Planning safe adventures
Like any other activity, there are risks involved with walking on ice. Being prepared and knowing the area helps to make it a safe experience.
Every winter we get a lot of questions from people planning their Abraham Lake adventure about how to be safe while on the ice. Some of it comes as a result of rather sensational headlines by publications like the Red Deer Advocate (Abraham Lake’s Frozen Bubbles Beautiful but Deadly or Seeking Beauty can be Potentially Deadly on Central Alberta’s Abraham Lake). One of the unintended consequences we've seen after those stories is people avoiding the safer areas that are mentioned in those stories and going to more dangerous sections of the lake instead.
We love seeing people enjoy Abraham Lake. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of information available for those going without a guide. That's why we've decided to put together this guide for those looking to head out on their own.
Most people appreciate the importance of taking an Avalance Skills Training (AST) course before heading out to snowshoe or ski in terrain where there is a risk of avalanche. We feel that the same approach should be used when travelling on ice.
Understanding the risks and how to mitigate them is the key to having a safe ice bubble adventure. While there isn't a standard course like AST, there are many providers offering training on ice safety for recreationists. These courses range from a few hours to a few days, depending on your needs.
The information we provide here isn't intended to replace hands-on training and experience. It provides local knowledge of the area that you can use to better plan your adventure on Abraham Lake.
In This Guide:
Myths and Misconceptions
There are a few things we hear quite often or come across on various blogs mentioning visits to the ice bubbles. We'll cover these in more detail below but here are the ones we get asked about the most.
The first one is that it's always unsafe to go on the ice of Abraham Lake. Like any other activity, there are risks associated with an ice walk but these can be mitigated with some basic precautions. This statement is usually followed by a comment about water level fluctuations or the presence of an air gap between the ice and water. Both of these statements are somewhat true but once again they can be addressed relatively easily, as we'll discuss below.
The second most common one is that Windy Point is the best place to see the ice bubbles. That area has some of the least stable ice on the lake, with conditions changing on a daily basis. It's possible to have a safe ice walk there but it does require more experience and a better understanding of the ice conditions than other locations on the lake we would recommend.
Finally, we often hear the methane bubbles are a hazard. It's usually a variation that they make the ice weak (they might but not enough to be a concern), that they could explode (no they don't) or that they could catch on fire. We've watched enough people try to light them on fire to say that it doesn't usually happen. Yes, there are videos on YouTube of methane bubbles catching on fire. Most of these were shot in Siberia and Alaska on lakes with larger pools of methane under the ice. You might be able to light some of the bubbles that are not yet frozen under the ice but the lake will not catch on fire while you're out for a walk.
Conditions and Updates
We share this information to help visitors to the area plan their trip. This represents the conditions we have observed at a specific point in time. Ice safety depends on many more factors than just ice conditions and anybody going on the ice should have the knowledge and experience required to assess the risks, or should consider going with a guide.
Almost all the incidents involving the public that we witness while guiding happen on the shore, not on ice that has water underneath. Once the water level drops, the ice sits unevenly on the ground below. That creates some amazing ice features with crazy lines mixed in with the ice bubbles.
The picture of the hole with overhanging ice below is an extreme example of what you need to watch out for when you access the lake or if you choose to look for ice bubbles without going on the water.
It happens because the ice that sits on the rocks gets brittle over time and breaks in areas that are unsupported by the ground. What we often see is the ice-breaking as we walk, not into a deep hole but just enough to make you trip and fall.
The other common challenge is slip and falls in areas where the ice slopes down. Some slide down only to find it a challenge to get back up afterward.
Both are easy to prevent or at least reduce the risk of injuries.
First, wear proper ice cleats rather than the ones designed for city sidewalks. We recommend the Kahtoola Micropsikes, the Hillsound Trail Crampon or the Black Diamond Access Spike Traction Device.
Second, use a hiking pole or strong stick to help with balance and to check if the ice is solid.
Finally, look around and choose your path accordingly. Walk on rocks or clear ice and whenever possible avoid snow-covered areas where you can't see what's underneath. Avoid going down areas that are too steep to walk down easily, they'll be even harder to get back up.
Changing Water Levels
Abraham Lake is a hydroelectric reservoir on the North Saskatchewan River. The water fluctuates throughout the year as electricity is produced, helping create the ice bubbles and the great ice features along the shore.
The difference between the high and low water levels is around 30 to 40 metres. That's 2 to 3 times the size of the tides on the Bay of Fundy. The difference is that unlike the tide, the lake level changes from high to low over the course of 6 months where the tides happen over 6 hours.
On Abraham Lake, the highest level happens in late September while the lowest level is in May. During the winter months, the water level continuously drops.
It's a common misconception, often shared on social media, that the level fluctuates up and down on a daily or weekly basis, depending on how much water the dam is releasing. You can see on rivers.alberta.ca (look up the station Bighorn Reservoir - TAU) that the level drops faster when more electricity is produced, for example during a cold snap, and at other times stay constant or decrease slowly. It doesn't rise significantly until the spring runoff starts in May.
