Medicine Lake and Maligne Canyon

On our return from Maligne Lake to Jasper, we stopped by at the Medicine Lake.  A geological wonder, Medicine Lake is perhaps best described as a sinking lake.  In summer, the lake fills more quickly than it can drain away.  The glacier melt waters flood the lake in summer, sometimes overflowing it and the body of water appears deep and expansive.  In fall and winter the lake disappears, becoming a mudflat with scattered pools of water connected by a stream.

Where then does the water go?

‘Out through the bottom’ like a bathtub without a plug. The Maligne River pours into the lake from the South and the lake waters drain out through sinkholes in the bottom. The water then streams through a cave system formed in the slightly soluble limestone rock, surfacing again in the area of Maligne Canyon 16 km downstream. This is one of the largest known sinking lakes in the Western Hemisphere and may be the largest inaccessible cave system anywhere in the world.

Summer melt water coming into the lake exceeds the amount the sinkholes can drain.  Decreased melt water in the late summer and fall means that the lake’s sinkholes can drain the lake faster than what the Maligne River can fill.  This creates the disappearing lake phenomena.

This natural phenomenon bewildered Aboriginals and other early visitors.  They found no apparent water outlet, but the lake sank in winters.  Many in the early days attributed it to some spirits or demons sucking away the water in winter.  Aboriginal people called the lake Medicine Lake because of its seemingly magical powers and the United Nations declared the Rocky Mountain Parks a World Heritage Site partly because of this unique drainage system.

Wolves in the region have figured out how to make it work for them.  They have been known to chase caribou into the muck so they get slowed down or stuck.

Prior to the construction of the road around Medicine Lake, the irregular water levels made it difficult to get visitors to Maligne Lake.  Shallow bottomed boats were employed, but they ran aground on sandbars or capsized in strong winds prevalent in the area.  In an attempt to establish higher water levels, in 1930’s, the park superintendent ordered that old magazines and mattresses be thrown into the lake to plug the drainage holes and allow the lake to fill.  The scheme failed to work,  and no one ever tried such tricks to fool mother nature ever after. 

The park officials even suggested building a dam to close the sinkholes to stem the outflow of water.  It was also given up as they realised that the sinkholes were immense and needed many truckloads of soil to fill them up.  It was in 1956 after Jean Corbel, a French scientist who concluded that a sinking river system had been created much before the last ice age. 

These cave systems till date remain the largest inaccessible cave system in the world. In case someone attempts to go down through them, they will surely find the old magazines to read when bored.

After leaving Medicine Lake, we drove down to Maligne Canyon.  The Jasper Parks have created a trail for the tourists to hike and follow the canyon as it flows down on its way to the Athabasca River which further drains into the Arctic Ocean.

The Maligne River after draining into the Medicine Lake seem to disappear and then re-emerge 16 km  downstream near Maligne Canyon. Some geologists speculate that parts of the canyon were originally deep caves that have since been uncovered by glacial scraping and water erosion. This scraping of the caves lead to the canyons being narrow at the top and wider down below.


Before the last ice age ended 14,000 years ago, the Maligne Valley was buried under a glacier about a kilometre thick. Glaciers moved  and the heavy ice and rock at the bottom of the glacier eroded the valley floor until it broke into the cave, later tearing the roof away. The glacial ice invaded the passage, grinding much of it away until the climate warmed and the remaining ice melted away. What was left –the geologists theorise  was the Maligne Canyon.

Another interesting thing about the Maligne Canyon is that more water appears to flow out of the gorge than flows in at the ground’s surface. Most of the water in the canyon area flows underground through a cave system, 30 km long, that carries it from Medicine Lake 14 km away to Maligne Canyon’s many springs.

The underground system is extensive and during the 1970s researchers used a biodegradable dye to determine the underground river’s extent. The dye showed up in many of the lakes and rivers in the area and it became clear that the underground system was one of the most extensive in the world.

Walking on the trails along the canyon was awe-inspiring.  The gorges were breathtaking, with its rushing waters and steep walls. In some places the walls narrowed, forcing the large volume of water through a series of rapids. The areas of the gorges are fenced off, as a fall here could prove fatal.

These geological wonders are one of its kind in the world and are always worth a visit.

