Lower Kananaskis Lakes

Basic Info
Map Sheets82J/11
Lat / Long50.6555900, -115.1690469
50°39'N, 115°10'W
Area5.25 km2
Max depth42.1 m
Mean depth13.1 m
Dr. Basin Area307 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinBow River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishRainbow Trout, Bull Trout, Cutthroat Trout
Trophic StatusOligotrophic
TP x6 µg/L
CHLORO x1.6 µg/L
TDS x147 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


The Kananaskis Lakes are beautiful, clear lakes in a striking setting of towering, ice-capped mountains. Located along the continental divide, there are numerous peaks over 3,000 m, many with glaciers, within 10 km of the lakes. The area can be reached from the city of Calgary by travelling 80 km west on Highway 1, then 56 km south on Highway 40 to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, which includes the lakes (FIGURE 1). The turnoff to the lakes is well marked.

The Kananaskis River was named by Captain Palliser in 1858 for an Indian, Joseph Kin-oh-ah-kis. A legend tells that it was at the confluence of the Kananaskis and Bow rivers that Kin-oh-ah-kis displayed supernatural powers upon regaining consciousness and recovering from an axe blow to the head (Appleby 1975). Coincidentally, the Stoney word Kin-oh-ah-kis means "meeting of the waters" (Finlay and Finlay 1987). The Kananaskis Lakes are near the Kananaskis River's headwaters and were named after the river. The valley was used occasionally by Sarcee and Stoney Indians; in 1845, when the first white man, James Sinclair, traversed the valley, only a small group of Indians lived in the area. Sinclair came with 15 white families in Red River carts and 250 head of horses and cattle. They were accompanied by 100 Cree warriors for protection from attacks by the Blackfoot, but the Cree deserted the group near Morley. The group's guide, the Cree chief Macipictoon stayed with the settlers. Difficult terrain forced them to abandon their carts near the Kananaskis Lakes. Continuing on foot over Kananaskis Pass, they eventually made it to the State of Washington. All of the settlers survived the trek, as did most of the livestock (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Trappers later came to the area; one of these, George Pocaterra, built a cabin not far from the lakes in 1906. Pocaterra Creek and Pocaterra Dam were named after him.

After the railway came through the Bow Valley in 1883, logging began in the Kananaskis Valley. The Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company established a logging camp at the site of the present Eau Claire Campground (15 km north of the lakes) and a sawmill operated at Upper Kananaskis Lake from 1932 to 1944. Large fires swept through the valley in 1910, 1919, 1929 and 1936 (Oltmann 1976).

Before the lakes were developed for power production, they were connected by a 1-km stretch of river (FIGURE 2). Water dropped from the upper lake in a 3-m-high waterfall, then fell in another cascade below the lower lake to form the Kananaskis River. Calgary Power Ltd. (now TransAlta Utilities Corporation) began investigating the power potential of the lakes in 1912, but it was 1932 before the first dam was built on the upper lake. Until 1955, only the upper lake was managed, and then only to augment winter flow on the Bow River to drive the generators at Seebe and Ghost Reservoir. Power generation at the Kananaskis Lakes began after 1955 when the Interlakes Plant was built below the upper lake and the Pocaterra Plant was built below the newly-constructed Pocaterra Dam, which raised the level of the lower lake (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.).

The Kananaskis-Coleman Road (now Highway 40) was completed in 1952 to encourage recreational activity, but use of the area was low until 1976, when the road was paved and Kananaskis Provincial Park was established (FIGURE 1). The park, which covers 509 km2 around the lakes, was renamed Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on 1 January 1986 in honour of the man who was Alberta's premier from 1971 to 1985.

The park provides 14 campgrounds, 9 of which are close to the lakes (FIGURE 2). There is a total of 452 sites in 5 road-access campgrounds: Boulton (open year-round), Lower Lake, Interlakes, Elkwood and Canyon (open in summer only). Facilities provided include tap water, picnic shelters, playgrounds, sewage disposal stations, a cafeteria and a grocery store (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1989). As well, there are 44 walk-in tent sites at Mount Sarrail campground, 2 group campgrounds (Lower Lake and Pocaterra) and an 11-site campground for handicapped persons (William Watson). There are also six backcountry campgrounds, but only one (Point) is near the Kananaskis Lakes. The park also provides low-cost lodge facilities for senior citizens and handicapped individuals and their families at William Watson Lodge.

