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Seeking beauty can be potentially deadly on central Alberta’s Abraham Lake

As tourists flock to the man-made gem, they are being warned about unstable ice
One of the quirky methane bubbles that’s frozen in the ice of Abraham Lake. They are created by the break-down of organic matter under the water. (Contributed photo/Carl Hahn).

Hordes of sightseers are being drawn to a central Alberta lake that’s uniquely beautiful — and potentially deadly.

With an increasing number of vehicles and tour buses heading out to visit Abraham Lake’s intriguing ice-bubble formations, Rocky Mountain House Search and Rescue is warning the public to be careful when stepping onto the frozen surface of the water body west of Nordegg.

Abraham Lake is a man-made reservoir, which makes it “a very dangerous lake. Always be aware of your surrounding and stay safe,” the group posted on its Facebook page.

A photo of broken ice is also shown, revealing a gaping air hole beneath the lake’s frozen surface.

As Abraham Lake’s water level is controlled by a dam, it can rise and fall after ice forms on top. Rocky Mountain House Search and Rescue workers are cautioning that if the water levels drop, the unsupported ice can break under the weight of a vehicle, or even a person.

Individuals who fall into the lake wouldn’t be able to pull themselves out, because the air gap between the dropping water and ice surface is greater than their reach.

The group’s president, Edward Van Heeren, said, “The lake’s become a very popular tourist spot, with people coming from all over” to see lava-lamp-like bubbles in the ice.

The strange formations are caused when methane gas is released by decaying tree limbs and other underwater organic matter. The frozen bubbles can be as large as a foot in size and are visible through the glass-like surface of the ice.

Van Heeren is starting to notice foreign tour buses after the HuffPost, The Daily Beast, Canadian Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution published articles about the lake. He feels the urgency of spreading awareness about the lake’s inherent dangers.

Even when walking down the slope to the lake, Van Heeren recommends wearing ice cleats to avoid slipping.

Bruce Schollie, a Red Deer outdoors enthusiast, was surprised to see at least 10 cars parked at Preacher’s Point, one of several parking lots along the lakeshore, during a recent hike in the area.

“They were all bubble watchers,” said Schollie.

He observed both vehicles and people on the frozen lake surface. As a trained scout leader, he recommends carrying a rope, which could help reach someone who falls through the ice, but he admitted no one would last long in the frigid water.

Danielle Fortin, who runs Pursuit Adventures in Red Deer with her husband JP Fortin, believes some spots on the lake are safer than others.

The couple regularly takes tour groups out to Hoodoo Creek, or to Preacher’s Point at the furthest side of the lake from Nordegg. Fortin said the ground beneath the water slopes off more gently there.

She feels the most dangerous points are between Windy Point and the dam, as ice in this area is more unstable and the bank beneath slopes steeply.

Fortin understands the lake’s appeal: “When you are standing on the ice, it’s so clear, you can see straight down to the rocks at the bottom…. It feels like you are walking on bubbles. It’s a unique and magical experience.”

But it’s also concerning for amateur photographer Carl Hahn, of Red Deer, who makes a point of watching for running water beneath the ice whenever he walks out on the lake to take pictures.

Flowing water is a sign that the lake level below has receded and he should avoid the spot.

“Since the ice is clear, you can tell where it might have pockets of air,” said Hahn, who has also noticed a colour change where there’s only air beneath the ice.

Hahn noted it’s possible to not step onto the lake and still see some bubbles, since broken pieces of ice have been heaved up onto the shore.

Fat-tire biker Barry Shellian, of Rocky Mountain House, has noticed a lot of rental car licence plates around the lake as news spreads of its ice bubbles. He hopes tourists are aware of the lake’s potential dangers, as well as its beauty.

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Rocky Mountain House Search and Rescue posted this photo on its website to show how ice can break on Abraham Lake when it has no water underneath to support it. The lake is actually a reservoir with a dam that can raise or lower water levels. (Contributed photo/Amy Rodtka).

Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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