Story by Karen Evenden
JASPER, ALBERTA — Maligne Canyon is a gorge formed from limestone that stretches to a depth of 110 metres in some spots and took between 17,000 and 20,000 years to form. Having explored the area during the summer many times, I had yet to see the canyon in the winter and during a recent trip to Jasper, the time seemed opportune.
“Maligne” is an old French word that roughly translated means wicked or evil. Maligne Lake, in Jasper National Park was named in the 1800s by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, who described the turbulent river that ran into a lake and canyon, which both subsequently adopted the name. Wicked or not, Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon draw visitors from near and far for their natural, unspoiled beauty.
Wes Bradford, a park warden in Jasper National Park for 37 years, was our interpretive guide for the Maligne Canyon Icewalk. I was quite excited to join this excursion, having heard a lot of positive feedback from others and this was further confirmed when I met fellow tour guests Ron Maxwell and Sheri Game; they were back to do the tour for a second time having enjoyed it significantly three years prior.
After he picked us up from our respective hotels, Wes drove us to a small warehouse where we were equipped with rubber boots and cleats before driving to Maligne Canyon.
The canyon is a tourist attraction in its own right during the summer months; with its own restaurant and gift store near to the parking lot. It features a long footpath, with a total of six bridges that switchback down to the canyon floor. At each bridge visitors stand atop the canyon and view the spectacular waterfalls below.
It’s difficult to imagine this scene being a place of interest when the lakes and rivers freeze, but there are plenty of reasons why the Maligne Canyon Icewalk tour is gaining interest.
Maligne Lake, 45 kilometres away, provides the water source for the canyon. The area has the largest underground karst (limestone) cave system in North America; or as Wes commented “Maligne Canyon is literally a ‘limestone sponge’.” The water comes from the lake, which is fed from precipitation from the nearby mountains; therefore, the source never dries up.
The tour began with Wes leading us on a walk to the top of the canyon, pointing out some of the local flora and fauna. The area is prime wildlife habitat and we were lucky enough to see tracks from pine martin and deer, and even cougar prints along the way.
Once at the top we started heading down the snowy footpath, which was lined with wire fencing; a necessary measure to ensure overly enthusiastic photographers don’t fall into the canyon.
As we continued, a spectacular sight met us on the way. The “Angel” and the “Queen of Maligne” waterfalls towered above us, frozen mid-fall, almost as if they were waiting for us to arrive. As the water is consistently running into and through the canyon year round, there are some sections where you can actually see the water still falling behind the frozen icicle curtains that seem to want to conceal the flow.
Once we reached the fourth bridge, Wes took us under the railings and off the path. A few slippery steps down and we stepped onto a frozen river; the base of the falls. While similar to walking on a frozen lake, it soon became apparent that this is not a place to be careless. Water still runs under the ice, and recent milder temperatures had created some unstable spots where it would be easy to step through.
As we walked deep into the canyon, we suddenly stepped into a magical ice world. Almost as if we walked through a door leading into a different era; limestone walls, carved in unusual, almost wave-like shapes towered over us.
Listening to the silence in the cool, crisp mountain air, surrounded by dazzling white snow, crystals, icicles, frozen waterfalls and ice caves, this is a place where time stood still. Rounding a corner we came across a stunning, open cave-like feature, large enough for an adult to climb into. “Was this Superman’s lair?” I wondered.
With enthusiasm Wes pointed out the lines on the limestone walls that formed in accordance with the water level. The level was lower this year but the ice beneath us was still more than two or three inches thick. Consistent cool overnight temperatures during the winter ensure the water freezes again every night, creating new ice “stalactites.”
On exiting the canyon, we sat down and slid like kids down a small winding chute, the Corkscrew, before Wes guided us to the mouth of the canyon. At this point the water runs warm, at a temperature of five or six degrees; it was easy to see how Bridal Veil or Queens Lace Falls earned its name as a fine, delicate ice-web stretched across the shale wall, and water trickled behind it.
As we exited the canyon and stepped back onto the path near the fifth bridge, the sound of a family walking and laughing nearby brought us back to reality.
Maligne Canyon is a living, breathing and thriving entity whatever the season. For a short period of time, we were fortunate enough to experience this magical wonder at close quarters, and there was certainly nothing “maligne” about it.
MORE ABOUT MALIGNE CANYON
Hours: The Jasper Adventure Centre offers Maligne Canyon Icewalk tours daily at 10 am, 2 pm and 7 pm. Tours run for approximately three hours. Telephone: 1-800-565-7547; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Admission: $55 per adult, $27.50 per child (aged 6-14 years).
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