(of Maligne, that is).
Just one more winter post, since it feels like February today for the first time since January, and I’ve really been wanting to share my “icewalk” experience at the bottom of Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, Alberta in March (on my birthday, actually). The icewalk is something I’ve been wanting to do for years, but the iffy weather on the high mountain Icefields Parkway has always dissuaded me from traveling to Jasper in winter.
It’s possible to enter the canyon on one’s own if you know where and have some idea of the risks of being inside the canyon, but I splurged on a guided tour. I felt it was well worth the $65–I was picked up and dropped off at my B&B, warm boots and ice cleats were provided, and our guide, Alicia, had excellent knowledge of the canyon and area, was very personable, and promoted our safety by lending a supportive hand and showing us where to step through the sketchy sections (e.g. climbing through a chain link fence onto a free-standing rock and then scootching down a steep slope to the riverbank), and pointing out dangers within the canyon (e..g. the section called “the Bowling Alley” refers to the boulders that roll (and even bounce!) down the steep wall during warm weather).
Speaking of warm weather, Jasper had had an unusually warm and dry latter half of winter, as we did in southern Alberta. As well, it was a warm day when I toured the canyon, and the ice formations were smaller and less spectacular than during colder months. I asked Alicia when prime time is and she recommended the end of January and into February, before the weather begins to warm. On very cold days, the open water in the lower canyon creates fog that coats the rocks and trees with thick hoar frost, and she has seen ice stalactites in the mouth of one of the springs more than a metre long.
The Maligne River is fed by the outflow of Maligne Lake, but something strange happens to the river when it reaches Medicine Lake–during low flow seasons, the river dries up and all of the water flows underground before emerging in multiple springs along the lower Maligne River. This hydrogeologic features makes entering the canyon during winter quite safe as no water flows through the canyon proper and the ice that is present forms from seeps.
We started at Fifth Bridge and walked briefly upstream through the forest before walking along the riverbank. We rock-hopped past shimmering green pools and viewed Bridal Veil Falls. We left the river to walk a ways up the official trail before crawling through the protective fence as noted above. Just upstream of the Bowling Alley, the canyon walls tightened, with a small waterfall on the right fronting what is one of the largest springs during summer (not sure how they know that!) and then a pool of icy water which we bypassed on rocks and a log. Rounding a corner, the canyon became very narrow with sheer limestone walls reaching high above us, and blue “Elsa’s Castle” in front of us. Alicia pretty much insisted on taking our pictures, something she does so often that she was able to show some of us unfamiliar features on our own phones–she really enjoyed using panorama mode to capture the full height of the canyon walls. Another scramble around another corner, and we arrived in the presence of the Queen of Maligne, the largest icefall in the canyon and hunkered against the overhanging far wall of the canyon to avoid any new rocks the warming air and soil might launch from above. We were more or less beneath the Fourth Bridge. On the return trip, Alicia pointed out some fossils and showed us the mouth of the large spring where she’s seen the long stalactites. Explorers have attempted to enter the cave system but the passages quickly become “worm holes” and then impassable.
Last week, I mountain biked from the Sixth Bridge to the Fifth Bridge and was surprised to see a creek about 2 metres across gushing from the rock under the trail, yet another one of Maligne Canyon’s many springs.