A look at the ebb and flow of Gull Lake

Alberta’s early summer floods of 2013 provided a sharp and catastrophic reminder of the vagaries and power of nature.

Alberta’s early summer floods of 2013 provided a sharp and catastrophic reminder of the vagaries and power of nature.

Thanks to its location, Lacombe escaped the wrath of the raging rivers but the community is not immune to nature’s cycles of feast and famine.

In 1905 an English syndicate proposed the scheme of harnessing the Blindman River to provide hydroelectric power to the town of Lacombe. A debris dam was constructed on the Blindman just above its confluence with the Red Deer River and within a year the lake behind the dam was one-half mile in length, power was flowing over an eight-mile transmission line and six arc lamps were providing lighting for Lacombe.

Seasonal fluctuations in river flow were initially compensated by controlling the water flow from Gull Lake into the Blindman River via Outlet Creek.

Early in 1908 this flow proved insufficient so a canal was dredged, the creek deepened and a control gate was installed to regulate the flow from the lake into the river. As lake levels continued to recede this source became unreliable and the town installed an auxiliary steam power plant in Danner’s Pacemaker flour mill.

Cliff Danner was the steam engineer. This steam plant took over when the dam was washed away by the spring flood of 1915 and continued in operation until Calgary Power was granted the power franchise in 1929.

Had the promoters of this project been able to review the weather history of this area they would have realized that climate would be the ultimate controller.

It was Albert McCollum, who lived one mile west of Juniper Lodge who made this point clear to Don Walker and me when we visited him in 1965 to view his collection of Indian artifacts.

He recounted stories told by his grandfather who had worked as a bull train driver for the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Edmonton-Rocky Mountain House trail.

This trail passed between Gull Lake and the present site of Lacombe. In winter he crossed the lake on the ice to reduce the distance between the two trading posts. Water of the lake receded slowly but steadily and by mid-1850 summer crossing became possible over a narrow gravel ridge that led southwest from a point near McLaurin Beach.

By 1860 this ridge was exposed for most of its length.

Then the ‘wet’ returned, the lake refilled and the land ‘bridge’ was submerged. This brief respite was followed by a drying out period that steadily shrank the lake for the rest of the century.

Spring 1900 found the lake once again full to overflowing with gale force winds at spring breakup depositing ice floes on the veranda of Lakeshore Hotel which stood high above the water on the south shore of the lake.

Eight years later the water level had again retreated, exposing a sandy beach that encouraged development of the lake as a summer resort. By 1914 there were 122 cottages in the summer village, more than 200 boats anchored regularly along the shore and a huge crowd assembled to enjoy the inaugural yacht race.

In 1922 the annual regatta here attracted 2,000 visitors.

The province responded to popular demand in 1928 by building a pier to facilitate spectator sports, swimming competitions and boat launching. Of particular interest was the annual one-mile Wrigley swim competition.

A decade later this pier stood on dry ground.

Such variability should not have been unexpected. Explorer Henry Kelsey (1690), the first white person to traverse this region, described it as a desert in his 1690 journal.

One hundred and sixty-seven years would pass before the British and Canadian governments commissioned their expeditions (Captain John Palliser and Professor Harry Youle Hind) to study the agricultural potential of the prairies. Both assessments of the area agreed with Kelsey. In fact, Palliser defined a triangular area, with its apex at about Consort and its base extending along the U.S. border from the foothills to the Manitoba border, as unsuited for cultivation.

This area is known as the Palliser Triangle. However, both Hind and Palliser did envision a dam on the South Saskatchewan River to create a lake with irrigation potential for the ‘prairie desert.’ That vision came to fruition in 1967 with completion of the Gardiner Dam.

In the early days of settlement, the newly-broken land and timely rains provided promising harvests, including the bumper crop of 1915.

However, by 1917, the rains had become few and far between. Students of climatology have determined that no less than 20 notable droughts occurred on the prairies during the 20th century alone, including well-known dry periods like 1917 to 1926, 1929 to 1937, the 1960s, a 10-year period beginning in 1977, 1992 and the list goes on (Government of Canada Prairie Land and Water Resources).

That such variation has been accepted by those who till the soil is evinced by the evolution of farming practices. However, the same cannot be said of those who own lake-side property at any of the lakes within county borders.

They demand their water front be stabilized to protect their investment. To satisfy that demand in the past the county has periodically obliged by pumping water from the Blindman River into Gull Lake. Quite a contrast to the days when the lake flowed into the river through Outlet Creek!

What remedial measures would be appropriate or available should water levels surge, as indeed they shall if history is any guide, is a bridge yet to be crossed.