Exploring Northwest US and Canada: Week 2, Day 8, Jasper National Park

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February 23rd 2018
Published: February 23rd 2018
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7/18 Knowing that we were leaving Lake Louise today, I wanted to make the most of my remaining time here. I got up around 7:30am, packed, got into my warm weather clothes and left with my camera to explore. The stark white Victoria Glacier was brilliant as it hung over Lake Louise. I photographed the reflections of bright red canoes and the grey-blue mountains on the still turquoise blue waters. Canoeists were already out braving the cold weather enjoying a paddle on the flat calm waters. I found some groupings of bright green and white Cornus Canadensis (Bunchberry or Creeping Dogwood) and fireweed, (the "Yukon flower”) at the edge of the lake. Rufous swallows darted around me enjoying the bugs (so far there were no discoverable pestering bugs on this trip). I soon met up with Dave and we grabbed a coffee and hot oatmeal with real maple syrup at the hotel’s Poppy Brasserie to eat outside in the sun near the river.

We met our Sundog Bus for our much anticipated drive up the Icefields Parkway leaving Lake Louise at 9:45 on our journey through Banff and Jasper National Parks towards the glaciers. As we headed north we soon discovered the mountains were again hidden in smoke. We were lucky at Lake Louise but this, reportedly one of the most beautiful drives in the world, was hidden from view. I did see tansy, daisy and Indian Paintbrush on the edge of the highway (93 N) under large stretches of the tall larch pine. Canadian thistle tends to be invasive here but it did add another addition of color to our smoky journey. Our driver informed us that the rock in the Canadian Rockies is sedimentary in contrast to the formation of granite rock in the US Rockies. Here in Canada the slate, limestone, and sandstone layers carry water over stone fractured and sharp from the elements. We also learned that a glacier moves and an ice field does not.

We stopped at the Bow Lake headwaters, origin of the Bow River. We soon stopped again to view the Crowfoot Glacier (the two talons are turquoise), and the Wapta Ice Field. The glaciers in Canada are retreating by 50%!o(MISSING)f their maximum volume. The larch trees are now gone, but Engleman Spruce and Balsam fir remain lining the highway at about 7,000 feet. This old growth forest consists of conifers that are 50-200 years old yet are not very tall due to the cold temperature. Along the Mistaya River were added Trembling Aspen and Cottonwood trees. These deciduous trees share a symbiotic relationship with the conifers. As a birder I was told to look for the Clarks Nutcracker, (saw at Lake Louise by the river) and the Canada Jay (saw perched in a tree by Chateau Lake Louise) and a Dipper (never found one).

We grabbed a light lunch from a park restaurant near the Saskatoon River (that flows into the Hudsons Bay River). As we waited for lunch we sat with a nice couple from Guatemala who were traveling on their motorcycle to Alaska. Their suits were electrically warmed with a large hooded windbreaker. I was doubtful but they assured me that they were not cold. Lunch at the deli was pretty bad. I had a salmon sandwich that was all bread with a smidge of canned salmon. Chili was another option and probably better but not easy to bring on the bus. "Fresh" fruit was offered along with cookies, neither anything to write home about. It was suggested that we finish our lunch on the bus so we could make it to the Columbia Icefield on time. My allergies were acting up, likely from the yellow pine pollen prevalent now. Sadly the smoky shroud persists and begins to sting the eyes and nose, likely another allergen assaulting my poor head.

As we approached the Columbia Ice Field and passed the flood plains we learned that they are much drier because of the reduced snow packs and melting glaciers. We passed the flats at Parker Ridge where climbers navigate the steep terrain despite avalanche warnings. Mt Athabasca is also popular with mountain climbers. The water system becomes part of the arctic ice flow passing into Jasper National Park. Our next stop was at the Glacier Discovery Center. We had just enough time to view the exceptional IMAX movie downstairs, explaining the the geology and history of the region, a scale model of the Icefields and a fascinating history in photographs of the area, well worth a stop especially since our panoramic photo op was totally obscured by smoke. We learned a Moraine is a pile of rocks left by a glacier and that katabatic winds or drainage winds cause flagging on trees.