As the lake level drops it leaves ice on the shore, as we discussed earlier.
We often hear about how this creates a dangerous situation where there is an air gap between the ice and the water, increasing the risk of falling through and making it harder to get out. This happens mostly in areas where the shore is steep. A good place is to see this in action, without going on the ice, is at the Allstones Lake Staging Area. You can see the broken ice blocks on the steep banks and in the days after a large release of water at the dam you can watch the ice collapse.
Another thing to look for is small bays and concave shorelines, like the one in the picture, which create a similar risk and are best to be avoided as well.
This does not happen across the lake. The ice is not strong enough to bridge a gap that large without being supported by the water underneath.
Reduce your risks when you head out on the ice by choosing locations that have a gentle slope like the areas between the Ice Bubbles Parking Lot and Cline Creek and avoid areas with steep banks like the area between Allstones Creek and Windy Point.
The bubbles on the water are worth venturing off the shore. That's where you'll find those deeper stacks of larger bubbles on turquoise ice. Here are a few tips on how to reduce the risks when you venture out on the ice.
Ice thickness is probably the most obvious consideration. The Canadian Red Cross recommends at least 15 cm of ice when walking along or 20 cm when taking part in group activities.
On Abraham Lake, you can see how deep the ice is by looking at the cracks and ice bubbles. We find that people underestimate the thickness on a visual check, which is a good thing. We use an ice climbing screw as an easy way to get a visual and to confirm ice thickness on a day-to-day basis. From time to time we drill full holes to check the ice and we usually find that by mid-January the ice is over 60 cm thick in the areas we use for our tours.
When walking on the ice, stick to clear ice which is the strongest. White ice is not as strong but is a great second choice. Grey ice on the other hand is the weakest and should be avoided.
Whenever possible, walk on ice instead of snow-covered areas. It's harder to tell the quality of the ice below when it's under the snow.
Some winters we get amazing block features in the ice. These are evidence that the ice broke up and refroze. We also get lines of white ice where water has come to the surface through cracks. Both of these can be safe, but you need to understand why they are there and test the ice. Always use extra caution in areas like this.
Another type of ice you want to approach with caution is pressure ridges. These happen mostly in areas where the lakes narrow, like what we see near Windy Point. You'll often see them there as a raised section of ice with multiple cracks. It's best to avoid these areas.
Finally, another thing to take into consideration is the presence of rivers, creeks and sources. Streams running beneath the ice can erode it from below, leading to variable ice conditions. If you can't avoid those areas, use extra caution and additional testing.
Weather conditions change fast in Alberta and they can go from one extreme to another even faster in the Abraham Lake area. We can go from a warm sunny day to dropping temperatures and winds over 100 km/h in a few minutes. That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy a great day on the lake, just that you need to be prepared for changing conditions.
The wind is a mixed blessing. The strong winds we experience are the reason the lake is clear of snow all winter long. Even after a snowstorm, we can usually expect to see clear ice within a few days. The wind also polishes off the top of the ice, keeping it clearer than other lakes that have ice bubbles.
At the same time, the winds can make it more difficult to enjoy a day on the ice. In addition to the increased wind chill, winds in the 30 to 50 km/h range often means lost tuques or gloves flying down the lake faster than you can run after them. Winds over 90 km/h can make it harder to walk, usually require us to use an ice screw to tie down our gear on photo tours and can even be strong enough to push us as we sit down on the ice.
All of this increases the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
When heading out on the lake, take the same approach as with any outdoor adventure and plan to be outside longer than expected. Even though most lake accesses are close to the road, avoid the classic jeans, hoodie and running shoe combo we see all the time. On our tours, we require winter boots, snow pants, winter jackets, tuques and gloves.
This will not only help you in case conditions change quickly but will make your day more enjoyable. Being outside is not fun when you're not frozen and if you've driven 3 hours to get here, you might as well enjoy it.
On the other end, we can get rain during the winter and warm chinook days. These impact the ice and change conditions quickly. Be ready to adapt.
Where to Go
The first challenge you'll encounter is that most areas of Abraham Lake are not well signed. Places like Windy Point, the Ice Bubbles Parking Lot and Cline Landing have no signs at all. Other areas like Abraham Slabs, Hoodoo Creek and Preacher's Point have some signs but they can easily be missed as you drive down the highway. Our first recommendation: make sure that you are where you think you are. This can be important for two reasons. First, if you ever needed assistance this will help search and rescue find you. Second, while we see many posts on blogs and Instagram tagged as being shot at Windy Point, a large number of these are from other, safer sections of the lake.
Our next recommendation is to not follow others assuming it's safe. That even applies to following our groups.
Areas to Avoid
These aren't areas that are always unsafe. It's just that they require more knowledge, experience and testing to have a safe adventure here.
Dam to Windy Point (including the Allstones area)
The steep banks make it harder to get on and off the ice. It also increases the chances of hanging ice where there is an air gap between the ice and water near the shore.
