Ice. Deep, penetrating cold. Fragile, transient beauty. The crunching sound of your crampon picks gripping the ice underfoot, echoing off the canyon walls as you gouge your way through the serpentine maze of the emptied creek bed, and work your way up and over the rounded mounds of mini waterfalls, frozen in motion. The dark recesses of caverns behind curtains of icicles, beckoning. Gaping holes in the bedrock like the mouths of ancient monsters sighing moist air, their mouths hanging with feathery ice crystal teeth. Step by step, you trace the passage of geologic time through the wonder of the frozen world of Maligne Canyon.
Ahhh [that’s a longing sigh of remembrance combined with a good dose of “Man, we’ve gotta do that again soon!”]….. this fantastic adventure was brought to mind the other day (isn’t it curious how life works sometimes!?) and it seemed fitting to revisit this icy romp as a Snapshot blog post.
I also realized suddenly (apologetically) that I’ve been giving far too much attention to the southern Alberta Parks, in this blog I’ve started, totally neglecting my first love, Jasper National Park, a jewel of a park further north, that is deserving of some blogging spotlight.
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Jasper NP has in it one of those iconic Canadiana winter adventures: an ice walk up a spectacular canyon.
In the summer time, Maligne Canyon is over-run with tourists whose busses disgorge them up top in the paved parking lot. From there they walk a few steps to a bridge that’s perched over a spectacularly deep slot canyon, with wonderfully twisted rock formations and lush, moss-covered walls, snap their photos and move on to the tea house. If they’d only go just a little farther down the trail, they’d crisscross the canyon many times over a series of wonderful bridges and see incredibly beautiful waterfalls, canyon walls smoothed and polished over the passage of time, circular pools and bowls created by trapped boulders… scenes of unparalleled beauty. But shhhhh…. maybe it’s best to keep that to ourselves.
Back in 2009 we did a guided ice walk through Maligne Canyon, starting at its bottom, as a fun adventure for our family, and it was one of the most incredible things we have ever experienced!
Yes it was cold, because the cold air sinks down and lies trapped in that narrow, dark canyon. Once you’re in it, the sun just doesn’t reach you… it’s carved that deeply into the mountain rock. But you dress warmly, put on waterproof boots (they rent them in town), large, spiky crampons, and set out, with hot shots in your mitts!
The weird thing about the water system in the Jasper NP area is that most water courses (waterfalls, streams, lakes) are fed by underground springs… they rise up from caves and tunnels, a system of underground passageways through the limestone, collectively known as the “karst system.”
Some lakes, like the very large Maligne Lake nearby, almost empty out in the winter, like a big bathtub draining, as the underground spring sources kind of freeze up where they come up from underground… like someone put a big bottle stopper in them. As a result, places like Maligne Canyon virtually empty out, leaving a very easy path to explore, far below the water line. It’s like a special privilege hike… you get to step in, where you have no right to be, in a place that in warm months is far, far beneath a rushing torrent of water. It’s a little like hiking (living maybe?) on borrowed time. Cheating, but in a great way.
Walking through Maligne Canyon in the winter is a little like walking in an Arizona slot canyon. The rock is smooth and sculpted and twisted. The light barely penetrates its depths through the narrow gap up top, but where it does, things glow with a special, soft illumination. It is a magical experience.
You walk by some of the cave openings that are usually what the water comes up through three seasons of the year, and their entrances are like gaping holes, fringed with feathery frost crystal formations. It is truly incredible.
There is a bit of water in the canyon, but the companies that do guided tours suit you up with very warm, water proof boots and giant crampons so you can get up and over some of the frozen waterfall formations and through some of the slushier sections, safely. You can even watch the ice climbers from below sometimes on some of the larger, frozen waterfalls, working their special kind of magic on the landscape.
There’s really nothing quite like this experience. It’s like walking through the hallowed halls of a great cathedral, your voice reduced to a whisper by the feeling of awe and reverence that overcomes you. It’s like getting a free pass to explore frozen moments of stopped time when you crawl through a maze of gigantic ice stalagmites, run your gloved hands over the polished knobs of ice droplets, or sneak behind a curtain of ice crystals formed by a waterfall. These are things that we mere mortals just shouldn’t get to experience.
And yet we can. And we do.
If you’re ever in Jasper in the winter, the Maligne Ice Walk Is one of those “bucket list” things to do . Trust me on this.
Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves.