Cold 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 is out of date.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 Sheets73L/8, 9
Lat / Long54.5500000, -110.1000000
54°32'N, 110°5'W
Area373 km2
Max depth99.1 m
Mean depth49.9 m
Dr. Basin Area6140 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinBeaver River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishRainbow Trout, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Lake Whitefish, Northern Pike, Lake Trout
Trophic StatusOligotrophic-Mesotrophic
TP x14 µg/L
CHLORO x3.2 µg/L
TDS x140 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Cold Lake is one of Alberta's largest and deepest lakes, and offers excellent opportunities for fishing, boating and camping. The lake is located on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, just south of the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range (FIGURE 1). The Saskatchewan side of the lake is located in Meadow Lake Provincial Park and the Alberta side is part of Improvement District No. 18. To reach the lake from Edmonton, take Highways 28 and 28A northeast for 295 km to the town of Cold Lake on the southwest shore.

The lake was originally named Big Fish Lake by Chipewyan Indians who hunted and trapped in the area (SATA Systems Inc. 1983). Early fur traders and Cree Indians called it Coldwater Lake, and it was named so on the Turnor map of 1790 (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). The name is indicative of the relatively cool water that persists throughout the year.

The original inhabitants of the Cold Lake region probably were the nomadic Beaver, Blackfoot and Slavey tribes. During the late eighteenth century, these tribes were displaced by the Cree, who arrived in the area in search of furs to supply to traders. Cold Lake was part of a fur trade route into Alberta's northern lake region. The route ran west from Saskatchewan through Waterhen Lake, Lac des Isles and Cold Lake, with a portage from the south end of Cold Lake to the Beaver River (McMillan 1977). The first trading post in the area, Cold Lake House, was established by the North West Company in 1781 near the present day hamlet of Beaver Crossing, about 10 km south of Cold Lake. It was maintained for only a few years, and became a Hudson's Bay post in 1821 when the two companies merged (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1978). Cree and Chipewyan Indians settled in the vicinity of the post, and in 1876 they were assigned Cold Lake Reserve 149, located just south of Beaver Crossing. Two other reserves, 149A and 149B (FIGURE 2), were established on the shore of Cold Lake in 1909 and 1911, respectively. In 1984, 1,045 band members lived on the three reserves (Alta. Native Aff. 1986).

The first official land survey at Cold Lake was undertaken in 1900 and more detailed surveys were conducted in 1909 and 1914 (McMillan 1977). Settlers arrived soon after, and Cold Lake settlement was established. The settlement became a village in 1953 and a town in 1955 (Acres Consult. Serv. Ltd. 1973). In 1988, the town's population was 3,445 people.

Cold Lake is a deep, clear body of water that supports a relatively large number of fish species, including lake trout, which are not present in many Alberta lakes. The provincial size record for lake trout was set in 1929 by a 23.9-kg specimen from Cold Lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Rainbow trout, yellow perch, walleye, lake whitefish and northern pike are 5 of the 23 other species that inhabit the lake. Algal biomass in Cold Lake is low and aquatic vegetation is restricted to areas sheltered from excessive wave action and ice scour. One of the sheltered areas, in Centre Bay, supports a colony of Western Grebes.

The main recreational activities at Cold Lake are fishing, swimming, motor boating, sailing, canoeing, camping, picnicking, hiking and cross-country and downhill skiing. There are no boating regulations over most of the lake, but in posted areas, boats are either prohibited or subject to maximum speeds of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Sport fishing regulations prohibit fishing for lake trout from 15 September to 15 November. As well, the entire lake (except that portion lying in Tp62 R2 W4) and all inlet streams are closed for a designated period during April and May each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

There are seven areas around the lakeshore that provide recreational facilities for the public (FIGURE 2). Three of the areas are operated by Alberta Recreation and Parks: Cold Lake Provincial Park (398 ha), Frenchman's Bay Provincial Recreation Area (449 ha) and English Bay Provincial Recreation Area (18 ha). The provincial park is open year-round and the two recreation areas are open from the Victoria Day weekend to Thanksgiving Day. In total, they provide 154 campsites, pump water, 2 picnic shelters, 3 boat launches, 2 playgrounds and 3 beaches. The provincial park also provides group camping, tap water, a change house, flush toilets, showers, two viewpoints, trails and an amphitheatre.

