Why you should think twice before hitting the ice at Gap Lake

·4 min read
Why you should think twice before hitting the ice at Gap Lake

Officials say this season is the busiest they've seen for skating on Gap Lake.

Hundreds are swarming the area daily, parking their vehicles on the shoulder of the busy highway after the small parking lot fills.

The picturesque spot is west of Calgary, right off of Highway 1A, which Bighorn Reeve Dene Cooper says is an industrial corridor first, and passenger traffic route second.

"You may not realize how few choices one of my industrial professional truck drivers has when he's coming down a hill and loaded," Cooper said. "We have to realize that we're not the only ones on the road, and not everybody's going skating today."

Then there's the concern over ice conditions, which Cooper says can change from day to day.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

"There are underground streams that keep certain areas of the lake weaker than others," Cooper said. "You need to come with any equipment that might help you extract an individual falling through the ice without putting yourself in danger."

Canmore RCMP Sgt. Stan Andronyk says that when the area gets busy, people treat the highway like a parking lot, instead of a busy and dangerous corridor.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

"Enforcement efforts are there, people may be charged — say if there's a safety concern and the vehicle needs to be dealt with. Vehicles can also be towed if they're posing a significant hazard to traffic on the highway," Andronyk said. "We have seen some very unsafe habits."

Andronyk notes there has already been a crash on that stretch of road, where one driver pulled a U-turn after missing the day-use area turnoff, causing a chain reaction when other vehicles had to stop suddenly.

"We are speaking to the province," Andronyk said. "It's an ongoing discussion on the best way to deal with it."

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

Nearby in Exshaw, Fire Chief Rick Lyster says those stepping on the ice could be putting his volunteer firefighters in harm's way. They have had to cancel their ice rescue training because of COVID-19.

"It's unexpected having this many visitors to our area, we just don't see that in past years.… We just get the feeling that these people, they may be putting themselves at risk," Lyster said. "Every time my guys go out to help them, they're putting themselves at risk, too. So that's a big concern for me."

Still, people are lacing up. The pandemic has dwindled recreation options.

Many have seen the spot in the news, or on social media.

It's been the backdrop for a Team Canada speed skating practice after the Olympic Oval shut down forcing the group to find an alternative solution.

In a viral TikTok video, in true Canadian-style, a skater takes a knee on Gap Lake, gliding across the ice as she cracks a beer on the back of her skate and drinks.

It's a weekday, Reece MacIsaac is visiting from Toronto. He says that while he knows he could fall through the ice, and it's a little scary, he's willing to take the risk.

"I'm still a little bit cautious, I guess. But at the end of the day ... it's like a tradition playing hockey around Christmas time every year, and I haven't been doing it because of the lockdown and stuff," MacIsaac said.

Kim Gordey usually celebrates her birthday at a restaurant with a good meal. Sit-down restaurants are closed, so she's changing her tradition.

She is unsure about the condition of the ice.

"As we were pulling up, we thought, well, let's see what it looks like, and then we'll make a decision," Gordey said.

"Then we pulled up and saw open water. So we're not quite sure. But then there's a lot of people out there. So I don't know."

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

The ice is so clear you can see all the way to the bottom. The setting is beautiful, with a CP Rail train chugging through once every hour or so.

"There's not a lot of lakes that actually have this type of mirror feel," Sophie Caissie said.

She's come to Gap Lake three times now.

"One of my friends actually posted a picture on her Instagram and there were quite a few people out, so that's kind of the motivation that we needed to just come out here and see for ourselves."

Reeve has stern warning

Cooper says he can't tell people not to come to the area, because the land belongs to all Albertans, but he has a stern warning.

"It isn't like there may be accidents. Quite frankly, there will be, and my EMS people will have to respond," Cooper said. "They're not standing near the ice hole you just fell through, and often we're not rescuing, we're recovering — and that's very, very serious."