Maligne Lake and Spirit Island


The first place we visited on our tour of the Rocky Mountains in our August 2016 trip was Maligne (loosely translated in French as wicked) Lake  and Spirit Island.   This magnificent lake is located in Jasper National Park, Alberta.  The 46 km drive to the lake from the city of Jasper is on a  road built along the glacier valley running between the Maligne and Queen Elizabeth mountain ranges. Towering glaciated peaks and turquoise coloured glacier lakes dot the route on the banks of rushing Maligne River.  The drive offers plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife such as elk, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer and bears.  The road ends at a Jasper National Park facility from where the boat cruises for Spirit Island begins.

We boarded a cruise boat for a  90-minute boat cruise to Spirit Island.  This cruise  was, named the “Best Boat Tour in Canada” by Reader’s Digest.  The boat was Captained by a young lady and our tour guide, also a young lady, gave us a lot of information about the lake and the surrounding areas as we cruised to the Spirit Island.

Maligne Lake, the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world and the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. Ringed by snow and ice-capped mountains, the 22 km long lake stretches past serene Spirit Island up to the melt-water channels of Coronet Glacier.

The lake was carved out by glaciers and the lake is fed and drained by the Maligne River, which enters the lake on its South side and drains the lake to the North into the Medicine Lake. An open forest of pine and spruce around the lake is home to moose, caribou and many other species of wildlife. Hiking and cross-country skiing trails abound making this a popular destination throughout the summer.

Maligne Lake was originally known as ‘Chaba Imne’ or Beaver Lake by the native tribes who lived near Jasper. In 1907 Mary Schaeffer  learned of the mysterious lake and located it.  She later wrote about her adventures, making the area a popular tourist attraction in years to come. She first traveled to the Canadian Rockies at the age of 18 with her friend Mary Vaux.  Here Mary met Charles Schaffer, a medical doctor who was pursuing his passion for botany. They married a year later and returned to the Rockies each summer until Charles’ death in 1903.  The best vantage point from where the lake can be observed with all its beauty has been aptly named as Schaffer’s Lookout after this courageous woman.

The highest peak in the area is Mount Brazeau (11,386 feet), stands at the South-East of Maligne Lake. The East side of the valley is made of steeply dipping limestone beds which is part of the Queen Elizabeth Ranges, named in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Canada’s sovereign.

Queen Elizabeth II became queen upon the death of her father King George VI on February 6, 1952.  Over the ensuing days, she received proclamations of allegiance from all of her realms – Canada being the first to do so, beating the United Kingdom by about two hours.  During the coronation year in 1953, Canada offered a grand gesture to mark the occasion by naming the mountain range after her.  The Queen has till date not set her foot in the area, but the mountain range stands testimony to Canada’s loyalty to the Commonwealth.

After about 14 km (30 minutes) cruise on the clear turquoise green waters of Maligne Lake, we reached the Spirit Island.   One of the most popular pictures in the Canadian Rockies is the image of Spirit Island in the middle of Maligne Lake. There is no road or trail access the island. Tour boats or private, non-motorised craft are the only means of reaching Spirit Island.

According to some accounts of First Nations (Aboriginal Canadians) mythology, Spirit Island gets its name from two young lovers from feuding tribes who used to meet secretly on the island. However, when the young woman eventually confessed her affair to her father, one of the tribes’ chiefs, he banned her from ever returning to the island. Heartbroken, her lover continued to return to Spirit Island throughout his life, hoping to meet his lover. She never returned and he eventually died on the island, where his spirit still resides.  The aboriginals still hold the island sacred and tourists are not allowed to step on it.  The aboriginals offer prayers and conduct rituals on the island.

The boat cruised at a pretty good speed, but had to slow down to reduce the wake for the passing canoes.  There were many adventurists who on their canoes were making a trip to the Spirit Island.  The Jasper National Park facility rents canoes.  When a tour boat crossed our boat, the Captain would warn passengers of the following wake.  As our boat traversed over this wake, it gave everyone a roller-coaster effect.  Had the boat not slowed down to a near stop, one can well imagine the plight of those canoes.

The lookout over Spirit Island, a small isle of trees linked to the mainland by a low, rocky isthmus, provides one of the most famous sights in the Canadian Rockies—and is surely one of the most recognised mountain scenes in all of Canada.  The cruise is a must do for all nature enthusiasts visiting the Rocky Mountains.