Kananaskis Country leaks. It really does. Water pours in from places known and unknown, and pours out in some of the great rivers of North America. But where does all this water come from?
The source of some of the water
A lot of water comes from snowmelt. And it takes a LONG time for spring to come; “Spring Run Off” peaks in mid-June at Bragg Creek for the Elbow River, and the same is true for the Bow River at Cochrane. At the Little Elbow Summit snow pillow station, having snow to the beginning of July is common. About 50% of the time, snow stays at the Three Isle Lake snow pillow until mid-July. Snowmelt is a big contributor to river flows.
If snow is one contributor, then rain is another. Have you noticed it rains here, especially in the spring? We locals call it “June-soon season”.
Data on snow, rain and river flows is readily available at Alberta Sustainable Resource’s site that you can get to through this link. Look at the Bow River sub-basin; then select, either: “Snow Data”, “River Flows and Levels” or “Meteorological and Precipitation Data”.
The natural springs
K-Country has one other source of water that’s harder to measure and even harder to understand: natural springs. K-Country is full of places where water just leaks out of the ground for no apparent reason. The Bow Valley is home to 40 documented springs, Spray Valley 9, and the Kananaskis Valley 26, and there are many more springs in the Sheep and Highwood areas. The map to the right shows just some of them. Clearly, that water has to come from somewhere, but just where can be quite the mystery.
Take Spurling Creek, near the West Wind Pass trailhead. The creek is always flowing. If you walk up the weak trail beside the creek from the Spray Lakes Road, about 100 m up from the road you’ll see water just coming out of the hillside, pictured above, in excess of 9 l/min all year round, and at a constant 3.5° too. Why? Where does the water come from? Logic would tell you that the water comes from above. Look up all you want; up on the flanks of Mt. Lougheed all the way to the top of the Windtower. No lakes, creeks, or water of any sort are there provide a year round source of water at a constant temperature and flow rate.
Maybe the water from Spurling Creek’s spring comes from below, pushed up under some kind of pressure. Look across Spray Lakes Road and down about 200 m. That is Spray Lake, but if that’s the source of the spring, how does the water get pushed up 200m? It’s unlikely, too, given that Spurling Creek’s springs were found long before the lake was created by damming. The spring’s source is simply unknown.
Take Grassi Lakes. These lovely azure blue lakes are the upper-most expression of a series of springs that total 600 l/min and make up the pretty waterfall on the Grassi Lakes Trail. No, the water doesn’t leak out of the dam above; Grassi Lakes and falls have been here a lot longer than TransAlta’s hydro system.
Springs in Bow Valley Provincial Park
Bow Valley Provincial Park was created in part to protect the spring complexes. Go for a walk along the aptly named Many Springs trail. This pleasant and easy little trail will take you by many wood lilies in the fall along boardwalks to a very pretty lake with Mt. Yamnuska as a backdrop, pictured at right. This variably-sized lake (thank the beavers who like to dam it, and Parks staff who remove the dams lest damage occur) is surrounded with about 30 places where water just bubbles up out of the ground, though most of the water comes out of just 3 spots. It keeps the ice on the lake thin or not intact on even the coldest of winter days, because the water is always the same basic temperature, around 8°.
A LOT of water shows up here. Up to 9,000 l/min flows in the summer, making the complex of springs here one of the the largest in K-Country. One of the sections is called “the Boiling Springs” because the water spews out of the ground with such force it looks like it’s boiling.
Where does this water come from? One suggestion is that it is deeply circulating waters in fractured bedrock associated with the McConnell Thrust Fault. Another idea is a connection to a regional buried valley aquifer (“the Calgary Buried Valley”) that allegedly runs under the center of the Bow Valley. It’s supposedly a remnant, water-filled, glacial melt-water channel. But no one knows for sure, even though it has been studied at least 3 times.
Water leaks out of the ground in the spring-fed Middle Lake complex in the park as well, plus up at Willow Rock Campground along the Flowing Waters trail – where water comes out of the ground at a constant 2°, which is strangely 5° colder than Many Springs.
Karst Spring explained!
