Background & History of Skeleton Lake

Skeleton Lake is located approximately six kilometres east of the Village of Boyle in north central Alberta and falls within what is generally referred to as Alberta’s “Lakeland Region”.  It is in the County of Athabasca and is approximately 160 kilometres northeast of the City of Edmonton.  The lake’s Cree name is a translation of a Cree phrase that means “place of the skeletons”.  A Cree chief is said to be buried along the shores of the lake.

 

The Northern Alberta Railway reached the vicinity in 1914, bringing homesteaders and providing the means to ship lumber and fish to local markets.  When the railway arrived at the lake, a sawmill was established at the east end of the lake along with a rail station, post office, and general store.  This stop on the NAR rail line was called Bondiss.  The early local history of the area reflects, to a large extent, the harvest of natural resources such as fur, fish, and timber.  Large stands of spruce around the lake attracted logging activity – one sawmill operated on the Southern lakeshore sometime after 1915 and another operated at the East end of the lake (where the Summer Village of Bondiss is now located) from 1923 to 1940.  Log booms were frequently seen on the lake during this period.  This area was settled mostly by immigrants from Ukraine and the major economic activity in the region eventually became mixed farming. 

 

The more recent history of the lake reflects the importance of Skeleton Lake’s recreational resources.  The first recreational development at the lake was a private resort at the South East end of the lake called Skeleton Lake Resort.  Located at the site of the former sawmill operation, the resort opened in 1946 with a small concession booth and a few rental boats.  Over the years, the resort expanded to include boat launching facilities, cabin rentals, boat rentals, trailer rental sites, boat gas sales, and overnight camping spots  Years later, the Summer Village of Bondiss grew around this former resort. 

 

  In 1956 the Edmonton Region Boy Scouts Association purchased property on the northeast shore of the south basin for the purpose of establishing a Cub/Scout camp.  However, seasonal cottage development has been the predominant form of recreational land use at Skeleton Lake.  The first cottage subdivision occurred at the lake in 1958 when eight lots were subdivided at the Old-Timers Development (which has since been incorporated into the Summer Village of Bondiss). Further 47 lots were subdivided at Old Timers Place into the late ’50s or early ’60s.  A major increase in cottage lots occurred in 1960 when 132 lots were subdivided along the southwest shore in Phase One of Mewatha Beach.  Phase Two of Mewatha Beach was developed in 1968 adding another 79 lots.   From 1960 to 1973 another 88 additional lots were added to Bondiss.  In 1973, the Harnaha and Pickerel Point subdivisions were created along the west and north shores of the lake.  This added another 104 lots. 

 

A 9-hole public golf course was created as a centennial project in 1967 and is located just south of the Boy Scout camp.  In 1968 the Village of Boyle installed a pumping station on the south shore of Skeleton Lake in the Mewatha Beach subdivision and began drawing its raw water supply from the lake. 

 

As of August 1978, a total of 479 registered lots had been created at Skeleton Lake.  This amount of development alarmed lake users.  In response to the increasing development pressures, Skeleton Lake was placed under the jurisdiction of the Regulated Lake Shoreland Development Operation Regulations which were administered by Alberta Environment.  Under those regulations, a moratorium was imposed on any further development until a lake management plan was completed and an area structure plan was adopted by the County of Athabasca.  The lake users felt the lake was overdeveloped with almost 500 lots on it yet the County wanted to continue to allow development. 

 

In 1980, following the completion of a detailed lake water quality and lake management study for Skeleton Lake, the County of Athabasca and the Summer Village of Mewatha Beach adopted the Skeleton Lake area structure plan.  The overall purpose of this plan was to provide goals, objectives, and policies which would ensure responsible future management of Skeleton Lake and the surrounding shoreland area.  In 1984, the County of Athabasca initiated a review of the Skeleton Lake area structure plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and determine if any changes to it were warranted.  This review process was undertaken jointly with the Summer Villages of Bondiss and Mewatha Beach and was tabled in 1985 when it was decided that updated lake water quality information would be required before any final decisions on the plan amendment or changes. 

 

Alberta Environment was subsequently requested to undertake an updated lake water quality assessment of Skeleton Lake and, late in 1987, following the completion of Alberta Environment’s lake water quality study, the County of Athabasca decided to proceed with the review of the Skeleton Lake area structure plan.  In 1988, the Committee struck to review that plan and provided their report with recommendations for a proposed lake management strategy for Skeleton Lake.  The Area Structure Plan was much-debated.  Ultimately the recommendations in the plan attempted to balance the competing interest of the County to allow more development against the lake users’ concerns about excessive development.

 

Simply put, the philosophy that was adopted was to allow additional lake development but only within the bio-physical capabilities of the lake environment to support development.  In an attempt to balance the competing desire of the County to have further development on the lake as opposed to the limitations of the lake to support further development, the Committee proposed that no more than 40 additional residential lots be permitted on the lake.  It was felt that two critical aspects of the bio-physical lake environment, namely, lake water quality and a lack of non-environmentally sensitive shoreline areas amenable to development, limited future development.  By 1988 the County had completed the lake management plan and the area structure plan and development control were returned to the County.  The County ignored the committee’s recommendation that no more than 40 additional lots be permitted and development recommenced.  

