The history of Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park goes back to the beginning of the Canadian Rockies themselves. About 185 million years ago, the area was under the Devonian Sea. During this time, sediments from various rocks settled on the bottom along with the shells and bodies of sea creatures. This sediment would eventually compress into limestone and fossils.
When the North American and Pacific tectonic plates collided, the impact thrusted up this compressed limestone. It also pushed up newer formed shale and slate, creating what is now the Rocky Mountains. Over time, these mountains slowly eroded. Rock slides also reduced the height of the mountains while adding to the valley floors, shrinking the distance between valley floor and mountain peaks.
One massive rock slide crossed a glacier-fed river and damned it into a long and narrow lake. Maligne Lake is the largest, naturally formed, glacial fed lake in the Canadian Rockies. It is 13.7 miles long and at its deepest point, it reaches down to 318 feet.
The First Nations People were actually the first to discover this lake, visiting in summer to hunt and gather food. The lake was also a place of great spiritual significance to them and they called it “Lake of Deep Waters” and “Lake of Healing”. Spirit Island, which is actually an isthmus abutting the lake is considered most holy and visitors are only allowed on its perimeter.
Now to the explanation of why a spectacular lake got its unappreciative name.
A female explorer, Mary Schäffer is credited with putting Maligne Lake on the map. In the early 1900s, Schäffer returned to the Rockies, a place where she spent much of her childhood. She wanted to finish a botany book started by her late husband. She heard of a lake called Chaba Imne, “Beaver Lake,” by the Stoney Nakoda First Nation people. Their stories of its beauty inspired her search.
Schäffer was able to reach the lake on her second attempt and instantly fell in love with the lake and surrounding mountains. Mary named the lake Maligne (pronounced Maline) after the river that fed into it. Not understanding French, she was unaware that in 1846 a Belgian missionary called the river “Maline” (French for malignant or wicked, because of the treacherous waters at its junction with the Athabasca River.
Despite its name, Maligne Lake is one of the prettiest lakes in Alberta. However, truth be told – the top photo is not the view we had when we first landed – it is taken fromthe internet. This was my view upon landing on Spirit Island:
Smoke from nearby wildfires in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories and haze caused by glacier flour shrouded the lake in a mystical mist, which actually added to the mystique of the site. However, as I walked onto the island, the curtain slowly raised, and the stunning colors became visible once more: