Abraham Lake is one of the best places in the Canadian Rockies to photograph the famous ice bubbles. You’ve probably seen the pictures of this phenomenon before. This winter come and photograph the frozen ice bubbles, cracked ice & interesting weather that often develops at this location with us on one of our unique tours!
There are 3 photography workshops throughout January and February 2020 set up for you to capture your own amazing photographs of this area as well as further your photography skills. They all begin and end in Banff:
- January 18-19 / 1 night weekend photography tour staying close to Abraham Lake so that we can photograph the trifecta; sunrise, sunset and ice bubbles at night!* This gives us the best chance to see multiple locations at Abraham Lake and under different lighting and weather conditions. We will also take advantage of some great photography opportunities in Banff National Park along the Icefields Parkway during this tour.
- January 24-27 / 3 night extended winter photography workshop with Sarah Lyndsay Photography & Nick Fitzhardinge Photography. This event is being held during the Ice Magic Festival in Lake Louise and we will be staying 2 nights in Lake Louise and the final night at the magical Emerald Lake Lodge. Of course it wouldn’t be complete without visiting Abraham Lake to photograph the ice bubbles as well!*
- February 1-2 / 1 night weekend photography tour staying close to Abraham Lake so that we can photograph the trifecta; sunrise, sunset and ice bubbles at night!* This gives us the best chance to see multiple locations at Abraham Lake and under different lighting and weather conditions. We will also take advantage of some great photography opportunities in Banff National Park along the Icefields Parkway during this tour.
*Any night photography sessions are optional and also weather dependent. There is no guarantee we will see ice bubbles as their formation and visibility are subject to localized weather conditions.
How to get to Abraham Lake
There are a couple of different ways to get to Abraham Lake but the most exciting is via Banff as you get to drive along the Icefields Parkway. It’s just over a 2 hour drive from Banff but it could take longer depending on road conditions in winter. It’s about 3.5 hours to reach Abraham Lake via Rocky Mountain House if you are coming from Calgary or Edmonton but then you miss the mountains! Make sure to check the road report and any highway closures (sometimes they close the 93N Icefields Parkway for avalanche control or after a large snowfall) and use that alternate route if necessary. See the map below for our recommended route and click ‘more options’ to adjust the route if you are coming from elsewhere:
An introduction to Abraham Lake
Abraham Lake is named after Silas Abraham, a Stoney Indian guide in the Saskatchewan River Valley during the 19th Century. It is the longest man-made lake in Alberta at 33km long which is the result of the Bighorn Dam built in 1972. It is situated on the North Saskatchewan River in David Thompson/Bighorn Country, an area that played an important role in the early fur trading industry.
That importance was due to David Thompson who was one the world’s greatest geographers, singlehandedly exploring and mapping most of Canada. He spent a lot of time in the area where Abraham Lake now exists especially in the early 1800’s when he pioneered a fur trading route connecting East and West. This initially crossed over the nearby Howse Pass in Banff National Park, and then following disagreements, was navigated by Thompson over Athabasca Pass in Jasper National Park instead.
The color of the water of Abraham Lake is a beautiful turquoise and this is also seen frozen into the ice during the winter making for a stunning foreground color palette. It is because the source of the lake is glacial in origin (primarily the Saskatchewan Glacier on the Columbia Icefield) and contains a fine silt called rock flour making it look like any other natural lake in The Canadian Rockies. The entire region is as photogenic and ecologically important as the nearby National Parks themselves, in fact a section of it was a part of them until 1930! It is a hidden getaway from those busier areas and worth visiting for photography in any season.
Where to find & photograph the frozen ice bubbles at Abraham Lake
Strong winds in the North Saskatchewan River Valley often keep the ice snow free at Abraham Lake in contrast to nearly all of the other lakes which get a white blanket of snow for the winter. Popular spots are Preachers Point, the ‘Belly of Abraham’ and Cline Landing. Every day is different at the lake due to snow, wind, temperatures and water levels so some exploring will be necessary to find the best spots for ice bubbles and other ice features. Try to have some flexibility with your visit to give yourself the best chance to find and photograph the ice under some interesting conditions. I’ve seen ice conditions change drastically in 24 hours even in mid January.
