. . . strings of white bubbles frozen in aquamarine water . . .
A crack split the cold mountain air. A thump vibrated under my feet. I swivelled my head, trying to make sense of the mayhem disturbing my wintery solitude. “That was no gunshot,” I realized, “that was ice moving” and scrambled towards shore.
In a year of constant covid-19 news, I hadn’t followed all health precautions to squander my well-being on weak ice. I tilted my face towards the January sun beaming on Abraham Lake in Alberta’s eastern slopes and searched for open water. Seeing none and reassured the ice was not disappearing below my feet, I inched back to the turquoise surface and admired the scene beneath my boots.
Each winter as Abraham Lake freezes, thousands of methane gas bubbles are suspended in gin-clear ice, the pillars of white orbs gracing many an Instagram feed. There are other northern lakes where rotting vegetation creates winter bubbles but Abraham Lake might be the best place to look. It’s BIG – at 33-kilometers long there’s plenty of places to search for bubbles, it’s windy, blowing away snow that can obscure your view, and the mountain backdrop looks great in a picture.
There are guides to lead you to the natural phenomena but given the pandemic, I kept to my bubble while looking for nature’s bubbles. Prepping for the trip, I realized this was a little harder than simply walking to the lake and gazing at bubble heaven. One website suggested it was important to make sure you knew where you were (few places have signs) so if you need help, you can tell rescuers where to find you. Experts also suggested . . .
real cleats, not city-walking grippers
and a broom, to polish the ice for better photos.
After checking the weather forecast for clear skies and good roads, I set the alarm for 5 a.m. and packed my gear for a long day trip from Calgary. In the morning, a coyote yipped from a nearby park as I loaded up and drove north. A snowsquall buffeted the truck as the tires hummed over the lonely blacktop. As dawn approached, I spotted a moose and her calf ambling through an aspen thicket. An hour later I spotted Mount Michener, the pyramid-shaped peak draped along the east side of the lake.
Driving down to the water’s edge from Highway 11 is not advised as snow, ice, and steep inclines can make getting back up tough. It’s also important to pick a spot where water levels don’t fluctuate (it’s a man-made reservoir) to avoid large pressure ridges or weak spots where one might fall through the ice. I decided on Hoodoo Creek for my first bubble foray as it had a sign so I could find it, room to park, and a relatively flat approach. There were also other people around and none of them were wet, a sign the ice was deep enough to wander a few meters from shore.
I strapped on my ice grippers, checked my camera batteries, and headed onto the lake. It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Wind bellowed down the mountain, pushing snow out of its way and polishing the lake’s surface to an even slicker sheen. Chunks of ice piled along the shoreline proved tough to climb. Flat ice is slippery, tilted ice is treacherous. I looked for snowy trails around the chunks and shuffled penguin-like onto the lake, gasping when one foot poked through the crust, disappearing to my knee. Relieved I’d dropped into a dry hole, I extracted my foot and crept further onto the ice, gobsmacked as I looked down at strings of white bubbles frozen in aquamarine water.
Large ones resembled icy jellyfish, strings of tiny air droplets rising from the edges. Bubble families appeared piled atop of each other, as if they were racing to the surface but suspended before they made the top.
As bacteria breaks down decaying material in the lake, methane gas is released, so as one person suggested, the spherical pockets are actually bacteria farts! They are also explosive. In theory I could break the surface and hold a flame nearby to ignite the gas, although it seemed the brisk winds would make that difficult. Scientists however are concerned that warmer winters could result in more methane being released into the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change as methane molecules are up to 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping earth’s heat.
I dropped to my knees, rubbing my mitts over the ice and buffing the surface for a photo of Canada’s version of a winter beach holiday. The sun peaked around Mount Michener as three other bubble seekers strapped on skates and glided off to the lake’s center.
Greedy for more bubbles, I returned to the truck and drove to Preacher’s Point on the south end of the lake. Aqua blue hues peeked from below a dusting of snow as I pulled into the parking lot and watched the march of the Gore-Tex penguins, people shuffling slowly onto the ice, heads bent in search of aquatic wonders.
A small campfire crackled near a couple leaned against their vehicle and a young woman wrestled a hockey net down a steep path to the lake. A large family spilled out of a vehicle and laughingly strolled to the lakeshore. No cleats or special gear, the youngest reached the ice edge, and tumbled face forward. Looking down at the bubbles, she laughed. Joining the frosty celebration from a safe distance, I did too.
If you go:
Check ice and road conditions before starting out. Bubble watching doesn’t start until mid-January. Explore Nordegg has helpful safety suggestions.
Get local expertise. Pursuit Adventures offer guided tours including heli-sightseeing, snowshoeing and an ice walk. Guests at Aurum Lodge can stay close to the lake; the owners know plenty about the best time and place for bubble photography.
Note: At the time of writing, the Alberta Government allowed residents to travel within the province, but check current health guidelines before starting out.