The Canadian Rockies. Part 1. Jasper National Park

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Arriving in Jasper National Park, from the east, on August 10.

It has been three weeks between posts as life and access to wi-fi and a recently discovered problem with our Ford-150 have presented themselves. We are well and safe and now in Bozeman, Montana in the comforting presence of friends as the navigation (and the truck repair) continues.  Our time in Canada was so wonderful that I do want to share with you the notes and pictures I had taken earlier in August.

The Trans Canada Highway 16 delivered us to Jasper National Park on a spectacular summer afternoon. Our first order of business was to purchase a national park pass. After doing the numbers, it was cheapest to buy an annual pass since we will be in Jasper and Banff for a total of 10 days. The bonus this year is that instead of expiring in 2017, all passes are extended for an extra year in honor of Canada’s 150th birthday. Translation: we are now paid up through August 2018 for unlimited access to Canada’s national parks, which means we will be back exploring this beautiful country much more in the next couple of years.

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Our “backyard” in Whistler Campground, spot 30P.

The Canadian Rockies rise from the flat plains with no real foothills. This is a completely spectacular place. The mountains are around 4,500 to 5,000 feet and they fill the horizon, reminding us of Glacier National Park with snow-topped cirques, lush valleys, rivers and lakes.  We are dry camping for five nights in Whistler Campground, the Park’s largest with 781 spots from tents to the big boys. Our site, 30P, backs onto the aspen grove interspersed with spruce. Looking up, I can see the tram at the top of Marmot Mountain. Yup. From right here. Awesome.

On Day 1, we drove into the hip little town of Jasper (population 10,000) which reminds us of Jackson, Wyoming in so many ways – brew pubs, coffee shops, and loads of pricey hotels where rooms start at $265 Canadian (or about $205 U.S.). It is a town with a young person/international flavor as the streets are full of travelers from around the world. I watched a dozen Chinese teenagers carrying about ten boxes of Neapolitan pizzas down the street, a reminder of how small our world has become in this Internet age.

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Loved this wall illustration in the train station in Jasper. It shows the historic railroad stations across Canada.

The train station is right in the middle of town.   At around 5:30PM the Rocky Mountaineer pulled in with dozens of passenger cars including the famous glass-top cars of that dream trip across Canada. Passengers disembark, wheeling their luggage across the streets to the lovely hotels waiting to welcome weary travelers. This is the place was built for travelers.

On Day 2 we headed first the post office to mail postcards and then the Visitor’s Centre. Peter found his Canada mug, his one coveted souvenir from our time here. A wonderful agent named Paul gave us all we needed for recommendations for hikes in the park’s five areas. Paul has been in town since 1978 so he had lots of really valuable information to share.

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Beautiful Maligne Lake, one of the most spectacular in a long list of others, in Jasper National Park.

In the afternoon, we decided to travel east of town and up the Maligne Valley. First stop the Maligne Canyon, a spectacular, narrow, and deep (165 feet) limestone canyon cut by the river as it flowed UNDER the glaciers. Deep forests of fragrant pine added to the sensory delight of the place. From there we wandered up the road to the shores of Medicine Lake, which disappears underground in a cave system. Surrounding the lake are two very different mountain ranges – one steep, gravelly, bare of trees and prone to avalanches; and the other tree-covered. Further up the road, we reached stunning Maligne Lake, the largest natural body of water in the Canadian Rockies. We hiked along the shore on a trail called Mary Schaffer Loop which circles the lake passing through lichen-covered stands of pine, spruce and subalpine fir and into stunning views. At the bridge, we saw the Maligne River begin its long route down to the Athabasca River.

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Mount Robson, British Columbia, with clouds hugging its glacier-topped face.

Our Day 3 day trip we visited the province of British Columbia. It was about 20 miles west of Jasper and over a high mountain pass, which dropped us into the magnificent valley of astounding Mount Robson. This peak is the highest in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet but with a prominence (height of the mountain less the elevation at the base) of 10,000 feet. For comparison, in Wyoming, at our beloved Triangle X, the Grand Teton has a prominence of about 6,500 feet.

We stopped at the Visitor’s Centre and took a couple of photos at the Centre. We are looking at the south side of Robson and the backside is ice and snowfields.   Our guide here gave us recommendation on a day’s worth of hikes centered on our primary objective, which was to see the returning Chinook salmon. We left with directions to several sites where the salmon have been spotted so we felt well informed and ready for the adventure.

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The impressive Rearguard Falls which mark the end of the Chinook salmon migration route.

The Chinook salmon had just begun returning to Swift Creek to spawn.  In a journey of nearly 800 miles, the salmon traveled up the Fraser River from the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver and return to the waters of Swift Creek where they had been born. The odds against the salmon returning to complete this ancestral pilgrimage are pretty steep – of the 2,000,000 eggs laid here fewer than 1,000 will ever mature enough to grow into adult salmon that will return in another four or five years to spawn. And then die.

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Riding the rapids at the Fraser River.

Our first stop was a place called Rearguard Falls, which sits along the Fraser River just below Mount Robson. These falls mark the upper limit of the migration route of the salmon. It’s a short walk down to the cliffs overlooking the Falls and wow, what a view. Here, there are three steps of steep falls with torrents of water that produce a low roar that can be heard from the top of the trail. As we stood in awe above the falls, we watched four rafts put in below the falls to ride the rapids downriver. It reminded me of the time Peter, Joshua and I did a raft trip down the Snake River during one of the high water seasons of the late 1980s. Watching the river guide turn the raft into the waves of the rapids stirred my body memory of that first exciting moment of getting splashed by the foam of the roiling Snake River as we shimmied and slid over the class 3 rapids.

