Joy, our guide, is prepping our group to begin our winter trek into the frozen Maligne Canyon, not far from Jasper, Alberta. I have to windmill my arms to stay upright when skating, so I give her a doubtful glance.
“Use your toes to grab when going up a hill and dig in your heels when going down,” she explains. She adds that because the mercury’s crept above zero, the ice might be slick in some places and sticky in others.
Over our boots we’re wearing crampons — strap-on soles with metal divets. I take a few tentative steps at first, unsure if these tiny chunks of metal will keep me vertical. But they do, and before long walking on ice feels no different than hiking a muddy trail: you just need to pay attention. And for the steeper spots along our route, Joy is carrying an ice pick to hack out miniature steps where needed. Although the members of our group wearing snow pants decide that sliding down the hills is easier — and more fun.
In some places, the ice hangs like a curtain in front of the rock face and you can duck under and peer out from a small ice cave. Joy notes that the large number and variety of icy cliffs makes this a popular spot for climbers, whose ropes you can often see dangling above the canyon floor.
I’ve seen glaciers before but nothing quite like these cascading ice formations. Joy also guides nighttime tours, using a bright lamp to create shimmering effects with the ice and the rock face. On clear nights, the 45-minute hike to the canyon from the car park allows for some impressive star-gazing. Jasper is located in one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, so astronomy buffs can see more of the Milky Way from inside this national park than from almost anywhere else in Canada.
There are lots of great opportunities for pictures throughout the canyon walk, and even though members of our group lean back and contort themselves to get the best angles, the crampons do their job: everyone makes it back without so much as a slip — even the non-skaters.
During our three-hour adventure, Joy stops from time to time to tell us about the science behind the scenery. It seems that Maligne Canyon is a geological oddity. For generations, nobody could figure out why nearby Medicine Lake drained each summer, when the Maligne River, which runs through the canyon, appeared to be flowing into the lake and not flowing out.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers, using biodegradable dyes, discovered an extensive underground river system. Water draining from the lake through these underground streams could travel for as long as week below the surface to emerge in the canyon, about 15 kilometres away. Even today, scientists don’t know the full extent of these mysterious underground channels.
One of the great things about this laid back mountain town is that there’s no shortage of activities for a winter weekend, even if (like me) downhill skiing or snowboarding at the popular Marmot Basin isn’t your thing. Brewster Travel, which conducts the ice canyon tour also offers a guided hike by snowshoe to Maligne Lake. Or, you can strap on your skates and join a game of shinny at Lake Mildred, Jasper’s ice-skating hub. There are cross-country ski trails near Athabasca Falls, and although hiking options are limited in winter months, Spring opens up the Valley of the Five Lakes, a stunning two-hour jaunt through the valley bottom just minutes from town.
What to Eat in Jasper:
The full-time inhabitants of Jasper number about 5,000, but the town swells to four or five times this size in peak season, so is well served by cafes, bars and restaurants. (Locals tell me the town gets two million visitors a year!)
Coffee drinkers will want to start their day at SnowDome (downstairs inside Coin Clean Laundry), which uses Godfather espresso to brew the best java in town. Get an Americano or a latte to go, and head over to The Other Paw Bakery for a raspberry and white chocolate scone, and park yourself at the bar with a stunning view of Mount Tekarra. If you’ve got an active day planned, and can’t decide between eggs or pancakes, have both in the Alpine Starter breakfast at Papa George’s.
For lunch, build your own mouthwatering sandwich at Patricia’s Deli, with a selection of breads baked that day, fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses, and home-made relishes. The rotisserie chicken is delicious.
If you’re game to splurge on dinner after a busy day outdoors, and are hankering for some Alberta meat and potatoes, visit Evil Dave’s for the Malevolent Meatloaf — made from bison and wild boar bacon, topped with fried mushrooms and gravy and served with mashed potatoes. You’ll collapse in delighted exhaustion.
Apres Ski in Jasper:
Jasper is more of a beer-swilling than cocktail-sipping kind of town. Try the Jasper Brewing Company Brewpub and choose from among seven locally made brews, including the Rockhopper IPA, 6060 Stout, or Honey Bear Ale. For entertainment the Legion (yes, the Legion!) brings in good local bands once a week; Champs has karaoke on Wednesdays.
Where to Stay:
If you’re not on a budget, book a cabin at the legendary Fairmount Jasper Park Lodge, a sprawling 700-acre resort about five kilometres from town. Built in the 1920s, the main lodge was once touted as the largest single-storey log structure in the world. Now dozens of log cabins line the paths that lead out from the lodge and stretch around the impossibly picturesque Lac Beauvert.
After a day of skiing, grab a cold pint from the Emerald Lounge, sink into one of the comfy couches next to the fireplace and drink in the view of Whistler’s Mountain. Then, soak in the outdoor heated pool, or treat yourself to a stone massage at the Fairmount Spa, before dining at one of the lodge’s six restaurants. I ordered the beef burger from the Tent City Pub. At $23, it was probably the most expensive burger I’ve ever had, but also one of the tastiest.
If you have the time — and a vehicle with snow tires (for those travelling between November and April) — fly to Calgary, then drive the spectacular Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper, considered one of the most scenic highways in the world. The route is about two hours longer than driving from Edmonton, but your camera will love you for it.
En route, stop at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre (above), where in summer you take a tour right onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier, or at Weeping Wall, where you’ll often see ice climbers, who come from around the world to scale the 700-metre cliff face.
Opening in May 2014, about an hour outside of Jasper, is The Glacier Skywalk, which takes you out on a suspended glass-floored platform almost 300 metres above the stunning Sunwapta Valley.
To plan your visit, check out the Tourism Jasper website for ideas or the Parks Canada website for more information on Jasper National Park. It doesn’t matter what season you visit Jasper – it will be an epic adventure.
— Story and photographs by Scott Anderson
The writer was a guest of Tourism Jasper.