TABLE 4). In 1984, the maximum chlorophyll a concentration recorded was 32 µg/L, whereas in 1986, it was 10 µg/L (FIGURE 6). Despite lower chlorophyll levels during 1986, the Secchi transparency remained low throughout the summer (FIGURE 6). Such high turbidity may result from wind disturbance of bottom sediments in this shallow lake.

Biological Characteristics


There are no recent data about the aquatic plant communities in Thunder Lake. A brief survey by Fish and Wildlife Division in October 1957 noted a heavy growth of blue-green algae at the eastern end of the lake (Thomas 1957). In a later study, in May 1969, yellow water lily (Nuphar variegatum), common great bulrush (Scirpus validus) and common cattail (Typha latifolia) were present around much of the shoreline except in rocky areas (Erickson and Smith 1969). There were also many weedy bays where large mats of submergent macrophytes grew.


There are no recent data for the invertebrates in Thunder Lake. A survey by Fish and Wildlife Division in October 1957 reported snails (Lymnea sp.), leeches (Hirudinea), clams (Mollusca), midge larvae (Chironomus sp.) and phantom midge larvae (Chaoborus sp.) in the lake (Thomas 1957).


The fish fauna in Thunder Lake includes northern pike, yellow perch, suckers and brook stickleback. The lake is managed as a recreational fishery. Yellow perch were introduced in 1959 and subsequently stocked in 1970, 1971, and from 1980 to 1983. Northern pike are indigenous to the lake but were stocked in 1960, 1961, 1966, 1967, 1970 and 1971 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1968, walleye eyed-eggs were planted, but it is unlikely that any walleye survived the almost complete winterkill that occurred during the winter of 1968/69. Partial winterkills were recorded in 1967/68,1984/85 and 1988/89 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

Sport fishing is popular year-round at Thunder Lake. A creel survey conducted for 11 days from February 1983 to March 1984 recorded interviews with 172 anglers (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The anglers fished for 311 hours and caught 1181 yellow perch and 16 northern pike. This is a very high catch rate for perch (3.8 perch/angler-hour) and a low catch rate for pike (0.05 pike/angler-hour). Since the anglers were fishing for perch, and pike are seldom caught on perch lures and bait, the small catch of pike is not unexpected.


Birdwatching at Thunder Lake is excellent (Finlay and Finlay 1987). In 1982, a survey of the lake by Ducks Unlimited (Canada) staff noted a variety of birds (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) 1982). The more abundant ducks were Mallards, American Widgeons, Lesser Scaup, Bluewinged Teal, Ruddy Ducks, Common Goldeneye and Ring-necked Ducks. Other birds sighted were Common Loons, Belted Kingfishers, Red-necked and Western grebes, Black Terns, Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants and California, Ring-billed and Bonaparte's gulls. In 1983, Fish and Wildlife Division staff counted 18 Great Blue Heron nests at the lake. By 1984, the herons had departed and Bald Eagles were nesting in the heron colony (Folinsbee 1988).

The population of mammals near the lake is small. Muskrats and beaver have been sighted near stands of emergent vegetation along the shore and red squirrels live in black spruce bogs. Coyotes are present in the park and black bears have been known to pass through the park (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

M.E. Bradford


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-----. 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.

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Wynnyk, A., J.D. Lindsay and W. Odynsky. 1969. Soil survey of the Whitecourt and Barrhead area. Alta. Soil Surv. Rep. No. 27, Univ. Alta. Bull. No. 22-10, Res. Counc. Alta. Rep. No. 90. Univ. Alta., Edmonton.