Three recreational areas are located within the town of Cold Lake (FIGURE 2). The first area, Cold Lake Municipal District Park (27 ha), is operated by the Municipal District of Bonnyville. It is open from 15 May to 15 September and provides 40 campsites, flush toilets, tap water, showers, a sewage disposal station, a playground, a sandy beach and swimming area, a boat launch and walking trails. The second area, Kinosoo Park, is operated by the town of Cold Lake. It has washrooms, a playground, a sandy beach and swimming area, a launch for windsurfers and sailboats, picnic tables and a fitness/exercise course. The third area includes a breakwater, marina and boat launch.

On the Saskatchewan side of Cold Lake, Meadow Lake Provincial Park provides Cold Lake campground at the mouth of the Cold River (FIGURE 2). This small campground has four random campsites, picnic tables, a small sandy beach and a boat launch for small boats.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Cold Lake drains an area of approximately 6,140 km2 (TABLE 1), which is mostly located in Saskatchewan. A large part of the drainage basin is owned by the governments of Canada, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The federal government owns the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range, a huge tract of land that includes a major portion of the Cold Lake watershed (inset FIGURE 1). Several rivers and streams flow into Cold Lake. The two largest rivers are the Medley, which drains the western part of the watershed, and the Martineau, which drains Primrose Lake and the eastern part of the watershed. Most of the smaller inflows enter the lake on the northern shore. The outlet, the Cold River, flows eastward to the Beaver River in Saskatchewan.

The following discussion of topography and soils applies only to the Alberta portion of the drainage basin south of Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range (Kocaoglu 1975). The land between Cold Lake and the air weapons range is mostly hummocky morainal plain that is characterized by moderately rolling topography (9 to 15% slope) and knobs and ridges interspersed with undrained depressions. South and east of the lake, the land is rolling morainal plain that is characterized by gently undulating to gently rolling topography (0 to 9% slope). In this area, minor ridges and knobs are interspersed with many wet depressions and small peat bogs. The dominant soils in both land units are moderately well-drained Orthic Gray Luvisols that developed on glacial till. Well-drained to poorly drained alluvial soils are located along the Martineau and Medley river floodplains and large areas of poorly drained Organic soils are located adjacent to English Bay and south of Centre and French bays.

In Alberta, Cold Lake's drainage basin is part of the Moist and Dry Mixedwood subregions of the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). Most of the watershed is covered by forest and muskeg. The dominant trees on Gray Luvisolic and well-drained alluvial soils are trembling aspen, balsam poplar and white spruce. The Gray Luvisols also support white birch, alder and willow. On poorly drained alluvial soils, willows, black spruce, grasses and sedges are common, and Organic soils support black spruce, tamarack, willows, mosses, sedges and coarse grasses (Kocaoglu 1975). The only agricultural activity in the drainage basin takes place south of Cold Lake (FIGURE 1). The farms are mixed operations that raise both livestock and grains. The main crops are barley, oats, canola and forage.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Cold Lake is the largest and deepest water body in the Lakeland Region of Alberta. The maximum depth in the central portion of the lake is almost 100 m (TABLE 2). For the most part, the sides of the basin slope steeply, but there are some relatively shallow areas along the northern and eastern shores and along the southern shore near the provincial park (FIGURE 2).

Water levels in Cold Lake have been monitored since 1954 (FIGURE 3). The difference between the historic maximum elevation (535.80 m in July 1965) and the historic minimum (534.57 m in December 1967) is 1.24 m. Between 1980 and 1987, the range in water levels was 0.70 m. Changes in the lake's surface area and capacity (up to an elevation of 534.92 m) with fluctuations in water levels are illustrated in Figure 4.

