16. Jasper, 1st day
We left the ranch about 10am. A bit later than scheduled as Roger had to take the Jeep in to Cache to get the spare tyre fixed, but only a slight delay. The weather was bright and warm so we donned shorts for our mini-break. We had a 2 hour drive ahead and settled into the journey quickly. What would we see when we arrived? There is so much and we were going to have very limited time so I scoured the assortment of brochures we’d procured from the tourist office. The tent we’d been offered hadn’t exactly materialised so we had no accommodation arranged. The local tourist office would be our first stop. We rounded a wide left hand bend and saw what we thought was a loose horse grazing the grass verge. As we approached it transpired to be a moose. I hadn’t photographed the previous one so jumped out to take this opportunity before it trundled off back into the woods. Only later did I see the advice to not get within 100yds of a moose, oops!
We turned right onto the main highway as we approached Hinton, where the bus had dropped us off, and faced the Rocky Mountains proper. We had merely been in the foothills at Ubar. The most striking factor about these mountains, besides their enormity, is that they are, um, well, rocky! I suppose the clue is in the name but I didn’t expect it to be quite so stark. There are tree covered slopes, changing instantly to rock, no grass, heath or moorland just trees then rock. Jagged, angular, vertiginous rock faces, vertical strata clearly demarcating the epochs.
We were greeted at the national park gate by Grizzly Adams’ son, although it could have been his brother judging by his age, with a park guide and invoice. We headed straight towards Jasper town, not that there was much alternative. The road appeared to divide a lake but they had different names on either side. Closer inspection revealed what must be different feeds as one was browny red whilst the other was turquoise green, both were crystal clear. There was a new range of wild flowers to grace the sides of the road including some individual bright orange lilies. I couldn’t obtain a decent photo of them when we stopped so resisted the urge to take a poor one as there would be plenty more opportunities, wouldn’t there? Actually no, the only other time I saw some was in semi darkness the following evening, their vibrancy piercing the twilight.
We made our way into the very attractive town of Jasper and called into the appropriately quaint tourist office, surrounded by colourful flowerbeds, not filled with the usual bark chippings but hundreds and hundreds of pine cones. A very helpful member of staff sorted us out with a few options for ‘cheap’ lodging, we only needed a bed for the night as we wouldn’t be staying around the accommodation long. However, the second cheapest was in a riverside cabin with our own bathroom just 5km out of town so that was sorted via the freephone at the back of the centre. We decided to grab some lunch before setting off and found a restaurant bar advertising poutine, which Bailey had encouraged us to try as a traditional Canadian dish. Whilst we were happy to oblige, the free wifi (and presumably one which worked properly) was also a big draw! So, with platefuls of chips, gravy and cheese topped with ground beef for Roger and chicken for me, we managed to get all the backlog of photos uploaded onto the website (but not onto all the pages yet).
We set off out of town on Highway 93 which starts in Jasper and finishes in Arizona; the north/south equivalent of Route 66. We eventually found our little cabin, not quite on the banks of the Athabasca River but a short walk to the waterside chairs and easy listening distance of the rapids. I was particularly pleased to see the clean hygienic flushing toilet and non-smelly shower. Although to give Ray his due, he informed us on Saturday morning that the shower and toilet in the top barn were now working, yippee! 2 minor drawbacks, the shower floor is still covered in cement, despite my scrubbing and they are located about 200yds away from our bedroom but its progress. So this little room was perfect.
Our next stop was Pyramid Lake to arrange our 1 hour boat trip courtesy of Kent, Bailey’s boyfriend, who had a voucher he insisted he wouldn’t use. We took the road through town and started our ascent, passing Lake Patricia first where we could enjoy a fabulous view of the imposing but unusually, multi-coloured Mount Pyramid. It is quite startling in its completeness which we later learnt was assisted by ‘being closed to all human use’! We continued on to the next lake, hoping that they would be able to fit us in as we hadn’t booked and were quite pushed for time to do all the things we wanted to; no problem.