Preacher’s Point is located right at the Southern end of Abraham Lake closest to the Icefields Parkway. It is the most popular spot and can get crowded especially on weekends in the winter. It is generally a shallow area and you can marvel at rocks beneath the ice close to shore but be wary of the North Saskatchewan River which runs close to shore at this point too making for weak ice in spots.
I like to walk 10 minutes North to the nearby point here or walk across the undulating icy terrain which is like frozen waves in an ocean. There are generally lots of ice bubbles at this location but if it happens to be snow covered or the ice quality is lacking move on to the Belly of Abraham. Mt Ernest Ross provides a striking double peak in the background to the South and is almost always in a Preacher’s Point image. A rising winter sun here complements the peak well as do some of the brighter stars which reflect nicely off the ice at night. Just beware of the creaks and groans from the ice which are far more unnerving at night!
The Belly of Abraham
The area just after Aurum Lodge/David Thompson Resort area all the way to Hoodoo Creek (traveling North) offers some great options for ice bubbles. The lake is deeper here giving the bubbles amazing contrast set against the deep blue hues of the ice. I’ve found amazing bubble stacks and more bubbles than you could ever hope for here so have fun exploring. There is a lot of space to spread out and Mt Elliot, Mt Michener, Kista Peak, Abraham Peak and Vision Quest Mountain all provide excellent backdrops for 360 degrees of shooting possibilities once you get out on the ice. It is my favorite area to shoot at Abraham Lake.
There’s even spotty cell service and some options for wilderness camping here (probably not in winter though when the nights are very long!).
Located in a shallow bay just before crossing the Cline River bridge if coming from the South is Cline Landing. It is a steep short unmarked road that provides lake access. It is one of the safest options for exploring the ice but it can also be snow covered. I found a lot of interesting rime ice along the shorelines here in early winter. It is a great alternative to the two spots above.
Park up near the road entrance to avoid getting stuck.
Map of photography locations at Abraham Lake
Zoom in and click the blue pins on the map below to find these locations as well as to find a couple of bonus spots!
How do frozen ice bubbles form?
The frozen ice bubbles you see at Abraham Lake are actually methane gas that has bubbled up from the lakes bottom thanks to bacteria decomposing plants, leaves, trees, and even animals which is then frozen in place when the lake freezes. As Abraham Lake is not a regular lake and just a flooded river plain area you can imagine how much of this plant matter is being decomposed underneath your feet as you are out on the frozen lakes surface.
It’s actually very flammable and I’d advise against breaking the bubbles and lighting them if that has crossed your mind. You can see the effects of that in this video.
Methane gas is more harmful than carbon dioxide which is worrying as the climate gets warmer and permafrost breaks down further releasing more and more methane.
When is the best time to see ice bubbles at Abraham Lake?
I’ve seen the ice bubbles at Preachers Point as early as in November but generally the best time to visit is from late December through until early February so you can access more locations with confidence.
Avoid arriving after a heavy snow fall and expect cloudy ice or water pooling on the surface if it is too warm. This is why after early February it is less and less reliable as temperatures and daylight start to increase. Ice thickness can be an issue if you come too early before January.
What to do if you can’t find any ice bubbles at Abraham Lake?
Maybe you have arrived too early or too late in the season or haven’t been impressed with the current crop of ice bubbles. Well luckily you should have a lot of interesting ice features to use for your foregrounds if you keep you wide angle lens on. I would recommend changing over to a longer lens and focusing on some of the details in the ice or of any interesting light and weather that might be present. If the wind is up and clouds are moving try out some long exposures but be sure to bolt the tripod down using the hook if it is windy.
Alternatively you could visit some other locations nearby like Allstones Cove, Crescent Falls, the Kootenay Plains area and the Siffleur Falls Trail, or if you are looking for a challenge, Vision Quest Mountain.
Between Windy Point and Nordegg (traveling North) it offers a great view of Abraham Lake. I don’t recommend going onto the ice here but it is a great location to look for different ice features along the shoreline. See the map for the Allstones pin.
Located 30 minutes North of Abraham Lake near Nordegg gas station and off a side road, this waterfall is spectacular at any time of the year and requires barely any effort to see being just a short hike down from the car park. See the map for the Crescent Falls pin.
