One of the parts of K-Country that you can’t help but notice are the lakes and reservoirs. On other pages, we’ll explore K-Country’s natural lakes (there’s really aren’t that many of them). Here, we’ll looking at the two biggest lakes in K-Country. All three of K-Country’s biggest lakes are hydro-electric reservoirs.
Both Upper and Lower K-Lakes are popular with day users. From picnickers to boaters to fishers, stand-up paddle boarders, kayakers and even very hardy swimmers, they are a recreation focus for Kananaskis Country, and very popular destinations. There are boat launch ramps on both lakes (yes, motor boats are allowed on the lakes), and several day use areas along each lake’s shoreline. A trail circles the entire Upper lake. Lower Lake has a trail running along or close to the shoreline from Peninsula Day Use to William Watson Lodge. Another trail runs from Lower Lake Day Use to Panorama/Interlakes. However the west shore of Lower Lake below Mt. Indefatigable has no trail, and no access other than boating across to the shoreline.
The Hydro Projects
Lower and Upper Kananaskis Lakes are natural lakes that were made substantially bigger by hydroelectric projects. They were initially connected by a 1 km long river, and a 3 m waterfall. Upper Lake originally had 3 islands (Hogue, Hawke and Cressey). Of the three, only Hawke Island remains; Hogue and Cressey are submerged. Two other tiny islets used to be part of the land between the lakes. To the right is a 1914 vintage topographic map before the dams were built, and it’s worthwhile comparing it to the map below.
The Upper Lake was first dammed in 1932. That dam only managed flow for the power plants far downstream at Seebe and Ghost. In 1942, a higher earthfill dam, Kananaskis Main Dam, was built across the outlet (now Upper Lakes Day Use Area) and another dam, Intake Dam (at Interlakes), was built at the northeast corner of the lake. These dams raise the upper lake level 13.7 m above the natural level. From 1942 to 1955, water was released through a steel-gated pipeline at the Intake Dam, but still only to augment winter flow on the Bow River. In 1955, a power plant was finally built at Interlakes.
Most water entering Upper Kananaskis Lake is stored from spring until October. Some water is released between March and October depending on lake levels, runoff and demand for power. Almost all drawdown is from November to February. This means the near-shore ice can be quite unstable as the lake level moves down by several meters, then up again, through the winter.
Upper K-Lakes is DEEP, at a peak of 111 m. It is about 7.8 square kilometers in size, and collects water from a 139 square kilometer drainage basin.
Lower K-Lakes is only about 42 m deep at its deepest. It is about 5.25 square kilometers in size, and collects water from a 307 square kilometer drainage basin.
Lower K-Lake was raised 11 m by the building of the Pocaterra Dam (pictured at right), and power plant in 1955. In 1956, Kent Creek was diverted to flow into Lower K-Lake. In 1959, both French and Burstall Creeks were diverted to run north to Spray Lakes instead of south to Lower K-Lake. Those diversion works are visible at the Burstall Pass Day Use Area. Until 2013, water left the Pocaterra Dam through a leaky woodstave pipeline that you could see on the former Kananaskis Canyon Interpretive Trail. On this trail, you could also see the old canyon that used to contain the Kananaskis River. The pipeline was replaced in 2013.
Unfortunately, the flood of 2013 saw the water released into the canyon to protect the dam, destroying the Interpretive trail and wrecking all the bridges, plus dramatically changing the canyon’s features. In 2019, the Friends assisted with the removal of all the bridge materials and permanent closure of the Interpretive trail.
Fishing in the Lakes
Despite both lakes being popular fishing locations, neither K-Lake is good fish habitat. Both lakes are very low in nutrients. In 1860, both cutthroat and bull trout were reported in Lower Lake. Despite this, repeated introductions of cutthroat to Upper Lakes have all been unsuccessful. One study said the original Upper K-Lake was barren of fish prior to stocking. Both Upper and Lower Lakes have been stocked periodically since 1914, and annually since 1965.
In 1981, and an experiment was run trying to get rainbow trout to spawn in Smith-Dorien creek. Despite releasing almost 70,000 fish, no spawning was established. Use of live bait in the past introduced lake chub, longnose dace, longnose sucker and white sucker over the years, some of which have hybridized. Upper Lake in particular supports only a small fish population other than what is stocked each year. The survival rate of newly stocked fish is very low.
Helping out the fish
In order to improve the fishing, in 1967 thousands of opossum shrimp, a small freshwater shrimp about 2.5 cm long, were released by Fish and Wildlife Division into the Upper and Lower Kananaskis lakes. 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. 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.
To quote the Atlas of Alberta Lakes: “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.” And spectacular scenery it is.