 

As of January 1989, a total of 513 lots had been registered at Skeleton Lake and 85% had been developed.  By 2008 that number had ballooned to almost 1000 lots and campsites notwithstanding the 1980 moratorium on development, the concerns of the lake users about overdevelopment and the recommendations in the 1988 Skeleton Lake Proposed Area Structure Plan which proposed limiting future development to 40 lots.

 

The Summer Village of Mewatha Beach was incorporated as a municipality effective January 1, 1978.  The 2008 Mewatha Beach census indicates there were 167 full-time residents in 2008 and the assessed value of the real estate in the Summer Village of Mewatha Beach in 2008 was $25,066,656.00.  The Summer Village of Bondiss was incorporated as a municipality effective January 1, 1983.  The 2008 Bondiss census indicates there were 131 full-time residents in 2008 and the assessed value of the real estate in the Summer Village of Bondiss in 2008 was $28,794,295.00.  Through extrapolation of the Bondiss and Mewatha Beach assessments, it is estimated that the assessed value of properties in the Skeleton Lake watershed exceeds 100 million dollars.  This results in approximately 1 million dollars per year in property tax revenue for the local municipalities.  It is also estimated that the lake users spend over 5 million dollars annually on retail goods and services in the Boyle region which using the standard multiplier factor of 4 results in a $20 million annual financial impact on the region.

 

Skeleton Lake was historically an important and popular sport fish lake in north central Alberta.  Not only is the lake within proximity to Edmonton, but it was also one of the few provincial lakes where whitefish were fished in addition to pike, perch, and walleye.  Skeleton Lake historically supported abundant stocks of northern pike, yellow perch, and lake whitefish.  Commercial fishing has occurred at Skeleton Lake since at least 1930.  In the ten years from 1946 to 1956, tullibee was the species most frequently caught commercially at the lake.  Since that time, whitefish has emerged as the primary fish species commercially harvested at Skeleton Lake.  A 2005 Survey Report by an Alberta Sustainable Resource Development Fisheries Biologist concludes that the Skeleton Lake Walleye fishery has collapsed.  Anglers report that the other species in the lake have also declined to the point of collapse.

 

During the 1980s, 15,000 kg. of whitefish were caught annually.  The large variety of lake bottom material in Skeleton Lake is conducive to the variety of fish in the lake.  According to regional fisheries biologists, areas of submergent and emergent aquatic vegetation provided suitable spawning grounds for northern pike and yellow perch.  Lake areas containing sand? and gravel shoals were best suited to the spawning of whitefish and walleye.  Lake inlets and outlets were also suited for spawning northern pike, yellow perch, and walleye. 

 

Regional fisheries biologists believe that, historically, the major spawning areas on the lake were located in the east and west bays of the south basin, the east bay of the north basin, and the narrows area joining the north and south basins.  Unfortunately, these spawning areas have now mostly dried up with the loss of 2 meters of water from the lake.

 

In 1979, when the Skeleton Lake management study was prepared, a regional fishery biologist at the time recommended that any land use plan should be cognizant of the importance of different areas sensitive to fisheries, particularly streams, littoral areas, gravel shoals, and nearby sloughs connected by water.  He was concerned about the effect that current and future lake development would have on spawning areas at the lake and felt that if a spawning or nursery area habitat were destroyed, that the fish population would be affected. 

 

Historically, the Skeleton lake area had a strong ungulate (moose, elk, deer) capability, primarily due to the good habitat provided by extensive forest cover.  From the first development on the lake in 1915 until the 1960’s the shorelands of Skeleton Lake abounded with a variety of wildlife species.  While there are still bears, moose, elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, porcupine, skunk, muskrat, beaver and rabbits in the area they are seen much less frequently now that the area is so heavily developed.  The larger area encompassing Hope, Amisk, North Buck, and Long Lakes is an area of good to excellent moose and deer habitat.  Habitat loss to moose and deer has resulted from the removal of tree cover caused by the extensive development around Skeleton Lake.

 

Skeleton Lake has never been an area of great waterfowl production due to a reduced marsh edge and excessive water depths.  The main areas for waterfowl production were the marsh areas in the “narrows”, the western bay of the south basin, and the eastern bay of the north basin but these areas have dried up with the loss of 2 meters of lake depth since 1998.  Flat Lake, located 8 kilometres West of Skeleton Lake has a CLI (Canada Land Inventory) class IS waterfowl capability rating and serves as a significant regional waterfowl nesting and staging area.  Due to Skeleton Lake’s proximity to Flat Lake, Skeleton Lake is a valuable secondary waterfowl staging and feeding area.

 

In the space of one homesteading generation, Skeleton Lake has evolved from a virtually undeveloped state to one having very heavy intensities of lake use and development.  By 1979, 480 cottage lots had been created around the lake in addition to a private commercial resort, a Boy Scout camp, a public golf course, and a County operated day-use site.  Other land use surrounding the lake includes numerous gas well sites, a gas plant operation, and some agricultural activity.

