November 3, 2008
I remember a story of a visitor to a well-known park asking the ranger what he should do if he had only one day in the park. The answer: “Sit down and weep”. I fortunately had more than one day on a recent snowshoeing trip to Alberta’s Jasper National Park, but the adventure opportunities both on and off snowshoes are so abundant that I could have stayed for weeks.
Travelling by train from Edmonton’s big prairie skies to Jasper’s classic mountain landscapes could be the quintessential Western Canadian experience. Via Rail Canada offers a slowed-down and congenial mode of travel in our fast-paced world. The staff point out wildlife and talk to passengers about Canadian railroad history, while the comfortable dome cars offer panoramic views of the unfolding scenery. Many of my fellow passengers have crossed the country from Ontario and beyond. Excitement builds as mountains appear on the horizon, yet a herd of bighorn sheep barely acknowledge our passing. My train journey ends in the small town of Jasper, which is nestled in the wide Athabasca Valley and surrounded by mountains.
With a setting like this, it goes without saying that Jasper will have fantastic snowshoeing. Ask five different people their favorite place to snowshoe and you’ll get five different answers. Bald Hills are mentioned often, as is Medicine Lake. Maligne Lake is often considered the crown jewel of Jasper. Difficult to dispute as one gazes at majestic peaks rising seemingly straight up from the lake’s shoreline. I step out the back door of my hotel and feel like I discover my own hidden treasures as I snowshoe the well-marked trails and rolling terrain of Pyramid Bench, directly behind town. Within minutes I leave behind the sights and sounds of civilization and encounter vista after vista of intimate frozen lakes backed by soaring mountain peaks and those big Alberta skies. Mina Lakes, Riley Lake, Cabin Lake … as I sit on a sunny rock devouring a Clif Bar, I think about how each lake has its own distinct appeal.
Back in town, I stop in at the Parks Canada office to inquire further about snowshoeing in the area. The Park Warden confirms that the possibilities are endless and the scope is wide, encompassing everything from family-friendly outings of a few hours too much longer and more challenging expeditions. He stresses that everyone must be responsible for their own safety in the mountains and encourages all outdoor enthusiasts to educate themselves pertaining to weather conditions, wild animal encounters and especially avalanche hazards. Good advice for all mountain destinations.
One of the great things about Jasper is that there are a host of other activities in addition to endless snowshoe opportunities. One day I meet up with Murray Morgan, owner of Jasper Adventure Centre, for a half-day diversion from snowshoeing. Although Jasper Adventure Centre also organizes snowshoe outings, today I am doing an ice walk in Maligne Canyon, the deepest canyon in Jasper at a depth of more than 160 feet. We start hiking along the rim of the canyon, enjoying enticing glimpses into its depths. Outfitted with knee-high rubber boots and cleats for traction, we soon descend into the canyon and begin our walk on the ice.
The heavily eroded walls, sometimes as little as six feet apart, block out much of the sunlight, causing the temperature to drop. Without a doubt, the highlight of the walk is the magnificent frozen Queen of Maligne waterfall, which is nature’s sculptural work at its best. As I walk behind the frozen curtain, I grasp dripping ice columns to help me keep my balance on the slick surface underfoot. Murray points out that the only sure thing about Maligne Canyon is that it is constantly changing, sometimes within a few hours, as the water freezes and thaws and the ice shifts.
Back in town after the day’s activities, I am reminded that one of the best things about visiting Jasper Park is the town itself. It’s small, friendly and slightly quirky, with welcoming people and the best bakery I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Jasper isn’t slick, glossy or self-important. In short, Jasper is a real town and I like that a lot. I’m based at the Sawridge Inn that is, literally, on the edge of town. In Jasper, this means a 15-minute walk from the town centre. In the evening when I wander back to the hotel, the dark shapes of elk can be seen grazing along the roadway, and shadowy mountains are visible just beyond town. My room at the Sawridge is quiet, serene and restful. A refreshing change from standard hotel art, it is decorated with stunning photography from the local area. A small photography exhibition is also underway in the hotel lobby while a soaring three-story fireplace and abundant greenery dominate the adjacent dining room.
I find it tempting to compile a David Letterman-style list of the top 10 things I love about Jasper, both the park and the town. Surely I would have to include the amiable mountain guide who carries a ukulele with him every time he ventures into Jasper’s backcountry. And Jasper Inn Alpine Resort’s casually elegant dinner menu that also offers real Kraft Dinner for kids (heck, I’d order it myself after a day on the trail!). I would definitely list the mysterious and extensive underground river system that percolates from Medicine Lake, and the distant sound of wolves howling. Jasper is an easy place to love, and I have decided that I will not weep about my short stay there. Instead, I will pack my snowshoes and sense of adventure and plan a return visit soon to its people, vistas and wildlife.
Jasper is located in Alberta, Canada, 227 miles from Edmonton, 255 miles from Calgary and 499 miles from Vancouver. Via Rail Canada (www.viarail.ca) offers a picturesque and relaxing mode of travel, and SunDog Tour Company (www.sundogtours.com) likewise provides several transportation opportunities including door-to-door airport/hotel transfers.
Jasper National Park is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park’s website is www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/index_E.asp. and there is a Parks Canada Visitor’s Centre on the main street in Jasper.
Jasper abounds in opportunities for snowshoe excursions and other outdoor adventures. Jasper Adventure Centre (www.jasperadventurecentre.com/) can help you organize all manner of excursions, both winter and summer. Downhill skiers will enjoy Jasper’s Marmot Basin www.skimarmot.com.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants in Jasper. I found the Sawridge Inn & Conference Centre (www.sawridgejasper.com) to be particularly welcoming. The hearty breakfast will set you up for a day outdoors, and should you tire of the mountain views, you can satisfy your inner hockey cravings by catching a game at the Hearthstone or Champs Lounge. The friendly Jasper Inn Alpine Resort (www.jasperinn.com) offers much more than Kraft Dinner on their menu. I found myself especially intrigued by the Loaded Bison Burger. The banana bread at the Bear’s Paw Bakery (www.bearspawbakery.com) is stupendous.