One of the parts of K-Country that you can’t help but notice are the lakes. On other pages, we’ll describe K-Country’s natural lakes (there really aren’t that many big ones). Kananaskis’ biggest lakes, Spray Lake, the two Kananaskis Lakes and Barrier Lake, are all hydroelectric reservoirs.
A hydro reservoir
Barrier Lake is one of the main gateways to K-Country. Located entirely within Bow Valley Provincial Park, it is a main power generation facility on the Kananaskis River. The dam was constructed in 1947, and was the first ever TransAlta hydro plant run by remote control. Despite looking like a very large lake and being 5 km long, it’s narrow and has a rather small storage capacity for a hydroelectric reservoir. It is considered a “run-of-the-river” plant. That means it generates electricity using the natural flow of river water. It generates an average of 40,000 MWh of electricity per year – enough for 6,100 houses.
From many perspectives (including the one to the right from Heart Mountain’s summit), the reservoir just looks like a wide river. The lake is only 304 ha in size and stores just 24.8 million cubic meters of water. That makes it half as big as Upper Kananaskis Lake with just 20% of the storage. However, it supplies 6 times the power, since the “head” or drop from lake level to the canyon below is substantial.
It is not a deep lake; the deepest section is the old submerged canyon near the dam itself. The submerged canyon is not particularly wide, as you can see by simply looking downstream of the dam itself.
The chart to the right shows the average dam discharge through the year. The flood of 2013 affected the dam and power plant significantly. Here’s a link to a video of the water flowing through the spillway a few days after the worst of the rains. You can see even the access road to the hydro plant was washed away. TransAlta worked diligently through till late 2014 to get the plant restored.
A paddling paradise
It is the downstream section that makes this dam so impactful to some K-Country lovers. The Lower Kananaskis River (LKR) in Kananaskis Country is recognised as one of the premiere whitewater paddling locations in Southern Alberta.
The LKR is approximately ten kilometres long. In this short distance there are a variety of recreational facilities including:
- two launch- and two landing-sites,
- a world-class kayak slalom course,
- an array of river features (waves, eddies, and holes) and,
- an overnight group camping facility.
On this section of the LKR, you’ll find commercial guiding and instructional groups, clubs and organisations, educational teaching and military groups, river wave surfers and private recreational users. As well, management at the LKR also integrates the operating needs of TransAlta Utilities. Their principle interest is to regulate water flows for the generation of hydroelectric power. It is a space of special, successful integrated-use management.
As we write here, Barrier is home to sand dunes and long sand beaches. They are visible in the picture to the right. These sands are blown in from the alluvial fan flats at the south end of the lake. They collect in a wind eddy created by what is known locally as the Barrier Hill. At the Barrier Lake Day Use Area, there are boat launch ramps and access points to the sandy areas. This DUA saw substantial upgrades in 2020, and now features Kananaskis’ first “Connection Walk”.
The Barrier Dam DUA area is also popular with water lovers. Usually in the hottest part of the summer, the lake level isn’t very high. This creates vast lake bottom flats near the dam where people like to set up some shade tents and go swimming.
The lake has a fair population of brown trout and mountain whitefish, and they can readily move upstream gaining access to spawning areas. However, lake and river level variations and the resulting impact of vegetation and insect life near shore generally restrict growth rates of both fish. Barrier is regularly stocked with rainbow trout, and is popular with fishing, though not generally from the shoreline.
Find out about some other Kananaskis Special Places here!