But then there’s Karst Spring. Down the old Watridge lake fire road from the Mt. Shark parking lot, this spring belches out an average of 30,000 l/min of water out from a small hole in a hillside – peaking at 200,000 l/m in the spring! All that water at a basically constant temperature has made for a hugely lush dark forest that makes getting pictures of the spring difficult. It’s a really fun place to visit on a really cold day in winter as even though the path to the springs overlook from Watridge Lake can get icy, all that warm “water” prevents ice and snow from sticking around on the creek itself.
Believe it or not, in an effort to find out where this water comes from, no fewer than 4 individuals have donned SCUBA equipment and tried to “dive” into the springs and find the cave from which it flows. The deepest cave diver made it 125’ down before the power of the flow and the small space made it impossible to continue. Why would anyone do this? Well, because where there’s that much water there’s usually a cave system, and cavers want to know.
In 2021, researchers Dr. Masaki Hayashi and Sara Lilley from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary set out to find out where the spring’s water was coming from. Their research showed that the springs are the exit point from a large, elongated oval basin of tens of square kilometres extending southwards from the spring. The basin includes water that infiltrates from the meadows of Burstall Pass and the area under the Birdwood Lakes. It even includes areas under Mt. Sir Douglas.
To prove this, in September 2021, Ms. Lilley injected a tracer dye into a sinkhole below the glaciers on Sir Douglas in Banff National Park. The dye showed up at Karst Spring, 14 kilometres away, in just 4 days!
Other unique springs
Other really interesting springs in K-Country include:
- The Evan-Thomas spring, which flows at a whopping 7,200 l/min. These emerge in the valley bottom east of the golf course not in one spot, but in a series of small streams that coalesce. Geologically, it’s at the bottom of the Mt. Allan syncline, in the Kootenay section made up of sandstones and siltstones, ideal for allowing water to percolate through it. At least here, it makes sense for water to come out at the base of the syncline. However, it’s also possible that these springs are in fact water re-emerging from Evan-Thomas Creek;
- horsetails, not ferns, and since the 2013 flood, there’s normally no surface water, just unusually wet ground. Pre-2013, 1,500 l/min came out of the ground here all year round. This suggests the water coming out here is very near-surface flow, possibly just from underground flow in the normally dry Harvie Heights Creek. While the ground remains damp here, post-2013, this spring has dried up completely;
- The stinky Canmore Sulphur spring in Canmore. At less than 9 l/min, it’s not big, but that aroma more than makes up for it. Lawrence Grassi tried to turn it into a therapeutic pool in the 1920’s;
- Sulphur Springs, off the Fullerton Loop near the former Allen Bill Pond. There are easily smelled but can be difficult to find. Once upon a time, the spring water came out of a pipe someone stuck into the spring, making it look somewhat less natural;
- There’s an unnamed spring with a creek gently flowing out of a perfectly circular, 5 m diameter pool just off 742 near Mt. Buller. We are aware there is a camera at the bottom of that pool (assuming the pool has a bottom);
- Railside Spring at the base of Grotto Mountain, with it’s 1,700 l/min discharge. It’s geologically on strike with another spring next to the TransCanada Highway on the exact opposite side of the valley. Both are likely discharging from the Etherington formation, a porous and permeable limestone;
- The “hot” (32°) springs high up on the side of Mist Mountain, which in the last few years has become the flavour-of-the-month “hot” hiking destination. You can see how popular it is by simply counting the number of YouTube videos about it. K-Country doesn’t have a lot of hot springs, and we think it unusual to find one on the top of a mountain, but that’s K-Country for you. It’s a spring with an impressive view. Spring water only gets hot by being pushed underground really, really deep, so the source of this spring is really a mystery. However, geologically, just like the hot springs in Banff, the water comes out at the Livingston/Exshaw interface at the surface expression of a fault.
There are the countless springs elsewhere in the mountains; most every valley from Rummel to Pocaterra feature ponds or streams that just appear out of nowhere.
Natural springs present an endless source of wonder and mystery about geological processes, including mysteries that may never be solved. K-Country plays an important role in protecting our precious water resources, in part because of the amount of mystery associated with where that water even comes from.