Kootenay Plains area/Siffleur Falls Trail
This area just South of Preachers Point is spectacular in that there are lots of Trembling Aspen trees to photograph, the reflection pools are here (see the map for the reflection pools pin), as well as unique grassland and some of the oldest trees in Alberta – the Limber Pine. It’s this diverse wide open landscape that makes it very photograph-able and a worthwhile stop on any visit to Abraham Lake. The signed car park for Siffleur Falls trail is here too. It is a popular year-round 7km easy return hike to the edge of the canyon for a view of the falls.
Vision Quest Mountain
The trailhead is very close to the Belly of Abraham on the other side of the highway up a short dirt road which may or may not be open in winter (see the map for the trailhead pin). If it isn’t then park on the highway shoulder and hike the extra distance in. It is often do-able in winter since the ridge-line you follow up is often blown free of snow but is still a strenuous advanced hike with relentless elevation gain. Turn back when you have had enough as the views are good throughout. It would be worth bringing ice cleats if there is snow in the trees at the beginning or if its patchy up higher.
Winter photography tips at Abraham Lake
If the ice bubbles aren’t enough then having the right camera gear, learning how to focus stack, experimenting with astrophotography and learning about the weather can all contribute to achieving more interesting photographs at Abraham Lake.
Recommended camera gear
I recommend bringing an ultra wide angle lens, at least 16mm on a full frame camera (10mm on a APS-C crop sensor camera) to fit both an icy foreground and a mountain peak into your frame, a tripod with spiked feet and a hook for hanging weight from, a polarizing filter which you can experiment with if glare off the ice surface is something you would like to remove, and ND filters in case of wanting to blur cloud movement which is common at Abraham on long exposures. Spare batteries and a place to keep them warm is also essential as they die a LOT quicker in the cold.
Simple focus stacking techniques for icy foregrounds at Abraham Lake
Often at Abraham Lake you have to get really close to your icy foregrounds in order to make them appear larger in the frame. You can close your aperture down to f22 to maximize depth of field and get the majority of your shot sharp and If you don’t use Photoshop (layers and masks) then I would recommend doing this while carefully focusing at the hyperfocal point. Review your shot to ensure you have acceptable sharpness from your foreground all the way out to the mountains beyond.
However even at f22 it is impossible to get everything sharp when you get too close to that foreground so you will need to do some focus stacking along with simple Photoshop blending of the focal points. I say simple because ice doesn’t move and there is often a nice area of transition in the middle where you can make the blend like on Sarah’s shot below. Movement of your subject or complex overlapping details make focus stacking harder. Ice is a great place to start for learning how to focus stack and an extremely effective technique that can be used at Abraham Lake.
Depending on how close you are to the ice and what aperture you are using will determine how many focal points you need. I often use only 2 or 3 focal points with an aperture of f11. A tripod helps with perfect alignment although there will be some focus breathing. Switch your camera into manual focus and zoom in at each point of focus to ensure you nail it and check your resulting photos to make sure you captured the full depth of field before packing it up.
If you like to run and gun then hand held focus stacking with auto focus on also works quite well if you only need 2 focal points. If your extreme bottom edges are important then this technique can bring you undone though and if you are careless you will find them soft when you get home. If its an important shot, mount it on the tripod and manually focus stack it.
Astrophotography at Abraham Lake
Abraham Lake has a general North/South alignment, making it the perfect spot for photographing the northern lights if you are lucky enough to have auroral activity during your visit. It is also located in an extreme dark sky area with little to no light pollution. If you have pre-scouted some compositions then turning up at night is an awesome experience provided it isn’t too cold.
The shot below was focus stacked at 4 different points using bulb exposure mode (at 2 minutes apiece) for the initial 3 foreground points for a cleaner resulting file. I needed to focus stack since I was not only very close to the foreground ice pattern but I was using a shallow depth of field with an aperture of f2.8 to let as much light into the camera as possible.
