It has been a long while since I posted, but not for lack of writing or travel. I blame it on technology, a stubborn laptop that refused to acknowledge WiFi. So when I visited Jasper National Park a couple of weeks back, in the depths of a deep freeze, I captured my thoughts to share once I returned home. So here begins a series of dispatches from the winter wilds of the Canadian Rockies….
I sit by a crackling fire, the glow casting shadows on the honeyed timber walls of my cabin, as I clack away on my laptop. Outside, the sun blazes into an intense death amidst a hushed world of snow-clad forest and jagged mountains. After an adventurous morning of clamoring over rocks, spelunking in caves, and hiking over ice deep within a canyon, I am content.
Yesterday I left my everyday world, also deep in the throes of frigid winter, the Wisconsin streets of my residence heaped in frozen snow. Two plane hops across the great white north spirited me far away from the hustle and noise and endless tasks of work and home and life. A long day of travel and airports, tired travelers and fast food, and I arrived in Edmonton, final destination Jasper, Alberta, a Canadian mountain town high in the Rockies.
My shuttle dropped me off at my hotel, really a collection of little cabins scattered amidst the trees on the edge of town, the hiking and cross-country ski trails right out my cabin’s back door. It was dark. Dark in a way I’ve not experienced since Alaska. I hopped down from the airport shuttle after 6 hours driving up the snowy mountain highway, and gasped.
The stars draped down from the huge expanse of sky. I felt captured, rooted in the deep powdery snow, despite the cold of negative 15 Celsius. Jasper National Park is a Dark Sky Preserve, and the stargazing is mind-blowing for this city slicker. No light pollution out here. I saw stars I never knew existed. Orion, hunched low of the trees, seemed to shimmer with tension before releasing an arrow. Like a Greek statue of starlight.
I awoke this morning to the bluish glow of dawn, faint against the looming shadow of mountains. Bundled up against the bite of cold (it is cold here, very cold), I crunched past homes huddled in the snow as beeping plows collected massive piles of snow into dump trucks and locals scrapped lacy frost from their car windshields. My cheeks burned.
To kick-off my winter mountain retreat, I decided to book a guided hiking tour of nearby Maligne Canyon. In the summer, Maligne is home to a river. In the winter, she transforms to a wild wonderland of ice and snow. I lucked out today as only two of us had signed up for their morning hike. We slipped on crampons and followed our guide into the forest and down into the deep walls of the canyon.
All the rock in this area is limestone, a soft rock easily sculpted by water. Maligne is part of a large limestone karst system of canyons and caves, often filled with water in the summer and ice in the winter. Waterfalls still poured over the canyon edges above us, only in fantastical chandeliers of ice, the steady dripping accumulating over the long winter. One waterfall, barely a sheen of water over the rock, dipped beneath the ice we trod. Intricate frost formations licked at the edges. Everywhere I turned was another ice sculpture.
Since our group was so intimate, our guide showed us a secret, one of the many caves lining the canyon. To enter it, we had to shimmy on our stomachs between the rock through a short passage until we emerged in a small cavern, our headlights bouncing off the walls. My glasses instantly steamed up. 4 degrees Celsius here! Practically a sauna.
Back out into the white cold we crawled. We hacked into an ice cave, marveling at the sound of water dripping overhead as we looked around this frosty world. Ice crystals formed on my glasses. Frost decorated our coats.
For the final stretch, our guide went first to test the ice. We carefully spaced ourselves out to avoid too much weight on the ice as we crossed an ice shelf. In this area, layer upon layer of ice shelves form, many inches thick. But sudden shifts in temperature can turn the ice brittle, cracking easily, and Jasper had recently plunged into this current deep freeze. Our guide poked with his ice axe, stamped with his feet, watched how the ice reacted to his weight, then flagged us up to where he stood, but no further. Several feet away the ice shelf abruptly ended, a vista deep into the canyon below. We had reached the end of what we could safely hike.
As we hiked back out of the canyon, Pyramid Mountain glowed in the morning sun, a beacon of pinkish white. I breathed in the crisp air and sighed with the joy of the truly content.