Water is withdrawn from the lake for industrial, municipal and recreational purposes. The two industrial users require water for oil sands plants. Industrial withdrawals from Cold Lake are subject to the Cold Lake-Beaver River Long Term Water Management Plan, which was implemented by Alberta Environment in 1985 (Alta. Envir. 1985). Under this plan, net consumptive withdrawals from Cold Lake are limited to 20.0 x 106 m3/year, but if the lake elevation falls below 534.55 m, industrial withdrawals will be reduced or suspended. In the future, withdrawals by major oil sands plants will be made from the North Saskatchewan River via a water pipeline. Esso Resources Canada has been licenced to withdraw 6.50 x 106 m3/year from Cold Lake since 1983. Between 1984 and 1987, Esso removed an average of 4.23 x 106 m3/year. During the same period, Bow Valley Industries took an average of 0.09 x 106 m3/year from an allocation of 1.40 x 106 m3/year (Alta. Envir. n.d.[d]). The municipal water users are the towns of Cold Lake and Grand Centre, and Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake at Medley. Jointly, they are allocated 7.4 x 106 m3/year of water. From 1984 to 1987, they used an average of 2.40 x 106 m3/year. The only recreational user is a skiing facility, Kinosoo Ridge, which is located within Frenchman's Bay Recreation Area on land leased from Alberta Recreation and Parks. They use about 0.03 x 106 m3 of water each winter to make artificial snow (Alta. Envir. n.d.[d]).

Water Quality

The water quality in Cold Lake has been studied since 1973. Data were collected by the University of Alberta in 1973 and 1974 (Rasmussen and Gallup 1979), by Alberta Environment in 1978 and 1979 and from 1982 to 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]), and by the Government of Canada in 1980 and 1981 (Envir. Can. n.d.; Constable 1981).

Cold Lake has fresh water that is well-buffered and moderately alkaline (TABLE 3); turbidity is low (1.1 NTU) and the water is very transparent (TABLE 4). The major ions are calcium and bicarbonate.

In spring, ice leaves the lake approximately three weeks later than it does on other lakes in the area, and in autumn, ice forms about six weeks later. The lake becomes strongly thermally stratified by June, but the surface water does not warm to temperatures higher than 19°C even during midsummer (FIGURE 5). The concentration of dissolved oxygen throughout the water column is high during the open-water period. During winter, samples have not been taken to the greatest depth, but in February 1986, the dissolved oxygen concentration to 50 m was greater than 10 mg/L.

Cold Lake is oligo-mesotrophic. In 1981, the average concentration of chlorophyll a was 3.2 µg/L and the highest concentration (5.5 µg/L) was recorded in early October (FIGURE 6). The reasons for the autumn chlorophyll a peak are not known. Total phosphorus was highest in early June (19 µg/L) and fell to its lowest level (12 µg/L) in October (FIGURE 6).

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton community in Centre, Long, French, English and North bays (FIGURE 1) was sampled during May, July and October or November in 1978 (Cross 1979). Samples were taken at depths of 0.5 to 3.8 m, except in English Bay, where sample depths ranged from 1 to 6 m. Species were identified and counted, but biomass was calculated only for the various algal groups. The biomass of algae in the littoral zones of all five bays was low throughout 1978 (TABLE 5). Overall, the greatest biomass was recorded in May, when the dominant groups in all bays were either golden-brown algae (Chrysophyta) or diatoms (Bacillariophyta). During July, diatoms remained important in all bays except Long Bay, and in autumn, they accounted for a large part of the biomass in English and North bays. Blue-green (Cyanophyta) species were also important in English, North and French bays in autumn, whereas golden-brown species dominated Centre Bay samples. Long Bay was the most productive area sampled during summer and autumn. In July, green (Chlorophyta) and blue-green algae were most abundant, and during early November, green algae formed most of the biomass.

The macrophytes in Long Bay were studied briefly in 1981 by Alberta Energy and Natural Resources (McGregor 1983) and the macrophytes between the town of Cold Lake and Cold Lake Provincial Park were studied in 1986 by the University of Alberta (Chambers and Prepas n.d.; 1988). Long Bay is relatively shallow and supports a dense macrophyte population. Emergent or floating-leaved species identified were yellow water lily (Nuphar variegatum), arrowhead (Sagittaria cuneata), sedge (Carex aquatilis) and cattail (Typha sp.). Submergent species included flat-stemmed pondweed (Potamogeton zosteriformis) and northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens). Species sampled between the town of Cold Lake and the provincial park included white-stem (P. praelongus), Richardson (P. richardsonii) and Sago (P. pectinatus) pondweeds, as well as stonewort (Chara sp.). Plants grew to a depth of 6.6 m.