There are six day-use sites near the lakes. Boat launches near the Kananaskis Main Dam on the upper lake and near Canyon Campground on the lower lake provide access to the water. Difficulty using the boat launches increases as the lake levels drop; boat access is impossible at the very low water levels that occur in the spring. Boat speed is limited to 12 km/hour or less in posted areas on both lakes (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Caution on the lakes is advised, as the water is very cold and sudden storms can occur at any time of year.

Recreational activities in the provincial park include hiking on well-designed and well-mapped trails, backcountry camping, bicycling on excellent bike trails, fishing, climbing and viewing the spectacular scenery. An impressive visitor centre provides information on the natural features of the park as well as details on facilities. Both Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes are stocked with rainbow trout, but the low nutrient level and low temperature of the water results in slow growth rates and low catch rates (Stelfox 1989). Fishing for bait fish and the use of bait fish are not permitted in the lakes. As well, the use of any bait is not permitted in any flowing water from mid-August to early November and no rainbow or cutthroat trout under 25 cm caught in flowing water may be kept (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Although the water in the lakes is very clear and attractive, it is usually too cold for swimming. In summer, water temperatures rarely exceed 140C (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

The ecology of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park has been the subject of numerous provincial government studies, especially since the mid-1970s. The area is near the environmental research stations of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary and has been studied intensively by numerous scientific disciplines. A computerized bibliography is maintained by Alberta Recreation and Parks (More 1988). It is updated continuously-in 1988, it included over 2,000 titles.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The Kananaskis Lakes drainage basin lies adjacent to the continental divide in one of the most mountainous areas of Alberta. The basin is relatively large - 24 times the combined area of the lakes (Tables 1, 2). Fairly high precipitation and numerous glaciers provide ample runoff to the lakes.

The drainage basin lies in the Alpine and Subalpine ecoregions (Strong and Leggat 1981; McGregor 1984). Approximately 70% of the basin, mostly along the western half, is in the Alpine Ecoregion. It is an area of bedrock peaks, colluvial slopes and little or no soil. Slopes exceed 100% and peaks reach altitudes up to 3,500 m above sea level. Vegetation is limited to tiny forbs and grasses growing in cracks in the rocks or in alpine meadows. Glaciers cover much of the area. The valleys and the area around the lakes are in the Subalpine Ecoregion. Colluvial materials form slopes and morainal deposits predominate in the area immediately around the lakes and to the east of them. Vegetation is primarily closed or open white spruce and Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine forests (McGregor 1984). Soils under the coniferous forests are predominantly Orthic Eutric Brunisols and Orthic Regosols. There is a low-lying area west of the upper lake where some Humic Gleysols have formed in low, damp areas. The part of the basin east of the lakes is covered by a blanket of coarse morainal glacial till with ice margin channels filled with organic materials. The soils in the drier areas are Brunisols and Podzolic Gray Luvisols, whereas in the low, boggy areas they are Typic Mesisols and Humic Gleysols (McGregor 1984).

The entire drainage basin is Crown land and lies within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Areas close to the lakes have been developed for recreation and there are about 65 cottages on leased land along the east shore of the lower lake (FIGURE 1).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Upper Kananaskis Lake

Upper Kananaskis Lake is deep (maximum depth of 108 m) and irregularly shaped. Because it lies on an uneven area of bedrock and morainal material, the bathymetry also is irregular (FIGURE 2). The north and south shores slope steeply to 56 m and 108 m, respectively. The midline of the lake on an east-west axis is shallower and dotted with shoals and islands, many of which are submerged at the operational full supply level (FSL).

The sides of the lake basin between the limits of the FSL and the mean drawdown level are barren bedrock, cobble or gravel. When the water level drops, there appear ghostly stumps of trees cut before the level was first raised. Low nutrients, cold water temperatures and extreme fluctuations in water level have inhibited any aquatic plant development around the lake. Fine-grained clay and silt form the sediment on the bottom of the reservoir below the lower limit of water fluctuation (Fillion 1963).