 

Skeleton Lake is situated in a very small drainage basin of approximately 3,136 hectares, excluding the area of the lake.  The area of land that drains into Skeleton Lake is about four times the size of the lake.  The average residence time of water in the lake is 61.5 years. The surface area of the lake was 7.89 square km in 1965.  Precipitation, surface runoff, groundwater percolation, and underground springs beneath the lake are the primary sources of lake water inflow.  Several small intermittent streams also flow from organic soil basins into Skeleton Lake.  The only drainage outlet from the lake is located in the far southeast corner adjacent to the Bondiss subdivision, where a small creek eventually flows into Amisk Lake. 

 

Skeleton Lake is comprised of two basins which are connected by a narrow channel, understandably referred to as the “narrows”.  During the early 1940s, when lake water levels were low, the north and south basins were actually separated by exposed land at the “narrows” when that part of the lake dried up.  Subsequent investigations have determined that the Skeleton Lake aquifer has a strong memory of antecedent climatic conditions.  In plain language, this effectively means that the Lake’s aquifer has a 6 year transmission time meaning that it takes 6 years for a rainy year to impact the lake level.  The period from 1932 to 1939 was the longest consistent drought period in the history of the North American plains and it was those extreme conditions that caused the Narrows to dry up the only other time in recorded history this has occurred.  In October 2008 the Narrows dried up for the second time in recorded history.  The years from 1998 to 2002 were drier than normal but only by 10% to 20% per year, except for one year which was classed as a drought.  Skeleton Lake has not experienced a 7-year extended drought anything like the drought of the “dirty 30s” and yet the narrows have dried up once again.   It appears that man’s impact on the lake, when added to the drier than normal 4 year period from 1998 to 2002, has caused this loss of water.

 

The gross water surface area of the lake in 1979 was 878 hectares and the shoreline length totaled 24.7 kilometres.  At that time, Skeleton Lake had an overall mean depth of 6.5 metres and the deepest point in the lake was 17 metres, at a point in the north basin.  The tree covers around the lake is comprised largely of trembling aspen and balsam poplar.  Lake birch is common in locations with poorer drainage.  White spruce is found along shoreline areas exposed to the prevailing north-westerly winds.  Sporadic stands of jack pine occur on some of the more sandy soils.

 

The Skeleton Lake area is situated in a region with continental-type climate, characterized by warm summers and long, cold winters. The frost-free period is approximately 105 to 115 days.  The mean annual precipitation is 517 mm and mean annual evaporation is 636 mm.   Two-thirds of the mean annual precipitation falls during the period from May to September.  This area of the province experiences an average of 2100 to 2200 hours of bright sunshine per year.  Prevailing winds in the area are from the west and northwest.  This is especially true during the summer and early fall.  Average wind speeds from June to August range from 8 kilometres per hour to 18 kilometres per hour.  These prevailing winds have an important impact on Skeleton Lake.  Much of the algae contained in the lake waters is carried by the west and northwesterly winds across to the eastern lake shoreline, where the algae accumulate and reduces the aesthetic appeal of the lake water for recreation use along the east shore.

 

The water surface elevation of Skeleton Lake has been monitored since 1965 by Alberta Environment.  The water level declined during the 1960s but rose during the 1970s and remained relatively stable until 1988 when it started a decline of almost a meter over seven years.  Then in 1997 and 1998, the lake recovered.  It has dropped steadily and consistently every year for more than a decade now and is currently approximately 2 meters lower than the outlet sill of the lake which is considered the proper sustainable level for the lake.  Most lakes in the “Lakeland Region” of Alberta experienced a similar pattern as Skeleton Lake from the 1960’s to 2002.  However, in 2002 the vast majority of those lakes began to recover.  Since 2002 only Skeleton Lake and 3 or 4 other lakes have continued to decline in level.  A couple of those other lakes have already lost their recreational potential due to the severity of the water loss.

 

REFERENCES

 

– Skeleton Lake Proposed Area Structure Plan 1988

 

– The Alberta Lake Management Society 2005 Lakewatch Report on Skeleton Lake

 

– Skeleton Lake, State Of  The Watershed Report 2007 prepared by Aquality Environmental Consulting Ltd.

 

– Skeleton Lake Management Study prepared by the Regional Planning Section of Alberta Municipal Affairs – August 1979

 

-1980, Skeleton Lake Area Structure Plan prepared by Regional Planning Section of Alberta Municipal Affairs

 

– County of Athabasca Regional Water Supply System Feasibility Report prepared by Associated Engineering – November 2003

 

– Skeleton Lake Biological Assessment 2007 prepared by Aquality Environmental Consulting Ltd.

 

– Hydrological Assessment of Skeleton Lake prepared by Worley Parsons Komex – November 20, 2007

 

– Agroclimatic Atlas of Alberta, 1971 to 2000 prepared by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

 

– Atlas of Alberta Lakes 1990 published by the University of Alberta Press and jointly prepared by the U of A Department of Biological Sciences and Alberta Environment.

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