The zooplankton and benthic communities in Centre, Long, French, English and North bays (FIGURE 1) were sampled during February, May, July and October or November in 1978 (Cross 1979). Invertebrates were sampled at 3 depths (one depth per open-water sampling date) in the littoral zone (1 to 3.8 m) in each bay. The profundal zone (5.7-m to 14-m depths) was sampled only in English Bay, at 4 depths. This was also the site of the only February sample.

The zooplankton was sampled with 65-5m mesh net and abundance was reported as number per litre. The dominant species in the littoral zones (less than 4-m deep) of the five bays were very similar. The most abundant copepod in all areas was Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi. In four of the five bays, the dominant cladoceran was Bosmina longirostris, and in the fifth bay (Long Bay), Chydorus sphaericus was the main species. The dominant rotifer in Centre and French bays was Keratella cochlearis, whereas in Long Bay, this species shared prominence with K. quadrata. In English and North bays, Polyarthra dolichoptera was most abundant. In the profundal zone (up to 13 m) of English Bay, the most abundant copepod (D. bicuspidatus thomasi) and cladoceran (B. longirostris) species were the same as in the littoral zone, but the dominant rotifer was Kellicottia longispina.

The total volume of benthic invertebrates in the five bays was measured as mL/m2 , but the abundance of individual species was recorded as mean number/m2. Two species not commonly found in Alberta, the opossum shrimp Mysis relicta and the scud Pontoporeia affinis, were collected in the littoral area of Cold Lake. The single largest total biomass in the littoral zone (136.5 mL/m2) was recorded in Centre Bay in July at a depth of 1 m. Generally, however, biomass was highest in autumn. The dominant benthic invertebrates collected at most littoral sites during the open-water period were the three scuds (Amphipoda) Hyalella azteca, Gammarus lacustris and Pontoporeia affinis. Several exceptions, however, are notable. In July, midge larvae (Chironomidae: mainly Microspectra, Cladotanytarsus and Procladius) were dominant in North Bay, and in October, aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta) and midge larvae shared prominence with Hyalella azteca in French and North bays. In the profundal zone of English Bay, sphaeriid clams (Pelecypoda) and scuds (P. affinis) were the dominant groups in February and chironomids (mainly Heterotrissocladius marcidus and Microspectra sp.) were the most abundant groups in July. The highest biomass in the profundal zone (84.8 mL/m2) was measured in October at a depth of 13 m; this sample was numerically dominated by two scuds, Hyalella azteca and P. affinis.


Cold Lake contains a greater number of fish species than most other lakes in Alberta. The 24 species reported to inhabit the lake are listed in TABLE 6. Two other species, Arctic grayling and kokanee, were introduced into the Medley River but failed to become established (Roberts 1975). To supplement natural reproduction, lake trout have been stocked in Cold Lake every year since 1974, with the exception of 1984 and 1985. As well, rainbow trout are planted annually in the Medley River just north of Cold Lake. The lake whitefish and cisco in Cold Lake are infested with cysts of the tapeworm Triaenophorus crassus (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976). They are safe to eat, but must be cooked thoroughly.

Most of the lake is deep, cold and relatively unproductive. In general, the fish fauna of the lake proper is dominated by fall-spawning coldwater sport and commercial species such as lake whitefish, cisco and lake trout. Long, Centre and French bays, however, provide a shallow, warm, productive habitat that supports spring-spawning coolwater species such as northern pike, yellow perch, walleye and a variety of forage species. For northern pike and yellow perch, this complex of bays is probably the most important spawning and rearing area in the lake (Aquat. Envir. Ltd. 1983).

The Cold Lake Fish Hatchery opened on 23 May 1987. It is located on English Bay, 26 km north of the town of Cold Lake. The hatchery produces fish to enhance walleye populations and to sustain or introduce trout populations in provincial lakes. It can produce 16 to 25 million walleye fry, 1.4 million walleye fingerlings (in conjunction with a satellite pond at Lac La Biche), 1.4 million rainbow trout and 550,000 lake trout annually (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Cold Lake is managed for domestic, commercial and recreational fisheries. Recent data on the domestic fishery at the lake are not available. Between 1970/71 and 1980/81, the number of domestic licences issued in Alberta for Cold Lake ranged from 52 to 102. The main species taken is lake whitefish (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