Inflow to the lake is primarily from the Upper Kananaskis River and numerous other small streams (FIGURE 1, 2). Inflow from Hidden Lake is underground. The water level of Upper Kananaskis Lake is regulated by TransAlta Utilities Corporation to meet demand for electric power generation (FIGURE 3). The first dam and timber spillway were built in 1932/33, raising the maximum lake level from 1,683 m to 1,688 m. By removal of timber stop-logs, 10.0 m of storage could be released each winter to augment flows of the Bow River and drive the generators at Seebe and Ghost Reservoir. In 1942, a higher earthfill dam, Kananaskis Main Dam, was built across the outlet and another dam, Intake Dam, was built at the northeast corner of the lake. These dams raise the upper lake level 13.7 m above the natural level to a maximum operating level of 1,701.7 m; the potential full supply level of 1 704 m has never been utilized (TABLE 2, FIGURE 3). The lake could then be drawn down 16.5 m each winter, reducing the lake area by about 22% (FIGURE 4). From 1942 to 1955, water was released through a steel-gated pipeline at the Intake Dam, still only to augment winter flow on the Bow River. In 1955, the Interlakes Power Plant was built on the shore of Lower Kananaskis Lake and the steel pipeline was extended to the new generators. Since 1955, all outflow from Upper Kananaskis Lake has passed through Interlakes Plant (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.).

Most water entering Upper Kananaskis Lake is stored from spring until October. Almost all drawdown is from November to February; some outflow is released between March and October depending on lake levels, runoff and demand for power (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.).

Lower Kananaskis Lake

Lower Kananaskis Lake lies against the steep slopes of Mount Indefatigable (FIGURE 1). It is a narrow, elongate lake with a maximum width of 1.4 km and a maximum length of 8.8 km (TABLE 2). On the west side, the bottom slopes steeply along most of its length; areas with maximum depths of 42 m are found along the middle third of the lake (FIGURE 2). The lake bottom on the east side is made up of rolling morainal deposits (McGregor 1984) and slopes are gentle, especially in the southern third of the lake.

The shores of the lake are barren rock, boulders and gravel along the west side, and gravel and mud along the east side. There are numerous islands and shoals along the east side; variable water levels can make boating hazardous in these areas.

In 1955, Calgary Power Ltd. built Pocaterra Dam across the Kananaskis River below the confluence of Smith-Dorrien Creek, about 1 km north of the end of the original lake. This earthfill dam allowed the water level to rise 11 m. A channel was dug from the original lake to the outlet to allow the lake to be drawn down about 2 m below the original level. When it is drawn down to its average low water level of 1,653 m, the lake area is reduced to 44% of the area at FSL (FIGURE 6), exposing large areas of lake bottom at the north and south ends (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.).

Most inflow enters Lower Kananaskis Lake from Upper Kananaskis Lake via Interlakes Power Plant. Boulton, Gypsum and Smith-Dorrien creeks also enter the lake. The watershed of Smith-Dorrien Creek was diminished in 1959 when two tributaries, French and Burstall creeks, were diverted out of the Kananaskis basin into the Spray Reservoir basin. Kent Creek was diverted in 1956 so it now flows into the lower lake rather than into the Kananaskis River downstream from the lakes (FIGURE 2).

The outflow from Lower Kananaskis Lake is through a woodstave pipeline to Pocaterra Power Plant. Drawdown of the lower lake is not begun until the upper lake storage is withdrawn, usually by February. Drawdown of the lower lake usually is complete by late April, then the lake is filled through spring and summer (FIGURE 5). The lower lake is maintained near full supply level from August through January (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.). The Kananaskis power plants are used for winter "peak-power production" to supply electricity during times of the day when demand is highest, that is, early morning and evening. Therefore, water is released twice a day, resulting in a large daily variation in the flow of the Kananaskis River downstream. Some water is released from the lakes into the Kananaskis River from April to October; the amount depends on runoff, snowpack and demand for power generation. Water is also occasionally released in response to requests for increased flow for recreation events such as kayaking races.

Water Quality

The water quality of the Kananaskis Lakes was monitored by Alberta Environment in the summer of 1984 (Alta. Envir. n.d.fa]). Fish and Wildlife Division occasionally monitor winter oxygen concentrations (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

The Kananaskis Lakes are freshwater lakes with concentrations of total dissolved solids and alkalinity (TABLE 3) that are lower than those of most other Alberta lakes in the foothills and on the prairies. The lakes are well-buffered, and the dominant ions are calcium and bicarbonate. The lower lake has a higher concentration of most ions and total dissolved solids than the upper lake. This is probably due to the influence of Smith-Dorrien Creek and Boulton Creek, which drain morainal areas with more fine particulates and better developed soil and vegetation than the barren slopes and glaciers above the upper lake.

