An icewalk on the wild side in Jasper
Story by Patricia Dawn Robertson
JASPER, ALBERTA — I’m no outdoor adventuress. Like my favourite neurotic Woody Allen, “I am at two with nature.” My heroic exploits are limited to walking my manic border collie, Laddie, around the grain elevator road in sub-arctic temperatures in Saskatchewan. My favourite winter perch is in front of our woodstove with northern explorer, Gretel Ehrlich, for company.
Yet, when I was given the opportunity to take a professionally guided ice walk at Jasper National Park, I didn’t hesitate to take myself outside of my bookish comfort zone.
As I stepped up to the counter at Maligne Adventures, and boldly signed the proferred liability waiver, I was tempted to head straight back to the security of my rustic mountain digs. After all, I only had 50 pages left in my novel and I could squeeze in a brief nap before dinner.
This is what I get for my impetuous New Year’s resolution: Embrace winter!
I also was recalling the advice of Thoreau, who said beware of enterprises that require new clothes. My new Joan of Arctic Sorel boots were necessary for this icy outing in Alberta. I climbed nervously into the panel passenger van with eight other ice walkers and chattered away to my friendly seat mate who works in commercial radio.
As we left the Jasper town limit, the van lurched and slid along unplowed roads. During my weekend visit Jasper experienced heavy powder snowfall. The mountain roads were still choked with white stuff as our guide, John Ward, ferried us to the Maligne River for the Maligne Canyon Icewalk.
Taking on the Malign Canyon Hike
Ward distributed nine sets of crampons and instructed us on how to affix them to our boots. The group was quiet as we bent over and struggled to fasten the accessories designed to help us gain a foothold in slippery, snowy, watery and icy conditions. Following Ward, we moved down to the riverbed and across a simple wooden foot-bridge that passes over the Maligne River.
Maligne is French for malignant or wicked. “This river has a curse on it,” said Ward with a serious expression. “Let’s head up this hill and I’ll show you the reason why you see green plants and warmish water at this site.”
We tromped along obediently, craning our necks and stopping briefly to record the beauty. The view of the mountains was spectacular. The tall pines stood heavy with fresh snow.
This was Jasper National Park at its most scenic. The temperature was moderate and the bright sun bounced off of the ice and snow. I found nothing malignant about this idyllic setting.
After a few minutes of hiking, we stopped at the first of many waterfalls. The temperature dropped below freezing yet the water continued to flow beneath us. The Maligne River, which feeds into Maligne Lake, is part of a massive watershed that features underwater rivers and limestone caves. It’s one of the largest systems in North America.
This major tributary of the Athabaska River is formed from the meltwater of Replica Peak. Even in the winter, some water continues to flow thanks to the springs, but it does slow down from the manic pace of the summer flow.
This is the same river where director Otto Preminger filmed scenes for the 1950’s American western, River of No Return, starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Monroe sprained her ankle during filming but was consoled as she met her future husband, Joe DiMaggio, at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. “Was Monroe cursed by the Maligne River?” asks Ward with a grin. “You be the judge.”
Ward walked us down an incline where he led us to the river’s edge. Here, the water was frozen. The group milled about nervously as he instructed each of us on how to climb backwards down the snowy bank, grasping only a Charlie Brown-style tree for support, as we moved onto the frozen water.
As we hiked along inside the river canyon the vantage point was that of a walled limestone alley surrounded by snowy pines. My trusty crampons provided me with ample sure footing. I’m now tempted to buy some to tromp around the icy streets of my small town. As the trek continued, the hikers became more confident. We explored cave sights, stepped in behind frozen waterfalls and came upon a pair of daring ice climbers, a man and woman decked out in hard helmets and climbing gear.
The friendly man jumped up and demonstrated his skills. A climber’s ice axe in each hand, he scaled the ice wall without a rope for support. Cameras clicked, we oohed and aahed, lifting our eyes to watch his athletic ascent. The climber returned gracefully to the riverbed with a satisfied smile. “I don’t think of anything else when I’m climbing,” he told us. “You become very focused.”
We all became attentive just watching and recording his demonstration. When the shutters stopped clicking, Ward led us farther up the frozen riverbed into a tighter canyon where the ice crystals and frozen waterfalls hang down like Rapunzel’s hair on the limestone.
This icy scene inspired Canadian artist Jan Kabatoff, whose obsession is winter. Since 2005, Kabatoff has documented mountain glaciers in Canada, Mongolia and Patagonia.
Ward pointed to an area that had recently been chipped away. It was a high shelf of ice that risked collapsing on wayward hikers so the guides took out their axes and removed it earlier that week. This is exactly why it’s recommended to invest in the guided tour experience instead of marching around in the canyon unescorted.
The steep ascent back up to the surrounding hills was smooth but it left me breathless. The trail we took back to the parking lot was higher and whiter than the one we ventured on when entering the canyon. As our ice walk concluded, we piled our crampons together for Ward to collect. I called shotgun when he started the van’s engine. On the drive, Ward entertained me with more fun facts about Jasper until we arrived at the town site.
If there is a curse on the Maligne River, it’s a beautiful one. It sidelines starlets with sprained ankles so they can meet future husbands, creates frozen waterfalls that captures your gaze and protects neophyte ice walkers from stumbling over everything but the words they may use to describe the scene before them.
Patricia Dawn Robertson is Saskatchewan-based freelance journalist.