Mountains, part II: Jasper (plus Calgary and the plains)

After our third night in Banff, we got up early to get a campsite in Jasper.  We drove up the Icefields Parkway through the rain, surrounded by incredible peaks and massive hanging glaciers.  We arrived just before 11 am at the selected campground at Wilcox Creek and drove through to choose a prime site.  We paid and attached our receipt to the pole by our site but, because it was raining and we couldn’t leave anything with any odor due to the bears, we didn’t leave any other possessions to mark it as ours, thinking the receipt would do the trick.

We headed up to Jasper, had lunch and explored the town, and then came back and hiked up to the base of the Athabasca Glacier.  The glacier is fed by the Columbia Icefields, the largest icefield in North America, which feeds glaciers that drain into the Pacific (via the Columbia River), the Atlantic (via the Saskatchewan River), and the Arctic (via the Athabasca River).  Indeed, our campsite was in the Arctic watershed; that is, some of the water we spilled at our campsite is currently making its way toward the Arctic Ocean.  The Athabasca Glacier has receded so much in the last 80 years that there is now a vast gravel field and a lake at its base.  As you approach you pass markers showing where the end of glacier was a times in the past, making the effects of climate change starkly visible.

The Athabasca Glacier, showing the expanse that has melted in the last few years.

Then we drove back to the campground to find that someone had taken our site.  The offending group, a father with three teenage children, seemed quite unconcerned by our plight.  The 16-ish daughter, when asked if had seen our receipt on the post responded, “… (eyes shifting in each direction) … no.”  We spent a few panicked minutes searching the campground and found the one remaining site in the whole place.  We set up our tent during a lull in the rain and then headed over to the nearest cooking shelter to make our dinner of chili and bourbon (it seemed to be called for, given the circumstances).  While there we met a really wonderful family from St. Paul and spent the rest of the evening with them.  I’m actually glad “the Usurpers” stole our site, because meeting this wonderful family was well worth the half-hour of anguish.

The next morning the rain had passed and we were greeted by a beautiful day.  We spent the morning hiking up to Wilcox Pass right near the campground.  After about a mile climbing through the forest, we came out onto a beautiful area of Alpine meadows and hillocks traversed by a creek.

Looking south from up on Wilcox Pass

We set out across the meadows to find a nice spot to eat lunch looking across the valley towards the icefields and found a lovely spot.  As we sat eating, a group of about a dozen bighorn sheep silently appeared about a hundred feet away and grazed slowly past, unconcerned by our presence.

Bighorn sheep

On our way back down we wandered around rocks with sea fossils that had been brought up from some primeval seabed over the millennia.

Sea fossils atop Wilcox Pass (elevation c. 4,500 ft.)

In the afternoon we hiked up Parker Ridge.  The trail climbed quickly through trees and then wildflowers to crest as a rocky Alpine meadow on a ridge that juts out into the valley.  On the southern side the ridge overlooked the Saskatchewan Glacier and the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River.  We had hoped to find mountain goats, but only met with incredible vistas, so did not leave disappointed.

The Saskatchewan Glacier and the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River

For our final day in Jasper we headed north past the town of Jasper to Maligne Lake to hike the Bald Hills.  As we approached the trailhead we were told that a bear had just walked up the trail.  Not wanting to tempt fate, we headed back to the parking lot only to meet a group of five who offered to let us join them for a larger group.  We headed up the trail and within about five minutes a moderate-sized black bear bounded across the path in front of us.  It took us a few minutes of clapping and shouting as we followed it up the road to truly chase it off.

The initial part of the path was an old fire road, but soon we turned off and climbed quite steeply up the side of the mountain.  Eventually we made it above treeline and into a broad shoulder of the ridge.

Maligne Lake from the Bald Hills

We skirted some intermediate peaks and climbed up to eat lunch on the knife’s edge of the ridge.  The backside overlooked another beautiful valley of forests, streams, and meadows ringed with rock and ice.

The valley just west of Maligne Lake

I think this is one of my favorite parts of hiking in the mountains: hiking up to a ridge only to find another world I couldn’t have dreamed would be there.  After lunch we hiked down along the ridge and over hills back to the fire road.

Maligne Lake

The next morning we headed south along the Parkway and stopped to see Peyto Lake, another stunning blue gem, and take a short hike. Then after a picnic in Banff, we wandered around the town of Canmore and headed into Calgary.

After seven straight nights in a tent and on sleeping pads, it was really nice having a hot shower, an actual room, and a bed to sleep in. We walked over to a really lovely restaurant, the Boxwood Grill, where we toasted to Bowen getting published in Farmer General (she has subsequently had another essay posted here).

Inside the Boxwood Grill

The next two days were long days on the road crossing the plains.  We stayed the first night in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, just past Regina, and the second night at Caddy Lake, just west of the Ontario Border in Manitoba. I was pleasantly surprised with our trip across the plains with their lakes, prairies and intermittent forests, and it was much less monotonous than I expected.  After our night at Caddy Lake, with a visit from a foraging fox, and a misty wakeup the next morning, we headed down through forests and past lakes to the US border.

Morning at Caddy Lake

This is what the US looks like from Canada

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