Both lakes are thermally stratified all summer (FIGURE 7, 8). Dissolved oxygen is close to saturation levels throughout the water column. The dissolved oxygen concentration is higher below the thermocline because more gas can dissolve in cold water than warm water. There is some evidence of oxygen depletion near the bottom of the lower lake, which has greater organic sediment deposits than the upper lake. Upper Kananaskis Lake has never been sampled to its full depth of 108 m, but there is little evidence of dissolved oxygen depletion down to 50 m. Dissolved oxygen concentrations under ice are only slightly depleted in the upper 20 m; samples from below this depth have not been collected (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Both lakes are very low in nutrients (TABLE 4, FIGURE 9, 10). The lower lake is slightly richer, again likely because of the inflow from Smith-Dorrien and Boulton creeks. The slightly higher phosphorus concentration in June in the lower lake is likely due to snowmelt runoff and flooding of exposed sediments (FIGURE 9, 10). Chlorophyll a levels are consistently low in both lakes, and the water is clear. The reduced clarity in the lower lake in June is likely a result of suspended silt due to runoff and flooding of exposed lake bottom. Both lakes are oligotrophic.

Biological Characteristics


The rocky shore, extensive drawdown and cold temperature of both Kananaskis Lakes results in a barren shoreline with almost no submergent or emergent aquatic vegetation.

The phytoplankton has not been studied recently. Early studies in 1936 (Rawson 1937) and 1946 (Rawson 1947) noted a "scarcity of algae". Only one species of green algae, Dictyosphaerium sp., and two diatoms, Asterionella sp. and Fragilaria sp., were found, and then only in small numbers. A few Ceratium sp. were taken at depths of 20 to 50 m. Samples collected in 1954 were similar (Miller 1955).


The zooplankton was first sampled in 1936 (Rawson 1937). Density was very low and only ten species were found; copepods were predominant and small species of Diaptomus and Cyclops were common. A large, red species of Diaptomus was taken in small numbers. The only cladoceran found was Daphnia pulex and the only rotifer was Notholca sp. In 1946, the same species were found (Rawson 1947). In June 1954, the plankton was very sparse; the zooplankton was mostly Diaptomus sp. (Miller 1955). In October 1967, thousands of opossum shrimp, Mysis relicta, a small freshwater shrimp about 2.5-cm long, were released by Fish and Wildlife Division into the Upper and Lower Kananaskis lakes in the hope that they would improve the food supply for trout. The source of these shrimp was Kootenay Lake, British Columbia, where they had been introduced from the Waterton Lakes in 1949. It took a few years for the shrimp to become well established but in a survey in 1982 they were found to be the food most extensively used by rainbow trout (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The best way to see the shrimp is to open the stomach of a fresh-caught trout. The red colour of the fish flesh is partly due to its diet of these rosy crustaceans.

Benthic invertebrates were sampled in both lakes in 1936 (Rawson 1937), 1946 (Rawson 1947), 1952 (Thomas 1957), 1954 (Miller 1955), and 1961 and 1962 (Fillion 1963; 1966). The response of the benthic fauna to large annual water level fluctuations has been similar to that observed in Barrier Lake, 30 km downstream on the Kananaskis River, and other similar reservoirs with large annual water level fluctuations (Nursall 1969; Geen 1974). The Lower Kananaskis Lake was sampled before it was regulated, the dominant organisms were pea clams (Pisidium sp.), which formed 50% of the total number of organisms (1,672/m3). Midge larvae (Chironomidae) composed 29% of the community, aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta) composed 11 % and scuds (Amphipoda) 9%. Density was greatest in the substrate in the upper 10 m of the reservoir. The lower lake was again sampled in 1961, after the lake level was affected by greater water level fluctuations. Midge larvae strongly dominated the total number of organisms (85%), whereas the number of clams dropped to 8%, aquatic earthworms to 9% and amphipods (a preferred food for trout) were nearly eliminated. The number of animals per sample increased to 2,707/m2, but the strong shift from relatively large pea clams to tiny chironomids resulted in a drop in biomass. The zone of the lake originally in the upper littoral zone was the most productive before regulation, now the substrate that is exposed annually is virtually barren; the maximum density of organisms was found just below the lower limit of drawdown. Some animals, mostly chironomids, were found to the maximum depth of both reservoirs.