One of my biggest tips in landscape photography would be to watch the weather and learn what sort of conditions come along with the weather systems that are localized near to you. Winter temperatures fluctuate largely from +5 C (41F) to -30 C (-22F), which affects the ice formation and quality. Warm winds, or chinooks as they are called, can blow in and melt the surface ice which can leave it opaque too. I love coming to Abraham Lake during a Chinook wind to try and get photos of the impressive chinook arch and lenticular clouds that form above the front ranges at those times. It’s very dramatic, ominous and also warmer too!
The whole area has its own micro-climate being warmer and windier than nearby on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. Photographing in this wind brings the wind chill too so you need to be prepared with lots of layers of clothing, proper insulated winter footwear, two layers of gloves, a face mask, a down jacket and hand and foot warmers which can help keep you shooting in tougher than normal conditions.
Safety precautions when traveling to Abraham Lake in winter
Abraham Lake is a remote area with only one highway (Hwy 11: The David Thompson Highway) going in and out. Services are very limited with Nordegg having the closest gas station 30 minutes away and only 1 year round accommodation at the lake which books up way in advance (Aurum Lodge). Cell phone reception is spotty with Windy Point car park and the Belly of Abraham area having some service.
The risks are higher in winter with even less people in the area so its advisable to travel in a group and have an emergency kit in your car in case of a breakdown or if you fall over on the ice (first aid kit, water, flashlight, satellite phone, blankets, food & a thermos filled for hot drinks). When renting a car make sure it is fitted with winter tires as well.
Ice cleats that go over your insulated winter footwear is a must to walk around safely at the lake. You can buy these at any outdoor store upon arriving to Alberta. You will need to make sure they have good grip on the bottom and affix easily and securely to your foot as some are better than others. Abraham Lake has steep sloping ice to access the lake in places so make sure of this. It’s miserable without them, not to mention unsafe.
To safely walk on the ice you need it to be at least 4 inches thick (10cm). White ice is less strong than clear new ice so double the thickness guidelines outlined below if it is present;
Don’t walk on ice near any river outlets or try to cross the entire lake as there is a river flowing through the lake. Between Windy Point and the dam wall is also an unsafe area on which to walk on the ice. Check the ice thickness regularly as it changes from area to area as you explore and don’t stray too far from shore.
The wind is often strong at Abraham Lake. It is why it is snow free. Ice and wind are a dangerous combination to you and your unattended camera gear and I’ve seen tripods and people (!) slide across the surface of the lake for hundreds of meters during a wind gust.
Other great winter photography locations in the Canadian Rockies
While Abraham Lake is a superb location to visit during winter in the Canadian Rockies your itinerary will probably include some other spots that are magnificent to photograph at this time too.
I usually avoid the white expanses of snow covered lakes (most lakes end up covered in snow for the entire winter) and focus on fresh snowfall, extremely cold temperatures, and ice formations which are all a blessing for winter photographs, as is the low angled winter sunlight due to the latitude here.
Additional lakes that might be snow free depending on recent snow or wind and have methane bubbles too – Spray Lakes, Talbot Lake, Jasper Lake, Gap Lake, Lake Minnewanka & Vermilion Lakes.
The Bow River (Castle Junction), Athabasca River (multiple locations near Jasper), Sunwapta River (Tangle Peak view), North Saskatchewan River (Kootenay Plains), Mistaya River (Mt Chephren view), & Vermilion Rivers (Numa Falls) all offer opportunities for rising steam on extremely cold days or interesting foreground ice.
The canyons – Maligne, Johnston, Marble, Mistaya & Grotto are all great locations to photograph in winter too.
Some bonus locations that are further off the radar and are great in winter with snowshoes include a snow covered Peyto Lake, Haffner Canyon which is a popular ice climbing area, and Mistaya Lake. These all require extra knowledge of traveling safely in winter terrain – off trail navigation, choosing the safest route & hazard identification.
Request a winter photography tour to Abraham Lake
If these photography tours don’t quite fit with your travel itinerary to The Canadian Rockies then don’t despair, we can arrange a custom guided photography adventure to Abraham Lake at any time throughout the winter. Use the form below to detail your request, we look forward to hearing from you;
You could also join our mailing list below to hear about other photography events that we are holding in the Canadian Rockies throughout the year;
Thanks for reading and happy winter adventuring!