Why Is Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park Called “The Disappearing Lake”?

Why Is Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park Called “The Disappearing Lake”?

Happy goat in Jasper Alberta
5 minute read
written by SunDog Transportation and Tour Co.

On a sunny day in July, Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park looks as much like an alpine lake as you’d hope to find during a tour of the Maligne Valley. Approximately seven kilometers (4.3 mi) long, in the summer months Medicine Lake is blue-green and filled with fish. People walk the trails around the lake to feast in the majestic view of the mountainous backdrop to this captivating scene.  

But as the warm weather mellows and the leaves turn brown, something strange happens.

The lake disappears.

From a hearty, deep-blue expanse of water to a muddy trickle the size of a stream, Medicine Lake drains in the fall and winter months.

So if you’re wondering why Medicine Lake is called “The Disappearing Lake”, there’s the short version.

But there is so much more to the story.

The Indigenous Naming of Medicine Lake

Jasper National Park is located on the traditional territory of many Indigenous nations. It was these originating people who gave Medicine Lake its name. Not only was it strange to see a lake drain year after year; what made the lake magical was the lack of any apparent drainage system. It seemed to have been the work of “big medicine”, making the water disappear every year.

Cave Systems At Medicine Lake

As it turns out, there’s a bit of geological magic at play here, too. Medicine Lake is host to an expansive underground cave system. When the caves are filled with the glacial runoff water from the surrounding mountains, it creates the full look of the lake. Approximately 24,000 liters (4,000 gallons) of water go down the drain every second. In the summertime, enough runoff from the local streams allows the lake to maintain its depth.

But once the runoff slows, it’s like a bathtub plug being pulled. All of the water goes down the drain, and with nothing to replace it, the surface dries up.

The underground drain runs 17 kilometers (11 mi) downstream and resurfaces below Maligne Canyon. It’s the longest underground drainage system in Canada.

Infamous Attempts To Un-Disappear The Lake

Going back to the bathtub plug analogy: it seems like the obvious solution to the annual draining of the lake would be to stop up the drain, right?

People have tried. Fuelled by the motivation to propel a ferry service across the lake, attempts were made in the 1950s to plug the drain. Locals tried stuffing the drain with old mattresses, and newspapers (two truckloads of the Saturday Evening Post, to be exact). These attempts proved futile, and the lake’s comings and goings have been embraced since then.

See The Disappearing Lake For Yourself

Climb aboard for a magical tour of the Maligne Canyon!

You’d have to camp on the shore of the lake and time your visit just right to catch the sometimes overnight “disappearing” of Medicine Lake. If you’ve only got a day or two, why not take a tour through the Maligne Canyon in the summer, or rent a kayak to take on to the lake for a scenic paddle. The lake is brimming with eastern brook trout (which was stocked in 1927 and managed to thrive despite the draining phenomenon), so you can make a day of it on Medicine Lake, catching fish and keeping an eye out for wildlife, including mule deer, caribou, and mountain sheep.

Medicine Lake is the first stop on SunDog Tours’ Maligne Valley Sightseeing Tour, where visitors experience the most famous landmarks in the Jasper National Park area, including Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon.

In the winter, snowshoe over the ‘water’ as part of your Jasper adventure, and revel in the magic of Medicine Lake.