Road To Maligne Lake: Medicine Lake


The drive out to Maligne Lake is just as beautiful as the drive up the Icefields Parkway.  But here, you will also find something that perplexed the area’s early residents: a disappearing lake.

Medicine Lake only exists during the summer months, when glaciers melt, sending water into the valley.  By September (the time of my visit), lake levels are falling, and later in autumn, the entire lake bed will be exposed — except for one ribbon of water.  That small stream is what baffled the Indians — it runs through a valley that appears to have no outlet.  The water simply disappears at the lower end of the lake.

Nowadays, the mystery is solved.  Fractures in the bedrock allow the river to go underground, into one of the most complex systems of caves in the world.  The water re-emerges in quite a few different places, including above Maligne Canyon.  During the summer months, more water flows into the valley than the underground passages can handle.  So, just like a tub with a slow, clogged drain, the water backs up and fills the valley.

In the 1950’s, a dam was proposed for Medicine Lake, but it was never built.  There were efforts to plug the outflow passages with sand bags, mattresses, and even bundles of magazines. 

Whether Medicine Lake is full, empty, or somewhere in between, you’ll enjoy driving along its eastern edge for several kilometers.

If you’re visiting in mid-September, you might be lucky enough to catch some fall colors.  I think I was about a week too early, as the leaves were just beginning to turn in a few places.  But, a week later, there would likely be much less water in the lake.

I didn’t know caribou could travel at 60 kilometers per hour!

Seriously, be sure to obey the sluggish speed limits, since this is a vital habitat for caribou and other animals.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive out to Maligne Lake, then back:

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