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Jasper, Alberta

Columbia Iceflelds

     

Friday, April 16

On Thursday, April 22, it was time to say goodbye to our mountain cabin. In spite of the melting heat at night from the woodstove and the whistle-tooting train coming by every two hours all through the night, we had really become fond of that place, and it was hard to bid farewell. All the same, we clambered back into the rented tripmobile, and headed north for the Icefields Parkway and Jasper.

The Icefields Parkway is 230 kilometers (143 miles) long, which normally should be about a three hour drive in good weather. However, our Parkways of the Canadian Rockies road guide book warned that the breath-taking scenery would, on a nice day, cause the trip to take more like eight or nine hours. It also warned that sudden winter storms could pop up at any time, causing travel to slow down considerably or to stop entirely, and travelers were cautioned to bring plenty of food, water, and to kick the tires a few times to make sure the vehicle was in good shape before starting out.

Even though the day was bright and beautiful (sporting one of those electric blue Alberta skies we had been told about), we took all recommended precautions (including kicking the tires) and set out early. The Parkway was everything the guide book said, and more. The farther we traveled north towards the Columbia Icefield, located about halfway between the beginning and end of the Parkway, the higher the mountains became, the more snow there was, and the colder it got. According to the guide book, the Icefields Parkway is the highest road in Canada, with an average elevation of 1,550 meters (5,100 feet). Bow Summit, the highest point on the Parkway at 2,069 meters (6,787 feet), is the second highest point reached by a public highway in the country. It's nature in one of  its most beautiful and wildest settings, teeming with wildlife, and covered with glacial leftovers from ancient times. Over 100 active glaciers are visible from the highway, with the largest and most visited being the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield.

Unfortunately, we forgot to bring snowshoes on this trip, and hiking was

impossible due to the large quantities of snow on either side of the highway that obliterated all hiking trails. We attempted to hike to Peyto Lake across what we figured was a parking lot, but never did find the lake. Another good reason to go back in summer—this lake is reportedly one of the most beautiful of the deep blue-green variety. Actually, it was a good thing it was hiding. If we'd found it, we probably would have found it iced over anyway, and looking much like the disappointing Lake Louise. We enjoyed our trudge through the woods, but turned around when we started sinking into snow up to our knees.

We stopped more times to ooh and aah (and of course to take photos) than I can count. Although the area was sparsely populated in April, we did manage to chat with a few interesting people, including a caretaker/resident of

one of the several hostels sprinkled along the trail and a veterinarian from Toronto who was keeping pace with us (or we with her). The highlight of the trip though was definitely the Athabasca Glacier. The terrain leading up to the Icefield is spectacular, and the glacier itself is awesome. Tourists are bussed onto the glacier, via snocoach, where you freeze your you-know-what off while admiring nature's handiwork. We were warned not to wander too far off as people have fallen into crevasses in the past, never to see the light of day again. The closeups of the crevasses you see here are not an indication of me being daring. I used my telephoto lens.

Another really nice spot is Athabasca Falls. The elevation begins dropping as you head north of the Icefields, and so did the amount of snow present on the ground. At Athabasca Falls, we were actually able to hike down an easy trail to the falls and gorge. The lake had thawed already, so we were able to experience the emerald green water in all its glory. In fact, the Athabasca River itself, quite visible from all the high vantage points throughout the Jasper Townsite region, is itself a bright shade of blue-green. A young ski lift attendant on the Jasper Tram who had migrated to Jasper for fun and adventure explained to us that in the spring, the waters are the deepest, most clear color of blue-green because the glacial sediment has had a chance to settle over the winter. In the spring, melting snow causes torrential flows of water down the mountains and into the rivers, stirring up the bottoms and turning all the water a muddy brown. He said it doesn't clear up again until well into the summer, and that we picked a good time to visit.

One of the few mistakes we made on this well-planned trip was the choice of lodging while visiting Jasper Park. We had decided (via Internet) on a Bed & Breakfast located "just a half hour drive from the Jasper Townsite and a few kilometers from the Park entrance." It turned out to be a forty minute drive from anything. It was in a small corner of the world called Hinton, which was well out of the park, the mountains, and anything that could be construed as vacationland. That complaint made, the accommodations were very nice, and the people we met while there equally so.

In spite of having to truck an hour and a half round trip to get to and from the park, Jasper Park turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The mountains are of a different cut in Jasper than in Banff and points south, and also a bit lower in altitude, which meant there wasn't as much snow on the trails. We went hiking! During our bird's eye view tram ride, we spotted a series of five very brightly colored blue-green lakes, which, we were told by the tram operator, were known by the very creative name of The Five Lakes. We looked in our road guide, and sure enough, there it was—The Five Lakes hiking trail. We headed for it.

