Lake Minnewanka is located just minutes from the town of Banff. “Minnewanka” is Nakoda for “Water of the Spirits”. It’s the largest lake in Banff National park and the second largest lake in the entire Canadian Rockies. In late winter the lake freezes over making it possible to skate the entire length of the lake – all 21km of it!
At the far end of the lake you can traverse through an area called “Devil’s gap”. It’s an incredibly scenic place with tall mountains shooting right out of the lake on either sides. It’s from there where you can get an unobstructed views of the prairies and Ghost River.
Lake Minnewanka takes a long time to fully freeze over and safely traverse. The few days leading up to this traverse there were four serious accidents where skaters had fallen through the thin ice. Three of them were luckily able to self-rescue however one skater spent nearly 30 minutes in the freezing lake before being rescued by emergency services.
Safety considerations when traversing such a large body of water is critical. If you’re not confident on what that might entail, you probably shouldn’t be traversing this lake just yet.
Our Lake Minnewanka skating traverse was organized by world class mountain landscape and adventure photographer Paul Zizka. This was Zizka’s seventh annual traverse of the frozen lake. “There are many photogenic feature along the way but none quite as incredible as the methane bubbles at Devil’s gap.” – Zizka
Paul Zizka is incredibly knowledgeable of the entire Canadian Rockies region. Lake Minnewanka is no exception. Paul explained a bunch of lesser known facts about the dammed lake. For example, there was once an entire town that use to dwell where the lake is now. If the water is clear enough, you can actually still see the roofs of the postal office, church, and hospital.
We set off around 2pm towards the far end of the lake. There was an unusual headwind (the wind typically comes from the opposite direction – towards the prairies). We weren’t complaining though because we knew that if the winds kept blowing in the same direction, it would be at our backs on the way home.
The first 7km can be seen from shore. The scale is difficult to grasp. At times it feels like you’re hardly moving because the mountains surrounding you are so enormous. After 7km there’s a bend to the right which is 4 or 5km long. This bend lends to brand new views and mountains that are almost never seen.
Eventually there’s another bend in the lake to the left which once again opens up to a new set of mountains and an even more spectacular view. It’s from here that you can finally see Devil’s gap. The view at Devil’s gap reminds me of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite – instead of a valley though the middle of the two mountains, there’s a lake river running through it.
The sun began setting around 5:30pm by the time we arrived at Devil’s Gap the snow had started collecting on the surface of the ice. The cloud coverage and snow had made for difficult and less than favourable shooting conditions. We decided to begin our long journey back home.
The skies began opening up a little bit around the halfway point. The ice was covered by snow now and the reflections and access to any methane bubbles had disappeared completely. However Paul – being the professional he is – still managed to capture an incredibly moving photo that captured the traverse perfectly in just a single frame.
To learn more about our adventure tune into our upcoming release of Getting The Shot Ep. 2 where Paul Zizka is going to walk us through his photography process and share some of his trade secrets.