Windy Point Area
This area has steep banks, pressure ridges, wind issues and we often see open water on the dam side of Windy Point.
Cline River Bridge
The river runs through there resulting in variable ice, increasing the chances of falling through the ice and making getting out harder.
These areas are not always safe but the risks are simpler and easier to manage. You can see our full guide for each of these locations here.
Ice Bubbles Parking Lot to Cline (Whitegoat) Creek
There are many access points in that area starting at the new parking lot south of Windy Point, including Hoodoo Creek, Belly of Abraham and Abraham Slabs. Avoid driving down to the lake unless you know you can get back up. We see a lot of people getting stuck and the nearest tow truck is 1.5 hours away.
Often snow-covered but can be great, especially when the lake first freezes in December. The ice here is usually on the ground or over shallow water by January at this location. There is a road that provides access to the lake but getting back up can be a challenge with icy conditions. A better option is to park at the Pinto Lake Staging Area and walk down to the lake.
Great from November to early January. The ice is usually cloudy earlier than the rest of the lake with smaller bubbles unless you go on a longer ice walk toward the lake. Most of this area is the North Saskatchewan River as it enters Abraham Lake. Avoid the river channel unless you have experience checking ice conditions.
What to Bring
Bringing the proper gear will not only make it a safer experience but a much more enjoyable one as well. It's really hard to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the area when you are cold and shivering.
The first one seems obvious. Bring winter clothes that will keep you warm. Unlike snowshoeing or cross country skiing, you'll most likely only cover a short distance while on the lake and as a result, you won't be getting as hot. You'll also want to lay down on the ice to get better pictures, making snow pants and a winter jacket your best option. Proper winter boots, gloves, tuques and a neck warmer along with some hand warmers will allow you to spend time on the ice without worrying about frostbite.
We also recommend bringing a change of clothes to leave in the car. This helps warm back up if you are planning to drive back to Calgary or Edmonton on the same day and will make a big difference if you get wet during your adventure.
In terms of ice safety, we recommend that you bring similar gear to what we use on our tours, including proper ice cleats, ice claws, a hiking pole or strong stick, a throw bag and a first aid kit including a thermal blanket.
Cell service is improving in the area but is still limited. There is some service at the Cline River and further out on the lake at Hoodoo Creek but full service starts at Windy Point as you head toward Nordegg. We carry an InReach or Zoleo and recommend a satellite communicator when exploring the region.
These will help you have a safe adventure. A few more things will help you make it a memorable one.
Bring a thermos of hot chocolate, coffee or soup with you. Something warm as you enjoy the sights on a winter day always feels great.
The ice bubbles make for great pictures but the cold weather will reduce the battery life on your camera and phone. Bring an extra battery or power pack and keep them in a pocket with some hand warmers when you're not using them.
There are days where the ice is snow-covered. Bring a shovel and a broom with you on those days. We find that an avalanche shovel with a flat edge works great and is easy to carry. As for brooms, we've tested a lot of options... What we've found works best on our tours is a deck scrub brush with squeegee. The long handle is great to test the ice conditions as well.
Planning Your Trip
Go with a guide or with an experienced partner. This is especially true if you have limited ice safety experience or are unfamiliar with the area. Going with a guide often means finding better ice bubbles and conditions than going on your own. We often see posts on social media that there were no good bubbles when our guests got to see amazing ones on the same day. Make sure that your guide has permits from Alberta Environment, many operators based outside of the region do not.
Keep in mind that services are limited in the winter. David Thompson Resort and the Crossing Resort are both closed for the season. If you are coming from Lake Louise, there are no services in the winter between Lake Louise and Nordegg. Winter tires are also required for any vehicles travelling on highway 93 during the winter months.
Toilets are available at the Siffleur Falls, Abraham Slabs, the Ice Bubbles Parking Lot and Allstones Lake Staging Areas. Toilets at the Pinto Lake Staging Area and the Coral Creek Whitegoat Staging Area are locked this winter.
If you get stuck or need assistance with your vehicle the nearest option is to contact a tow truck from Rocky Mountain House, but do expect to wait at least 2 hours for them to reach you.
Plan on visiting Nordegg for food, gas and lodging as you explore the region. Nordegg is only 25 minutes away from Windy Point and 40 minutes from Preacher's Point.
In Nordegg you'll find food at the Nordegg Lodge and the Nordegg Canteen during the winter. There are two gas stations (Shell and Fas Gas) with convenience stores.
We recommend that you spend the night in Nordegg to make the most of your visit. Options include Expanse Cottages, the Goldeye Centre, Nature's Getaway, the Shunda Creek Hostel, Aurum Lodge, the Nordegg Lodge and other cabins available through Vrbo or Airbnb.
Head Out With A Guide
Make the most of your adventure and head out with a guide. Nordegg Adventures offers guided ice walks on Abraham Lake from November to March. Snowshoes, ice cleats and kicksleds are also available to rent in Nordegg.