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Two returning Chinook salmon in the crystal clear Swift Creek. Hard to photograph, impossible to forget.

From Rearguard we headed into the town of Valemount, which sits along Swift Creek.   There is a small city park where we enjoyed our picnic lunch and Peter’s nap before heading down to the creek. The creek is quite shallow here and clear as glass as it bubbles and percolates over the brightly colored cobbles that line the creek bottom. The shore is sandy and saplings of aspen and fir scramble with possibility of getting a toehold along the Creek. I wandered over to the shaded wooden deck to read the information about the life cycle of these remarkable salmon. After a few minutes of listening to the sounds of the water and then turning to read the display panel, I suddenly heard a splash/slap/splash and turned to see a flash of a brick red, shimmying cylinder and it registered as “salmon”! There were two, swimming and splashing upstream and then drifting out of the center of the creek to float back down, the larger one brick red/brown the other smaller and more silver grey in color. And then, once tuned to the frequency of the creek and training my eyes on their movements and colors through the patterns of dappled sunlight, I saw first one, then two, then four more. It was completely mesmerizing and mysterious and sacred.

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Map of the migration route of the Chinook from the salt water of the Pacific to the fresh waters of Swift Creek, 800 miles and three months of literally, swimming upstream.

These fish left the salt water of the Pacific Ocean and spent three months swimming up the Fraser River from Vancouver to the cold waters of the Swift Creek, where they were born, in order to spawn (lay eggs) and then die. They have not eaten since leaving the Pacific, they have lost considerable amounts of weight and yet on average weigh between ten to fifty pounds.

I make no pretense of understanding the chasing, the drifting downstream, the darting upstream, the great swishing of movement, which I witnessed in the next 45 minutes. But there was no purpose in attempting to turn the poetry of this into some intellectual exercise. It was to be observed and completely awesome.

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Always time for coffee and a treat, here at the Swiss Chalet in Valemount.

We rode home nearly in silence, reflecting on the impact of what we had experienced with the salmon, on the sheer majesty of Mount Robson, the Fraser River, Moose Lake, the wild and very rugged beauty of the mountains illuminated by the most beautiful of mid-summer warmth and sun.

Day 4 we explored another area of Jasper National Park, Mount Edith Cavell. This is a snow-covered peak named in hour of a British nurse from WWI. Angel Glacier sits on this mountain and we hiked up an interpretive trail to the top of the lateral moraine where we could see it head on. It was our first experience seeing a glacier and to learn how it has changed so dramatically over the years. A serious waterfall now has formed from the base of the glacier as the snowmelt continues from the bottom of the glacier. Most recently, in 2012, a huge portion of the glacier broke off, slid into Cavell Pond at the base of the mountain and created a flash flood down the valley. In spite of the prolific warning signs all along the valley, some intrepid visitors insisted on getting way too close for my comfort.

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Elk munching on the tender grasses of Jasper’s meadows.

After leaving the glacier, we decided to do a hike through a nearby area called Valley of Five Lakes. This loop trail took us over Wabasco Creek, which runs through tall grasses holding clusters of clover and wild asters before wandering under a boardwalk. We took the trail (lots of up and then lots of down) as far as lake 4 when we decided to turn back and head for home after a good day in the sun and cool and magnificence of the mountains.

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The Miette Hot Springs deep in the valley, featured pools of different temperatures.

Day 5, our last day in Jasper, we drove up north in the park to the Miette Hot Springs. The drive up through the Fiddle Valley was steep and wild and breathtaking. We could only occasionally hear the Fiddle River in the bottom of the narrow limestone canyon below us. The hot springs were known for centuries by the First Nation people who shared the secret with the early fur traders. Eventually, visitors began discovering it in the 1930s when the first road was built. The current pools were opened in 1986 and are actually about one mile from the source of where the sulphur springs rise up about 4,500 feet from under the earth, heated by the limestone and rock deep in the earth. The pools are different temperatures with the hottest at 104 and the coldest at 40, which my Finnish husband sat in just before leaving to shower and dress. Too cold for me!

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Big horn sheep crossing the cliffs above the Athabasca River.

The late afternoon sun greeted us as we headed back to town and as we crossed the Athabasca River, we noticed a number of cars pulled over beneath some craggy cliffs. Game spotting for sure. And yes, there were some big horn sheep scampering along the cliffs on their way back from the nearby creek where they had apparently stopped by for a drink of water. It was a magical way to end an incredible stretch of days in this vast wonderland that is Jasper National Park.

We next head south through the Icefields on our way to Banff National Park and more discovery and reflection and surprise and awe.

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3 thoughts on “The Canadian Rockies. Part 1. Jasper National Park

  1. glad all is resolved – I am having difficulty pulling these posts due to a change [‘improvement’] in Outlook…..will respond when I can actually pull them up

    continued safe and adventurous [really not an oxymoron 🙂 ] travels

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  2. What a terrific post. Loved the pictures, in particular the sheep. What an amazing sighting. The stats on salmon were incredibly interesting. Less than 1,000 out of 2M…crazy. We really wanted to stop there on our way back, but after reading your post and seeing your pictures, I am thinking we might want to skip it. Time pressures will cause us to fly right by and it definitely seems to be a place worth spending some time in.

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  3. You MAKE me want to go to Canada so badly! Ooh, ooh! This was/is a wonderful post!
    I am currently reading “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx (who also wrote ‘The Shipping News’) and am becoming newly enlightened about the history of the trees and logging and the peoples of the area around Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. A marvelous book; very long, but worth it!

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