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Abraham Lake is Alberta's largest reservoir, gracing the Kootenay Plains area of the Canadian Rockies' front range. The reservoir, created by damming the North Saskatchewan River in western Alberta, stores spring run-off for later use in hydroelectric generation. Because the rapidly-changing lake levels aren't conducive to major water-based recreational purposes, there is little development along the lake. Instead, recreation around Abraham Lake is focused on ecology, nature trails and outdoor activities. The lake was created in 1972 when the dam was constructed by the former Calgary Power Company, now TransAlta. A contest to name the resulting lake ended in the selection of the name in honor of Silas Abraham, an early inhabitant of the Saskatchewan River Valley.
Abraham Lake is in view for over 15 miles along scenic David Thompson Highway, or Hwy 11, that runs between Rocky Mountain House and Banff and Jasper National Parks. The climate and ecology of the Kootenay Plains is quite different from that of much of the surrounding area. Because the Plains are directly east of the high peaks of the Rockies, this area gets very little rainfall most of the year. The area is sheltered from much of the more extreme weather conditions existing in the mountains, and the temperature tends to remain warmer with less snow many years. The water of Abraham Lake is the milky blue seen in most glacial lakes due to rock flour carried down the river from the glaciers above during the spring melt. Steep cliffs line much of the long narrow lake, with hardly more room along the western shoreline than is needed for Hwy 11. A few businesses exist here, including the Cline River Heliport, but most of the land is public, open to exploring. The vivid blue lake against the backdrop of the nearby mountains offers a varied and awe-inspiring view from every perspective and is a favorite of photographers.
Fishing is possible here, although there is no official boat launch. Several areas along the shoreline provide ample areas to launch smaller boats, and the shoreline near the dam is often considered one of the best spots for fishing. The lake holds an abundance of brook trout, cutthroat trout and sunfish. Rocky underwater ledges and uneven terrain hide the bigger fish and make anglers work for their dinner. Below the dam, the Saskatchewan River holds sucker, rainbow trout and char. Much of the narrow shoreline is accessible to fishing from the bank, and numerous inlets offer the best fly fishing. All anglers over age 16 must obtain a fishing license from Alberta Fish and Wildlife which are sold in most sporting goods stores and at many resorts in the area. Local fishermen warn against attempting to ice fish on Abraham Lake, as rapid draw-downs for hydro production often leave the ice suspended many feet above the water-a very unstable situation.
In recent years, Abraham Lake has become a popular destination for nature observers and photographers each winter due to an unusual natural phenomenon which becomes evident after ice forms. Because this area receives little snow, the lake ice is clear and offers great visibility. The blue hue also remains in the ice. A large number of methane bubbles released by plant life on the bed of the lake become frozen in suspended animation within the ice upon rising toward the surface. This results in unusual abstract 'stacks' of successive frozen bubbles. The water level changes create unique cracks, ridges and patterns within the ice each winter, making it an attractive photographic subject- but quite dangerous for the inexperienced to venture out upon. A local guide is suggested for safety.
Abraham Lake is a challenge among expert kite-boarders; the nearly constant wind down the length of the lake allows them to gain considerable reach and speed. These athletes warn that this is definitely dry-suit water, as the water is always cold. Most have someone with a personal watercraft nearby, because having to swim to shore would be unpleasant if not impossible in the low-temperature water.
Nearly the entire lakeshore is public land in one of several divisions. The far southern end of the lake is a part of Kootenay Plains Provincial Recreation Area. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the trails within this area, and some areas are completely off-limits for ecological reasons. Farther north along the eastern shore, Bighorn Dam Area is part of the Bighorn Backcountry Recreation Area. A small section along the eastern shoreline is encompassed within the Douglas Fir Natural Area. The rest of the eastern shoreline and a considerable amount of adjacent land is a network of hiking trails with selected areas open to ATVs, horseback riding and cycling. Primitive camping is allowed in some of the areas, with a loosely-organized camping area near the dam providing pit toilets and drinking water. Both the Bighorn Dam Visitors Center and an information kiosk provide maps and regulations for each area. A popular trail leading from the dam leads hikers to scenic Tershishner Falls. One area near the north edge of the lake is First Nations Reserve land. This is not public property and is not open to the casual hiker, although permission can be obtained for arranged visits.
Several resort lodges are located near the lake and offer all types of outdoor recreation to their guests. Some specialize in horseback trail riding, pack trips, hunting or fishing trips, helicopter tours, canoeing, rock climbing and tours of the national parks nearby. Guided hunting for black bear, bighorn sheep or mountain goat can be arranged. One local bed-and-breakfast overlooking Abraham Lake specializes in eco-tourism and leads photography tours combined with classes. Other lodges in the area offer guided fishing on Abraham Lake and other trout waters nearby. The closest town, a few miles east along Hwy 11, is the old-new town of Nordegg. The town was originally built in the early 1900s as a mining town to house coal miners at the local Brazeau Collieries Mine. The mine closed in the 1950s, and the town nearly became a ghost town until efforts were raised to restore it as a tourism center. Nordegg boasts one of the first golf courses in Alberta, a nine-hole course first laid out in 1916 and recently refurbished to welcome golfers again.
When faced with having the old mine fixtures torn down for reclamation, the Nordegg Historical Society was formed to save the historic edifice from destruction. The Brazeau Collieries Mine Site and the Nordegg Heritage Museum were created. Now guided tours into the mine and a museum of historic coal mining memorabilia offer visitors an interesting look at the lives of the coal miners early in the last century. Nordegg serves as unofficial gateway to Abraham Lake. Several outfitters, lodges, hostels and guest cottages are located near Nordegg and mark the starting point for numerous hiking and mountain biking trails into the surrounding area. Festivals and events such as the Canadian Rockies Cowboy Festival and the Canadian Rockies Bluegrass Festival draw more visitors each year. Nordegg has become one of the growing vacation communities east of the Rockies.
Real estate is still available. The allure of lovely mountain views, many small lakes and ponds, lots of hiking trails, ample cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and the ease of access on Hwy 11 all serve to make Nordegg one of western Alberta's best-kept secrets. Only two-and-a-half hours from Red Deer and four hours from both Calgary and Edmonton, Abraham Lake is an easy distance for a weekend escape or a longer vacation. Perhaps a visit to Abraham Lake and its scenic surroundings is in your future.
*TransAlta has not yet made other statistical information available.
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