The commercial fishery on the Alberta portion of Cold Lake has been regulated since 1921, and records have been kept since 1942. Until 1946, the commercial species of primary interest was lake trout. As the commercial fishery for lake whitefish developed during the late 1930s and early 1940s, angling success for lake trout diminished. Lake trout were caught in large numbers by the nets set for lake whitefish. Since the lake trout in Cold Lake grow slowly and mature late, the stock was quickly depleted by the whitefish fishery (Miller 1954). The commercial fishery was closed from 1948 to 1955 to allow the trout stock to recover. When it reopened for the 1955/56 season, a special effort was made to protect the lake trout while whitefish were taken. The commercial trout quota was set at 1,360 kg and the lake was zoned into fishing areas in which trout generally were not found (Allan 1973). The lake trout population received another setback during the 1960s and 1970s when the Canadian Armed Forces sprayed the pesticide DDT in the watershed. Levels of DDT in the natural lake trout population were similar to levels that caused reproductive failure in laboratory populations (Sullivan 1988). By the 1980s, the concentration of DDT in the lake trout had decreased to much lower levels. The trout population, however, has made only a very slow recovery. As of 1988, it still may be reproducing at a low rate (Sullivan 1988). The commercial quota for lake trout was reduced from 1,800 kg in 1987/88 to 900 kg in 1988/89.

The commercial fishery took cisco in large numbers from 1963/64 until the mid-1970s (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976). Cisco are used for mink food, so the size of the cisco catch depends upon the size of the ranch mink populations. In 1966/67, cisco made up 83% (270,646 kg) of the total catch (326,080 kg), but by 1987/88, they represented only 1 % (762 kg) of the total catch (60,862 kg). Whitefish have accounted for the major portion (57%) of the total catch during the 1970s and 1980s.

A creel survey was conducted on Cold Lake from 17 May to 26 August in 1986 (TABLE 7). Anglers were surveyed in Long Bay at Cold Lake Provincial Park, at the town of Cold Lake dock, in English and Frenchman's bays and at the Meadow Lake Provincial Park campground. The largest catches were northern pike and, secondarily, walleye. Lake trout catches were much smaller and yellow perch were considered incidental. All of the walleye and lake trout caught were kept, but 63% of the northern pike were returned to the water. Harvest rates for walleye (0.01 fish/angler-hour) in Cold Lake were much lower than the average rate for 19 lakes in the Lakeland Region (0.10 fish/angler-hour), but harvest rates for northern pike (0.19 fish/angler-hour) were similar to those for 22 regional lakes (0.22 fish/angler-hour). No other lakes sampled in the region contained lake trout, so comparisons cannot be made for this species. Fishing pressure was quite low (1.3 hours/ha of lake) for Cold Lake as a whole, but was considerably higher for the shoreline area only (44.3 hours/ha of shoreline).


The main basin of Cold Lake does not provide good wildlife habitat in comparison to Long Bay and its associated wetlands. Most of the lake's shoreline is exposed to intensive wave action and ice scour, which eliminate emergent vegetation suitable for wildlife habitat. In addition, the great depth and large volume of water in the lake prevent early spring warming, which is necessary for many wildlife species. The most productive areas in the lake are located at the mouth of the Martineau River and in Long and Centre bays. These areas are relatively shallow and physically protected from waves and ice (Rippon 1983).

Long Bay and the southern half of Centre Bay are separated from the rest of the lake by a submerged sandbar. The bays become ice free and warm before the rest of the lake in spring; this warming allows earlier growth of plants and development of a large invertebrate population. Emergent vegetation such as cattails, sedges, bulrushes, reed grass and water lilies provide abundant wildlife habitat. A colony of 400 to 500 pairs of Western Grebes nests in two locations on Centre Bay and Bald Eagles have nested on the point of land that separates Centre Bay from French Bay (Kristensen and Nordstrom 1979; Rippon 1983).

The area near the mouth of the Martineau River has good wildlife habitat because of shallow water, a complex shoreline, and protection from waves and ice scour provided by Murray Island. Beaver, muskrats, waterfowl and water birds are well represented, but no quantitative wildlife surveys have been made (Rippon 1983).

M.E. Bradford


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