Five species of fish are known to occur in Upper Kananaskis Lake: rainbow trout, lake chub, longnose dace, longnose sucker and white sucker. Seven species of fish are known to occur in Lower Kananaskis Lake: rainbow trout, bull trout, lake chub, longnose dace, brook stickleback, longnose sucker and white sucker.

The Kananaskis Lakes have been stocked sporadically by Fish and Wildlife Division since 1914 and have been stocked inadvertently by anglers using live bait, which is now illegal. It is therefore difficult to be certain which species are native to the lakes. Upper Kananaskis Lake was likely barren of fish prior to stocking (Nursall 1969). In 1860, Palliser reported seeing cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char, now called bull trout, in Lower Kananaskis Lake. In 1914, cutthroat trout were introduced unsuccessfully to the upper lake (Nelson 1962). Rainbow trout or cutthroat trout, or hybrids of the two, were introduced to both lakes in 1935, 1936, 1941, 1944 and 1950 (Nelson 1962). Rainbow trout were stocked as yearlings in 1959, 1960 and almost every year since 1965 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Species introduced by use as live bait include lake chub, longnose dace, longnose sucker and white sucker. Brook stickleback and bull trout are found only in the lower lake (Nelson 1962; 1965). Hybrids between lake chub and longnose dace are common in both lakes (Butcher 1979) and hybrids between longnose and white suckers occur in Upper Kananaskis Lake (Nelson 1973).

The Kananaskis Lakes support a popular sport fishery for trout, but the popularity may be attributed more to the spectacular scenery than to the success of angling. In 1968, test netting caught 60 suckers but only 7 trout (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.); no small trout were caught, indicating poor spawning success. Gill netting in 1986 caught 99% suckers and 1% rainbow trout (Stelfox 1989). In a creel census during a one-day fishing derby in June 1981, 246 anglers fishing a total of 1,476 hours caught only 43 trout (0.03 trout/hour), a very low success rate (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Although survival of stocked trout is very low, the growth rates of the survivors are similar to those of rainbow trout in the Bow River, but slower than those in prairie pothole lakes. Opossum shrimp are the major food source for trout in the Kananaskis Lakes; suckers probably provide intense competition for the other potential food source, midge larvae (Stelfox 1989).

The potential for enhancing spawning habitat for trout in the Kananaskis Lakes was assessed in 1981 (Dickson et al. 1981). The authors were "extremely pessimistic about the possibility of establishing self-sustaining populations of trout or char in the Kananaskis Lakes". Approximately 69,000 rainbow trout fry were released into Smith-Dorrien Creek in August 1980 in the hope that adults would return there from Lower Kananaskis Lake to spawn (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Spawning success in Smith-Dorrien Creek likely is negligible due to extremely low temperatures and scouring of the creek bed in the spring spate (Stelfox 1989).


The wildlife in the Kananaskis area is typical of mountain wilderness. Fifty-four species of mammals live in the area (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Mule deer, moose and black bears are common. Grizzly bears frequent the lower slopes of Mount Indefatigable, which provides excellent habitat. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep can be seen high on the mountain slopes, and wolves and cougars are occasionally seen or heard. The Kananaskis Lakes are not used extensively by waterfowl or aquatic mammals because of the absence of aquatic vegetation.

Bird life in the area is abundant and varied; 235 species have been reported in the provincial park (Wiseley 1979). Of these, 135 species nest in the park and surrounding Kananaskis Country (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Both Golden and Bald eagles nest here, as do Great Horned, Hawk, Barred, Boreal and Saw-whet owls. Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds have been found nesting, as have six species of swallow, including Violet-green and Tree. Three species of chickadee occur, including Black-capped, Mountain and Boreal. The more uncommon warblers that nest in the area include Orange-crowned, Nashville, Mourning, MacGillivray's and Wilson's (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Even the diverse insect community has been well documented (Bird 1977; Kondla 1979).

J.M. Crosby


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