With no direct way home from work in west-central Alberta, I decided to ride the Thursday night bus into Jasper National Park and make my way home through the mountains.
Parks Canada’s Jasper in January three-week long winter festival was in session in conjunction with Pyramid Lake Resort’s Winterstruck festival and the Lake Louise Ice Magic international ice carving competition. It was enjoyable to adopt vacation mode puttering around on the tourist sightseeing routes. (Still ended up walking over 40km in three days, plus fatbiking!) What I learned was, winter brings out a sense of camaraderie in those who revel in being outdoors in the season. And the mountains are truly for everyone.
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. – Henry Miller
- Maligne Canyon Ice Walk. Karst water seeping through the rock of the gorge freezes into incredible textured ice like coral. Delicate hoar frost in the roof of caves, striated rock walls, wading through icy slush! It was such a sensory experience that I didn’t feel (too) bad about not ice climbing. In my tour group was a family from Edmonton on their annual winter holiday; their small boy, who has limited capability, seemed enchanted by the sound and sight of the waterfalls. The natural world is wonderful.
- Cabin Lake Trail. Locals suggested this route along the bench trail above Jasper townsite. A date muffin and green tea from Bear’s Paw Bakery made fine accompaniments to the open views of Whistlers Peak, the Trident Range, and beyond.
- Wahkootowin (We Are All Connected). Carmen, the Parks Canada interpreter, gathered us around the fire at Marmot Meadows for an interactive teaching of her Cree Medicine Wheel, “navigating a way to understanding of how everything is related in our natural environment, families, communities, and within ourselves”. We burned our tongues on hot chocolate and bathed in a serene lingering cloud of sage from the smudge and campfire smoke.
- Kakasistipiskak (Dark Sky). Jasper N.P. is a dark sky preserve. Those who wanted to try night snowshoeing had their chance to. “Dark Sky stories are observations that were shared through story and ceremony; interlinking the sky, the land and the people with timeless understandings that foster traditional values, strengths, and wisdom.” Here I met a couple from Calgary who were on their third annual Jasper in January visit. I felt an affinity towards these people who seek out and embrace winter experiences further north and who return year after year.
- Pyramid Lake Trail. With breakfast of green tea and a rhubarb scone from Coco’s Bakery in hand, I meandered up the trail to the festival’s main venue. Interpretive signs at Patricia Lake informed that after the sinking of the Titanic, a project to destroy icebergs ensued, and what people discovered was that glacier ice is remarkably difficult to destroy. Hence the British government initiated a project to build an aircraft carrier out of (wait for it..) ice. An ice boat aircraft carrier! A large scale model was built on this lake. The snowy Patricia Lake reminded me of a scene from The Revenant. Onwards to Pyramid Lake Resort.
- Winterstruck. Cabane à sucre sap was brought in from Quebec and boiled on-site; the mouth-watering aroma of maple syrup wafted upward as it was ladled onto packed snow and we rolled it into lollypops as it cooled. Yum! Then: ice bocce, skating, hockey, shinny, sleigh rides, dogsled rides, métis winter games, cooking bannock on a stick, chili cook-off and bbq tent, xc skiing, snowshoeing and fatbiking, phew!! The bike I rented is the high-end version of mine. Rode across the crunchy snow-covered lake, around the island and environs, picked up the snow road and groomed trail, and hopped onto the singletrack network for a few hours exploring – including an inevitable hike-a-bike over deadfall (should’ve stayed on groomed trails!). By afternoon the snowy sky cleared a tiny bit to reveal Pyramid Mountain through the clouds.
- Jasper Yellowhead Museum & Archives was hosting a Mount Edith Cavell photo exhibit. I’d never been in here before. Spent some time learning about Ms. Edith Cavell and history of the Athabasca valley. Jasper N.P. had different beginnings than Banff N.P., and that’s shaped its development and is reflected in the reach of Parks administration too.
- Whistlers Trail walk along the Maligne River and up to the HI Jasper hostel. Tonight we were four in the female dorm (two Friday night, and solo Thursday night). The other single female traveler, from Edmonton, was initially reticent but perhaps like me, after spending all day somewhat alone, seemed quite talkative after some inquiry about how she’d spent her day. We shared stories and later we, of the same mind, spent the evening reading in our bunks, though she cheekily stated that she would have preferred having a TV in the dorm, like the hostel in NYC does.
- Icefields Parkway into Banff N.P. On the bus to Lake Louise in the early morning, the skies opened blue to a spectacular welcome to the rock and ice of the Columbia Icefield. The older woman from Florida in the seat ahead of me was keen to take photos as she hadn’t seen snow in over 20 years. We ooh’d and aah’d over the scenery and the glaciers. So what if I was here just a couple weeks ago; it’s awesome every time. The bus driver, overhearing us maybe, and in contradiction to his earlier warning that this was a transport service, not a tour bus, launched into full tour guide descriptions over the intercom, at first with a touch of resignation, and then with more gusto.
- Ice Magic at Lake Louise. Scott and Linh met me at the bus stop. After checking out the avalanche bulletin at the Visitor’s Center we took breakfast at Laggan’s Bakery where I had green tea and my usual hazelnut chocolate croissant (plus a greek salad for veggies!). We briefly browsed the ice carving competition as we made our way to our trailhead. There was also xc skiing, skating, the annual ice castle, snow sculpture, and sleighs pulled by draft horses adorned with bells, and fuzzy in their winter coats.
- Little Beehive Trail. Such an enjoyable hike when it’s quiet on summer evenings and in the winter. Despite its popularity we were tracking through new snow and took turns with two other small parties leading. I’d been thinking to try Mount St. Piran, but it was overly ambitious requiring trailbreaking in snow up to my upper thighs. I didn’t feel there was much point in slogging today but we still did 10k+ and celebrated a great day back at the lake.
See, winter festivals are not just for families with kids, and winters in the mountains are not just for mega-outdoorsy people. There’s something for everyone.