On the map, it looked pretty innocuous. About four kilometers on a trail around the lakes, down in the valley, no mountains or even hills to climb—should take a couple of hours. Right. We started out around 2 p.m. (yeah well, blame the leisurely breakfast at 8:30 and the long commute). The park ranger at the gate to the park had told us very matter of factly that the bears were beginning to come out of hibernation and to take care that we made plenty of noise. Apparently surprising a hungry, potentially grumpy bear is not a good thing. So we hit the trail full of loud chatter, armed with a tripod for a bear bopper.

The color of the lakes down below was just as spectacular as from the heights, so we made lots of photo stops. There was plenty of evidence of wildlife around, including what we thought might be bear tracks by a small stream. Not being schooled in such things, we could only guess at which animals made which piles of poop—there were several different varieties.

The first critter we came across was a brown squirrel who seemed totally unconcerned by our presence. It wasn't until I was about three feet from him that he finally noticed someone was taking his picture and fled up the tree—but not until I had captured an expression of total surprise.

The second critter, a quail, was a bit more fractious.We thought that he (or she) was just being especially friendly and coming right up to us to say hello. We didn’t know "it" was an advance reconnaissance attack quail. Apparently we had wandered too close to a nest on our way along the trail. Not only were we chased up the trail, but that darned bird was waiting for us on the way back, too!

We also spotted some diving ducks, but they preferred to remain at a distance.

What with all this animal viewing, photo-taking, and general oggling over the color of the lakes (each one was progressively more brightly colored than the last), several hours had gone by, and we were at the end of the fifth lake where the trail was supposed to take a turn so we could hike back along the other side of the lakes.We fumbled around down there for about an hour and a half trying to find that cross-over. Up to that point, there had been helpful maps along the trail to help us find our way. Not so once we reached the endpoint. According to the last map we'd seen, if we kept going north, we'd end up back in civilization after about 20 kilometers—we decided we'd better find that turnoff since it was getting late, and especially since our car was in the other direction. We must have crossed over the lake end in about four different spots, looking for the continuation of that trail. At one point, we thought we had found it, but the trail fizzled out on the other side of the lake after we'd traveled its length.The last straw came when I rounded a bend and nearly tripped over a full skeleton of an elk. Just beyond it was a triangular stand of rocks that looked suspiciously like a bear den. We didn't wait to find out. We skeedaddled out of there, deciding rather quickly to retrace our steps rather than continue looking for the elusive trail, especially since by that time it was around 6:30 and the time of day when the animals start coming out to feed. We had no desire to be anyone's dinner.

It was indeed dinner time. Not long after that, we spotted a very large elk lounging right in the middle of our trail. Well, I guess he thought it was his trail. We weren't going to argue, particularly after we had experienced some possessive behavior over sidewalk rights with the elk that hang around Jasper Townsite like it belongs to them alone. We took the high road and came out on the other side of him on the trail. Not long after, we tangled with our friend, the quail, who was lying in wait for us. After that, we imagined bears behind every tree, and picked up our step a bit to high-tail it back to the car. We finally emerged, tired, but whole, at 7 p.m.

Months later, we ran across someone else's Internet account of a hike (on a bike I think) along that same trail. And guess what! He ran into the same problem with the trail at the end of the fifth lake! He never found the turnaround either! (We saw no mention of the quail.) If any of you reading this have hiked that trail successfully, please let us know what the secret is.

This might be a good time to mention how wonderful the food is in Canada. We went into Jasper that evening and had dinner at a wonderful place called Fiddler River, which had been recommended by our hostess at the B&B. Just about every place we've stopped to eat in Canada has been fabulous—the Canadians, both east and west, really know how to do it right.

Another long drive back to the B&B, and our trip, at least the Canadian portion, was nearing its end. The next morning we made the drive back down the Icefields Parkway on another spectacular day, and landed once again in Calgary. After another stop in Cochrane to eat dinner and to again sample ice cream at McKay's (see previous explanation), we bade a sad farewell to our tripmobile, and headed for our sleeping place. The next morning, we were again winging our way over the Rockies and south to Seattle, the account of which you can find on the Seattle page.

Map of Five Lakes Hiking Trail Feeding Elk
 

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

 

Peyto Lake is Missing...

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Athabasca Glacier

Athabasca Falls Gorge

Athabasca Glacier

Athabasca Glacier

Athabasca Glacier

Five Lakes

Five Lakes

quail.jpg (32583 bytes)

Surprised Squirrel

divingducks.jpg (10034 bytes)

Five Lakes

   

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