Exploring Northwest US and Canada: Week 2, Day 9, Jasper National Park

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February 23rd 2018
Published: February 23rd 2018
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We left at 8:30AM for a guided bus tour from Jasper (elevation 3500 feet ) through the Athabasca Valley to explore Maligne Canyon, first on our day-long adventure. Here we were only a few kilometers from the BC border which explains why we are socked in with smoke in the middle of Jasper NP. We were told that in addition to British Columbia, there were hundreds of people evacuated from Yosemite due to the fires in CA. As the bus climbed into the Maligne Valley we saw several elk (Wapati is the native name for elk) near the highway. We are told they have been moving around because of the fires. We Crossed the Athabasca River (from the Woods Cree which means “where there are plants one after another”. This river originates from the Columbia Glacier and never gets over 40 degrees.

We hiked in to see the 160 foot deep Maligne Canyon where 10,000 years of rushing water carved the deep limestone gorge we see today. The soft moss covering the forest floor on the shore was a nice contrast to the rushing pale turquoise waters. I saw some low bearberry (bear food) along the walk but the berries were already gone. Our guide pointed out many fossils in the limestone rocks on the walkways and said that bear mating season is in June, gestation in October soon followed by hibernation. Once asleep, bears may even sleep through their birth! Caribou tend to stay in the high areas above Maligne lake but sadly we didn’t see them.

We drove on Maligne Lake Road along a creek over a huge limestone karst system whose main river runs underground between Medicine Lake and “disappearing” Maligne Lake. Medicine Lake,“disappears” in the fall when it drains to a flat flood plain to only 3' across and 3' high from 12' deep and 2-300 yards across compared to Maligne Lake with a depth of 318 feet. Despite not seeing Medicine Lake at its fullest, our driver-guide, said the best time to visit Jasper National Park is in September because there are fewer people and the fall foliage is quite beautiful. October is too late for boat trips and there may be snow. I am still suffering from allergies. I thought it was the cottonwood but I was told it was more likely the yellow pine pollen that coats the cars in the morning. I wonder if fall would improve that too?

Maligne is a French term for wicked; a French Canadian priest thought the Maligne River dangerous and named it Maligne or “wicked”. We stopped at the Maligne River, a major tributary of the Athabasca River, to talk about the movies made here in the early to mid 1900s including one with Marylin Monroe. Bing Crosby also stayed here and made a movie in northern Canada. Whitewater Rafting companies are very busy in the summer on this river.

Maligne Lake is about 30 miles from Jasper. The mountains surrounding the lake and area are around 12,000 feet high but we can't see them. The road we drove on is a 2000 foot vertical climb from the canyon to the lake. Pockets of blue sky appeared as we hiked through the woods past the Maligne Boat House to the docks of the stunning glacier-fed Lake Maligne, the largest body of water in Jasper National Park. Philadelphia Quaker explorer Mary Schaffer Warren "discovered" Maligne Lake and lobbied for its protection. The book No Ordinary Woman was written about her accomplishments.

The sun was shining when we reached the dock to begin our cruise to Spirit Island. Despite the sun, the distant snow capped mountains surrounding Lake Maligne were mostly in haze if seen at all. Our boat guide Amber (our best guide so far with a great all girl team) said the Maligne Mountain range is made up of compressed sandstone. (She passed around a sample. Very crumbly.) In contrast, the Queen Elizabeth Mt Range, seen along the lake, is made of limestone. Rock flower or glacial silt creates the famous turquoise or green color in lakes like Maligne Lake and Lake Louise. Amber said that boats are off the water at Lake Maligne by October 6 because the lake quickly begins to freeze up to one meter thick in winter.

We docked in the quiet cove at beautiful Spirit Island, one of the most photographed islands in the world, surrounded by sparkling green waters. As we hiked around the island we inhaled the fragrant pine and spruce forest. I spotted a loon, a yellow-rumped warbler and a black and white warbler on the island. Our visit was all too short because I could have spent several hours hiking and photographing this unique place as the light and clouds changed the landscape.

After we returned from the Lake Maligne boat excursion we had a surprisingly good cafeteria lunch back at the dock. We sat in the sun on outdoor picnic tables overlooking the docks and Lake Maligne where I had ginger beef soup and a delicious coconut tart (far better than the morning breakfast scones). Dave had beef stew that was passable.

On the bus return to Jasper, Bruce stopped briefly to see a cinnamon bear foraging along the road but unlike other guides he was not thoughtful about everyone wanting pictures and we were soon off before we had good shots. We did have a one minute stop to see a bald eagle in its nest but Bruce again was not inclined to stop. Eventually we slowed down for a foraging black bear on the edge of the road. I asked Bruce to open the door so we could photograph and he did oblige and stayed long enough for us to observe as the bear moved along the brush. We passed more elk on the edge of the meadow but Bruce said "they're only elk so you won't be interested in seeing them". As if! The smoky haze was thick obscuring all the mountains as we arrive back in town.

Back at the Mount Robson we organized our packs before heading into town for dinner. Karouszo’s Steaks restaurant was recommended for their excellent reasonably priced prime rib so that is where we headed. After dinner we walked around town and saw many options for ice cream but I am very glad we chose Grandma's Place! I don't remember the flavor but it was a native berry (possibly Saskatoon) that was so creamy and flavorful, likely the best food I had in Jasper! When Dave and I sat to eat our ice cream we had a nice time chatting with a young couple from Langly, BC, who were also enjoying their ice creams.

We walked across to the train tracks opposite the restaurants on Connaught Drive. Many freight and passenger trains run alongside the town and train cars carrying grain frequently chug down the tracks. This is where we will pick up the Rocky Mountaineer the day after tomorrow. The Rocky Mountaineer had come in for the night on one of the 16 tracks. In spite of the large number of trains carrying grain and passengers, the town was quiet and there was no noise at night. I later found out that Jasper has a no whistle law. I took a moment to photograph our train at the station and the Two-Men Totem Pole near the train station. As I walked back to the lodge, the sun was beginning its long descent through the smoky haze giving a more spectacular aspect to the sun. We saw a helicopter hovering around the valley, learning later that there was a small fire started at nearby Pyramid Mountain where the helicopter was depositing water to (successfully) put the fire out.

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