Alberta has plenty of fun aquatic adventures—once you know where to look
By Andrew Mah
Most descriptions of Alberta refer to our vast prairie fields of grass and wheat, or the majestic eastern ranges of the Rocky Mountains. As one of Canada’s only two landlocked provinces (the other being Saskatchewan), we’re not the first place one might think of when it comes to water activities. You might be surprised to know, then, that there are many options here when it comes to getting wild, woolly and totally wet.
Okay, we’re not talking the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef or lolling in the warm waters of the tropics. With our lakes fed mostly by glacial melt, they tend to be on the cooler side, so you’ll want to wear a full drysuit even in summer. But if you’re a serious diver looking for some adventure, or a novice seeking practice hours and certification, there are a few places you should consider.
The most well known is Lake Minnewanka, just outside of Banff. Here, you’ll find a deep submerged village and dam to poke around in. Nearby, Two Jack Lake has an old river bottom “trail” that’s good for underwater navigation practice. Near Jasper, consider Lake Annette and Lake Edith, while in the north, Twin Lakes in Peace Country and Cold Lake are popular among locals. To the south in Waterton Lakes National Park, a popular dive spot is at the Emerald Bay portion of Upper Waterton Lake—here, you can explore the underwater wreck of an old paddlewheeler, the “Gertrude.” Visit www.albertaunderwatercouncil.com for a list of dive clubs and related resources.
The combination of mountain scenery and fast-flowing rivers provide Alberta with excellent whitewater rafting. You can find everything from a pleasant Class I float to a wild Class V thrill ride. Rivers such as the Highwood, Kananaskis, Red Deer and Bow are popular destinations. The Kananaskis has fun spots suitable for novices and families, while Sheep Creek offers some of the province’s wildest rapids, enough to satisfy extreme thrill-seekers. Visit www.raftingalberta.ca for more information and a list of reputable outfitters.
Believe it or not, you can find full-service sailing clubs at Chestermere Lake and the Glenmore Reservoir in Calgary, and at Wabamun Lake just west of Edmonton. At Glenmore and Wabumun, you’ll also find sailing schools with courses for sailing newbies as well as those looking to refresh their knot-tying and wind tacking skills. Outside of the two big cities, Pigeon Lake in central Alberta is another popular spot, home to both the Itaska Yacht Club and the Ma-Me-O Sailing Club. In Cold Lake, its marina built in 1989, is now the largest inland marina in Western Canada. For more information on clubs and sailing opportunities, check out www.albertasailing.com.
WINDSURFING / KITEBOARDING
Alberta is certainly known for its strong winds—the prevailing westerlies and the intense Chinook blasts that can thunder across the wide open prairies. This is nirvana for windsurfing enthusiasts, who flock to a number of lakes where the winds can click up to 100 km/hr, including Abraham, Beauvais, Waterton and Cold Lake. Among the most popular are the Oldman and Ghost Lake reservoirs. The Oldman is very windy, even when the wind isn’t up elsewhere. Ghost Lake reservoir, west of Cochrane, is also popular for ice sailing due to the fact that through much of the winter it offers a large, smooth, snow-free surface. For some tips on good launch sites and wind patterns, visit www.nawa.ca and www.windsurfingalberta.com.
KAYAKING / CANOEING
There are eight main river basins where you can enjoy kayaking and canoeing in the province, along with more than two dozen paddling clubs and associations who will be glad to help you. At www.paddlealberta.org, you can get more information on routes, conditions, and where you can buy equipment and hire a guide.
One paddling loop that is billed by local enthusiasts as the province’s “only backcountry canoe circuit” can be found in Central Alberta’s Lakeland Provincial Park, near Lac La Biche. The route has campsites and involves occasional portages, but these are made easier by handy on-site canoe carts you can use to lug your ride from one lake to the next. Get more info on the park at www.laclabicheregion.com.
If all these adventure sports aren’t your cup of tea, and you prefer looking at the water instead of jumping into it, consider a pleasant dinner cruise or boat tour. In Calgary, visit Heritage Park (www.heritagepark.ca) where you can climb aboard a replica sternwheeler, the S.S. Moyie, for a short ride around the Glenmore Reservoir. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Queen Riverboat paddlewheeler (www.edmontonqueen.com) lets you see Edmonton from a different perspective, with one-hour leisure and dinner cruises along the North Saskatchewan river.
For a bit of mountain lake sightseeing, you can take the Lake Minnewanka boat cruise. Here, steep mountains rise gorgeously up along the water’s edge, while an interpreter narrates the local geology, history and native folklore of the lake. A similar experience can be found near Jasper, where a 90-minute scenic cruise takes you through some breathtaking vistas on Maligne Lake—this trip was named Canada’s best boat cruise by Reader’s Digest back in 2007. Meanwhile, you can travel to the U.S. and back on the Waterton Lakes National Park cruise, a two-hour journey with a brief stopover in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
In Northern Alberta, there’s Kinosoo Beach by Cold Lake, the island beaches of Sir Winston Churchill Park just outside of Lac La Biche and the sandy shores of Muriel Lake near Bonnyville. Meanwhile, Devonshire Beach five minutes north of Lesser Slave Lake offers long white sand beaches and an annual sand sculpture contest in the summer. Sylvan Lake just outside of Red Deer in Central Alberta is the closest thing the province has to a true resort town, and also offers Sea-Doo and jet ski rentals.