It was time for the much anticipated walk on Athabasca Glacier. The Columbia Icefield is comprised of eight glaciers and covers an area of 325 square kilometers making it one of the largest south of the Arctic Circle. We and 54 other people boarded on the Ice Explorer that would carry us out to the glacier. As we passed small 400 year old trees we were told that they had been under the glacier for years and grew after the glacier retreated. The landscape got more barren as we approached the glacier. Moss was the last vegetation we saw, from that point on we learned there was no vegetation to be found since the glacier can support no plants. Right away a family of big horn sheep passed by the side of our explorer. These sheep lick the rocks for carotin and salt. We looked for but did not see pica and marmot. Along with the sheep, they are the only animals found in this remote landscape. This lumbering Ice Explorer carried us slowly down one of the steepest unpaved roads in North America, (a 32%!g(MISSING)rade). We were told that each explorer costs around one million dollars.

When we got off the Ice Explorer we discovered the ice field was very slippery and uneven with lots of hillocks making it treacherous to walk on especially holding a camera. I filled my water bottle with “clean” cold glacial water as directed by our driver but with the particles in the water I am not so sure about its purity. We only had 20 minutes to navigate the ice field, not nearly enough time to photograph with the large crowd and sketchy surfaces to walk on. (It took a good ten minutes just to get to the edge of the area boundary for our best views.) I later learned that some people chose to go to the glacier spending more time with rented cramp-ons. I wish that had been our opportunity because we slipped along the ice and didn’t have enough time to really experience this unique site. Patrick was our ice explorer driver and gave us some good info but he definitely made the trip feel rushed, saying “don’t be late for the bus” or he would leave us on the glacier!

Jack, Patrick's roommate, was our driver to the famous Skywalk. On his tour he drove us through the "shooting gallery" a place where large boulders can fall onto unsuspecting travelers. The park initiates a timed rock fall to prevent dangerous falls and damage. Our driver Jack was far more relaxed so we didn’t feel the stress of time to enjoy this site.

The award winning glass floored Glacier Skywalk hung over the Sunwapta Valley, a braided and changeable riverbed created by glaciers 918 feet below this cliff-edged skywalk. Not for the feint of heart. In spite of the murky sky there were impressive views both in front of and below us. The sky cleared a tiny bit while we were there, enough for hazy views of Sunwapta Falls and the Sunwapta River below. We watched a mangy mountain goat licking salt as he climbed on the side of the rock wall near us. These animals shed their heavy coats in summer by rubbing against the edge of a cliff or wall which, at this time of the year, left them looking pretty mangy.

As we began our return to the bus the red smoky sky got thicker. We caught a park shuttle bus back from the skywalk to the Icefield Center to catch our Sundog bus to Jasper but on the way we heard a loud bang. Our driver pulled to the side of the road to call for help. She waited some time then was told by radio to continue slowly to the center that it was likely a backfire. We ended up a few minutes late for the Sundog but at least had a little adventure.

By 4:40 we were headed to Jasper on what should have been a spectacular ride but sadly the smoke persisted and we saw nothing but smoky haze. Condé Nast rated the Icefields Parkway, the road we took between Lake Louise and Jasper that straddles the continental divide, as one of the top 10 drives in the world. We were told this stretch of road was dotted with more than 100 ancient glaciers, beautiful waterfalls and dramatic mountain spires that promised wildlife at many a turn. Instead this sadly was a very expensive ride in the fog.

When we arrived in Jasper we checked into the Mount Robson Inn, an updated motor lodge several blocks from the center of Jasper, where we would stay for two nights. After unpacking we walked the 5 long blocks (we were tired) into town to look for a place to eat. Although this is a town of only 5,000 people, like Banff, it is packed with tourists from all over the world. As we walked into town we saw many nice accommodations closer to town that would have been preferable to our "distant location”. We soon discovered that most restaurants in Jasper ran an average $28-38 per main course. Hamburgers and sandwiches are around $18 in this otherwise sleepy town. After walking up and down streets looking for a place to eat and being turned down because most restaurants were booked, we grabbed a lackluster meal on the main drag and walked back to the hotel. We smelled the smoke more intensely and sadly the smog was still hiding the mountain views in the evening.


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