We chose a Canadian canoe, the ones the Indians used in the old cowboy films. I knew that I would feel distinctly unstable, even without Roger tormenting me, so decided not to take my phone camera with its multi purpose functions and risked Roger’s camera which we hardly use now. Not that I was planning on falling in! These photos may take longer to arrive as the cable is back at the ranch with the poor internet but are now here! We paddled out into the middle of the lake, marvelled at the majestic Mt Pyramid, absorbed the magnificent vistas of the Rockies and savoured the peace and tranquillity. There was a small island with a footbridge connection so we headed around the outside, as we neared the back we could see that the lake extended round a corner so that required exploring in our intrepid craft. There wasn’t much there and we’d been out over half an hour by now. We could cut the corner back by heading under the footbridge thus lessening the distance considerably which was significant as we were now heading into a persistent if not strong wind. My concern grew as we approached the bridge, the clearance looked to be a matter of inches. Roger assured me that we’d fit under; I wasn’t as confident. I was barely able to move in the canoe for fear of capsizing and had even taken the photos over my shoulder, I wasn’t going to be able to change positions for this tight squeeze. There had been people on the bridge as we approached but I was relieved that they had dispersed before witnessing our demise. My only option was to slip off the back of my seat and hope that I managed to retain some skin on my knees. There transpired to be slightly more space than that although I brought my Standridge Tunnel skills into play by pulling us through by my hands on the underside of the bridge, knees intact. The only problem now was getting back onto my seat which was extremely ungainly but successful. The cox in the back kept my stroke count up as we worked our way back to the quay after a super and unexpected period. Thanks Kent.
Our next excursion was a 50km drive along a parallel valley following the Maligne River. The first stop was Maligne canyon where we parked up and prepared ourselves for the ’20-40 min’ short walk or further if we chose. It was already past 5pm. As we reached the first bridge for the short walk in less than 10 mins we realised that we may have a bit more time than we thought. We completed the middle walk as the views of the canyon and waterfall were very impressive although probably not given justice in the photos. On our route we did manage to spot the golden mantled ground squirrel and a poor little mite with a justified inferiority complex called the least chipmunk. But they were our wildlife of the day so far and both very cute. Can you spot us (shadows)?
The road to our next destination was lined with a guard of honour of paintbrush plants, a profusion of reds, pinks and oranges. Despite all the new flora, these stalwarts seemed to absolutely thrive in these surrounds. Medicine Lake was next on our list and we pulled into a fairly busy car park at the bottom end. A keen ornithologist had his camera, using it as a telescope, pointed at the nest of a bald eagle containing a couple of fledglings. I didn’t get the full story as I think they were German but picked up the gist. Reading the information boards, which I must say are plentiful and helpful but fairly brief, I found that the lake has an underwater drainage system of caves, so in winter it empties, almost dry despite having no obvious outlet and when all the other lakes are full, hence its name from prior to comprehending this anomaly. From this vantage point we could see the razor sharp edges of the Colin Range. A whole layer of the Earth’s crust seems to literally have been upended by 80-90 degrees giving very sheer smooth surfaces sliding straight down to the water. Avalanche warning signs are plentiful as little will hold the snow on these slippery slopes. I’m not sure if they are a climber’s Mecca or actually insurmountable.
Other signs instructed us that we should be careful about caribou as their numbers are dwindling severely. If I had realised just how fortunate we’d been to see one on our first morning I would have been more attentive. It is unlikely that we’ll see another. Interestingly there are also signs informing the masses that that it is illegal to appraoch or feed the wildlife. I knew it wasn’t recommended but didn’t realise it was illegal. All the signs and information are in French and English and I can’t help but smile seeing that ‘wildlife’ translates to ‘sauvage’ in French when thinking of the squirrel and least chipmunk.
We continued up the Maligne Valley from Medicine to Maligne Lake keeping our eyes peeled for more extensive wildlife. It was getting towards dusk so an appropriate feeding time. It was quite surprising how far into the trees you could actually see considering their density. I suppose it is the relative narrowness of the trunks that allows the view to penetrate when travelling at some, though not excessive, speed. We were ever watchful for the elusive bear, each tree trunk or upturned root system could have been a Paddington, Rupert or Winnie until another angle revealed their true identity. Everyone who comes to these parts as a tourist seems to be on a bear hunt, it is our holy grail. However, there is also that concern about what to do if one does meet a real bear as they are very big, strong and unpredictable.
We arrived at Mailgne Lake in the early dusk, midges were starting to come out in force which was a shame as at the bottom of the lake, where the river began tumbling down to the mighty Athabasca, there was the greatest profusion of birdlife we’ve come across since arrival. All sorts of winged beasts were swooping and diving by the bridge from which we viewed them, presuambly feeding on the bugs which were feeding on us and final drove us back into the Jeep! I suggested we go back to the visitors centre to have a drink or coffee indoors to be able to appreciate the view up the lake under protection. The carpark was a little way through the trees so having deposited the vehicle we ran the gauntlet of the wooded area only to find that everything was shut. Perhaps these pesky midgies even have a significant effect on trade! Beating a retreat we got back into the car and headed down the road, hopefully in time to get a take-out pizza (yes, even gluten-free) from the hotel and download all the day’s photos on our super fast wifi!