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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

6 Fascinating Facts About Kinbasket Lake: Big Bend Country & The Mica Dam Reservoir

Growing up in Valemount, BC, I spent many hours at Kinbasket Lake fishing, having campfires or just exploring the shore and many creeks that entered the lake. My parents would tell me how this lake never used to exist and about a massive hydroelectric dam that was at its end ( we would also look for the hotsprings when the lake levels were low enough). I also heard about how Valemount was part of the Columbia River Basin but I had never heard of, let alone seen, the Columbia River so it was all a little mysterious to me. Thus my inspiration to do a little research and understand more about this creation of nature and man. I hope you enjoy these 6 simple but fascinating facts about Kinbasket Lake. 

#1 The Lake

Long before the Mica Dam was built, Kinbasket Lake was a small natural lake in the Columbia River Valley. After the building of the dam this lake was engulfed and eventually lent its name to the huge reservoir of water we know today as Kinbasket Lake. 

The Kinbasket Lake of today is a 260 kilometre body of water made up of two reaches. The northern reach is known as Canoe Reach, after the Canoe River, and is located just southeast of the village of Valemount, BC.  The Columbia Reach on the southern part of the lake sits north of Revelstoke, BC and descends near to the town of Golden where the Columbia River enters into it.  

The district of land that Kinbasket Lake now fills was once known as The Big Bend Country.

#2 David Thompson & 
The Big Bend Country

After a historic crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the great Canadian explorer and surveyor, David Thompson, eventually found himself at the mouth of the Canoe River where it flowed into the Columbia. He founded a post here in 1811 for the North West fur trade company and begin to experiment with building canoes out of cedar rather than the traditional birch. The reason for this was that there was a low supply of birch in the area and cedar was much stronger – just right for navigating the raging Columbia south of there. 

He named the settlement “Boat Encampment” after his boat building endeavors and it later became a Hudson Bay trading post and an important stop on the famous “York Express” which connected London, England to Ft. Vancouver via the Hudson Bay and various western Canadian rivers. Boat Encampment was named a National Historic Site in 1943.   The cedar plank canoes that Thompson built were later used by the HBC as well. 

#3 The Canoe River – From the North

The Canoe River is a tributary of the larger Columbia River and it originally flowed all the way to the Boat Encampment post where it met the Columbia. In fact, it was David Thompson who named the river – apparently for his canoe building at its mouth. The Canoe’s headwaters are found in the Caribou Mountains just west of Valemount, BC where it picks up steam and flows into Kinbasket Lake just south of Valemount. 

Along the way it lends its name to both a famous local mountain ( with an elevation of 8085 feet) which is the first peak in the Monashee Mountain Range and to the northern reach of Kinbasket Lake. Some of its tributaries include Camp Creek, Yellowjacket Creek, Bulldog Creek, Ptarmigan Creek and Hugh Allen Creek. 

Canoe Mountain - Tourism Valemount

#4 The Columbia River – From the South

The Columbia River begins in Columbia Lake near Invermere and heads north to where it meets the Canoe River. At this point it “bends” all the way around to head south west where it eventually enters the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon – thus the name The Big Bend Country. 

The Columbia River is the 4th largest river by volume in North America and the largest that drains into the Pacific. It is known as “the Great River of the West” and was originally named after a ship that sailed into its mouth at the Pacific named The Columbia Rediviva. The River lent its name to the HBC District which in turn lent its name to the modern province of British Columbia. 

After the Mica Dam
Before the Mica Dam

#5 The Mica Dam

The Mica Dam was completed in 1973 and thus Kinbasket Lake, as we know it today, was born. The dam is one of the largest earthfill dams in the world and generates 7,202 GWh per year. The dam was named after the nearby village of Mica Creek and was built as part of the Columbia Treaty between Canada and the United States which oversaw the hydroelectric power of the Columbia River.

The Mica Dam is located 135 kilometres north of Revelstoke on the Big Bend Highway ( Highway 23). The waters that are let through the dam form a portion of the Columbia River known as Lake Revelstoke which in turn is held back by the Revelstoke Dam just outside the city. Some of the towns and settlements that are now submerged due to the Mica Dam include: Boat Encampment, Mica, Big Bend, Downie and La Porte. 

#6 Chief Kinbasket

The original small lake known as Kinbasket was named for the Shuswap (Secwepemc) Indian Chief. Walter Moberly in need of a guide down the Columbia sought out the Chief as he recounts in 1866:  

“We crossed the Columbia river, and at a short distance came to a little camp of Shuswap Indians, where I met their headman, Kinbaskit…  I found him always reliable. We ran many rapids and portaged others, then came to a Lake which I named Kinbaskit Lake, much to the old chief’s delight.”

When Mica Dam was first completed it was named McNaughton Lake after Minister of Defense and leading hydroelectricity advocate, General Andrew McNaughton. However, a number of locals objected and the name was eventually changed to Kinbasket in 1980. 

"He cutteth out rivers among the rocks; 
and his eye seeth every precious thing." Job 46:10

Sources & Further Reading: 

UVic Interactive Map:

Spiral Road:

Historic Places:

Jack Nisbett:

History of British Columbia by Hubert Howe pp. 530-539

Epic Wanderer by D'arcy Jenish 



  1. Thanks, Joe. Stayed in Valemount on Wednesday. Geography and traveling have always been my passions.

    1. Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Very interesting. It is hard to find information on this lake. We sailed on it last week and found it to be incredible. Where dod yo find the topo map of the valley before the lake? I would like to find ones for the whole lake to make nautical charts with.

    3. Very interesting. It is hard to find information on this lake. We sailed on it last week and found it to be incredible. Where dod yo find the topo map of the valley before the lake? I would like to find ones for the whole lake to make nautical charts with.

  2. Thank you for this post! My parent were married in 1964, while living in Valemount and I just returned from a weekend camping on Kinbasket Lake. I recall my mother telling me of sitting in a cafe with a friend and they felt very strange that this cafe would soon be under water. I don't recall what town it was for sure, but I think Big Bend. I want to try find more information about these towns that got flooded. How was this decision made and where did the people go? I bet there are some great stories out there.
    Great post! Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment - glad you enjoyed the post!

    2. There used to be a tourist villa just off the big Bend highway called "kinbasket tourist villa" that was run by the Chapman family. There were some small cabins, a coffee Shoppe and gas station from what I've learned, perhaps that is where your mother went! The area was flooded after the dam was built, too bad because I would have loved to have visited it! I wish I could find more information on the area as well, as it was actually my great grandparents who ran the tourist villas!

  3. Great that you took the time to research this lake. Very informative.

  4. Great that you took the time to research this lake. Very informative.

  5. HI Joe, I am also looking for that pre-flood topo map, but I don't see where you answered the earlier post, so I thought I'd ask you myself...any leads would be helpful...keep up the good work! Cheers.