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Home » Lakes of the Atlas » Peace and Athabasca Region » Lake Athabasca Basin » Lake Athabasca

Lake Athabasca

    2.Drainage Basin Characteristics
    3.Lake Basin Characteristics
    4.Water Quality
    5.Biological Characteristics

1. Introduction

Map Sheets:74L, M, N, O
Location:Tp115-122 R3-24 W3
Tp110-118 R1-8 W4
Lat/Long:59°11'N 109°22'W

Lake Athabasca is Canada's eighth largest lake. The area near the lake supports a wealth of fur-bearing animals, small and large game, dense flocks of waterfowl, and an abundance of fish. These rich resources drew Indians and, later, fur traders to the area. The lake was very important during the fur-trade era and, for a time, it became the centre of conflict between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The Peace-Athabasca Delta, located at the southwest end of the lake, is one of North America's major wetlands, and ranks as one of the most biologically productive areas in the world. It is internationally recognized for its importance as a waterfowl production and staging area.

Approximately 30% of Lake Athabasca lies within Alberta and the remainder is located in Saskatchewan. The southwest tip of the lake is situated about 210 km north of the city of Fort McMurray. Lake Athabasca is not easily accessible by road. From the south, Highway 63 extends from Fort McMurray to the hamlet of Fort McKay, and a winter road extends from Fort McKay to the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, located on the north shore at the west end of Lake Athabasca (Fig. 1). From the north, an improved road extends from the town of Fort Smith, located just north of the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, to the locality of Peace Point, situated on the Peace River north of Lake Claire. From Peace Point southeast to Fort Chipewyan, the road is classed as a winter road. Airports or airstrips are located in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and in Stony Rapids and Uranium City, Saskatchewan. Aircraft can also land on the water at the locations above, as well as at Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan.

Lake Athabasca was originally called Athapiscow by the Cree. The surveyor Philip Tumor and his assistant, Peter Fidler, visited the lake in 1791 and named the lake Athapiscow on Tumor's 1794 map (McCormack 1988). The word describes open areas such as lakes and swamps where willows, reeds and grasses grow (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). On Peter Pond's 1790 map and Alexander Mackenzie's 1802 map, the lake is named Lake of the Hills (McCormack 1988).

The region's fur trade began in 1778, when Peter Pond established a trading post on the Athabasca River at its junction with the Embarras River (Fig. 2) at a location now known as Old Fort. The location was unsatisfactory and, in 1788, Alexander Mackenzie's cousin, Roderick, established a new post, Fort Chipewyan, for the North West Company. It was located on what is now Indian Reserve 201A, also called Old Fort Point, on the southwest shore of Lake Athabasca west of the Old Fort River (Fig. 2). In 1798, Fort Chipewyan was moved to the north shore to a location about 2 km from its present site. In 1802 and 1815, two Hudson's Bay Company posts were built nearby. Rivalry between the Hudson's Bay and North West companies was intense until the two companies amalgamated in 1821. The Hudson's Bay Company then held a monopoly on trade in the area until 1870, when it sold its holdings to the new Dominion of Canada (McCormack 1988).

Fort Chipewyan is Alberta's oldest permanent settlement, and in 1988, residents celebrated the bicentennial of its establishment. After the explorers and fur traders, missionaries were among the next white people to arrive at the fort. In 1849, Oblate priests established the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mission, and in 1874, the Grey Nuns opened Holy Angels Convent, a residential school and orphanage. In 1897, hundreds of prospectors travelled to the Klondike gold fields through Fort Chipewyan, using the traditional fur trade route down the Athabasca River. This influx of travellers led to the establishment of a North West Mounted Police Post at the fort in 1898 (McCormack 1988).

Beaver, Chipewyan and Cree Indians have inhabited the Athabasca region for the past 2,000 years or more. By the midnineteenth century, the Beaver had moved from the west end of Lake Athabasca and settled farther west, in the Fort Vermilion region. The Chipewyan and Cree then became the two dominant groups trading furs at Fort Chipewyan (McCormack 1988). In 1899, the Canadian government negotiated land cessions with the local Indians and Métis. Chipewyan Indian Reserves 201 and 201A to 201E were assigned. They are located on the delta between Lake Athabasca and Richardson Lake (Fig. 2). Few people live on the reserves; most natives live in Fort Chipewyan, which had a population of 1,767 people in 1986 (Alta. Native Aff. 1986). In 1987, the Cree band signed an agreement with the federal and Alberta governments that will establish a Cree reserve (McCormack 1988).

For many years, the Athabasca-Slave River system served as a major transportation route. Canoes were the original mode of travel for native people and, subsequently, the fur trade. By 1822, Chipewyan boats, which were similar to York boats, were used on Lake Athabasca and later, steamers plied the waters. By 1937, the Northern Transportation Company operated the first all-steel ships on the Athabasca-Mackenzie River system from the head of navigation in the Fort McMurray area (Brady 1983). Air transport and the opening of the Mackenzie Highway in the 1950s brought competition for cargo transport. Competition increased in 1965, when the railway opened from northern Alberta to Pine Point in the Northwest Territories, and water transport to Pine Point and Hay River via the Athabasca-Slave system was reduced to a trickle (PADPG 1972). In the early 1980s, the mines near Uranium City shut down, reducing the need for barge transport across Lake Athabasca. In 1982, the Northern Transportation Company discontinued its barge service, but some commercial barge service still operates between the Fort McMurray area and Fort Chipewyan. As recently as 1983, a passenger boat service also operated between these two centres (Brady 1983).

Lake Athabasca does not have a high potential for recreation in comparison to surrounding lakes. The transparency of the water in the main part of the lake is high and algal concentrations are low, but the lake is generally too cold for swimming or water skiing and is often subject to high waves, which are dangerous for pleasure boating (PADPG 1972). There are no provincial boating regulations specific to the lake, but federal regulations apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Species of sport fish in Lake Athabasca include lake trout, Arctic grayling, lake whitefish, goldeye, northern pike, yellow perch and walleye. There are no sport fishing regulations specific to the lake, but provincial limits and regulations are in effect (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Lake Athabasca supports a domestic fishery and a commercial fishery for lake trout, lake whitefish, walleye and northern pike.

There are five recreational facilities on or near the Alberta end of the lake (Fig. 2). Three of them are operated by the Alberta Forest Service. The first facility, Dore Lake Forest Recreation Area, is located 17 km northeast of Fort Chipewyan and about 1.5 km northwest of the shore of Lake Athabasca. It is open from May to September and has ten campsites, pump water, and a day-use area with picnic tables, a beach and a change house. The second and third facilities, Bustard Island and Richardson River Forest Recreation areas, are both boat-in sites that have several random campsites and no services. Fort Chipewyan provides services such as a boat launch, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, lodges and a gas station.

Wood Buffalo National Park is the fourth recreation area. It was established in 1922 to protect one of the few remaining herds of wood bison and several herds of plains bison (PADPG 1972). It is the second largest national park in the world, and supports the world's largest herd of free-roaming bison. In 1985, it was designated a World Heritage Site. The park includes approximately 80% of the Peace-Athabasca Delta; it is maintained in its natural state and only limited management is permitted (PADIC 1987).

The fifth facility, the Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve, is located 160 km north of Fort McMurray and 26 km east of Wood Buffalo National Park (Fig. 2). It is a vast wilderness area where active sand dunes are constantly changing the landscape and stable dunes lie under a cover of grasses. Rare plants grow in the reserve, and its many lakes and wetland areas support waterfowl populations during migration. Ecological reserves are maintained in their natural state and are used for nature appreciation, photography and wildlife viewing (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.).

Physical Information
Area (km2)7,770
Max. Depth (m)124
Mean Depth (m)20.0
Dr. Basin Area (km2)282,000
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinLake Athabasca Basin

Recreational Information
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Whitefish, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike, Lake Trout

Water Quality Information
Trophic StatusOligotrophic-Mesotrophic
TP x (µg/L)Main: 12
CHLORO x (µg/L)Main: 1.1
TDS x (mg/L)Main: 50

2.Drainage Basin Characteristics »

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