Wes Bradford cuts an imposing figure. At well over six feet tall, with a drooping grey moustache and ice axe in hand, he is a bear of a man. Which is fitting really as for 43 years he’s lived and worked in Jasper National Park, mainly as a ranger in charge of wildlife and bear management programs.
Six years ago, Bradford traded his bear grappling duties for those of an adventure guide and we’re following him down a ragged gravel trail, deep into the heart of a frozen canyon.
Situated just a few kilometres outside of the town of Jasper, Alberta, Maligne Canyon is a natural phenomenon. Geologists estimate it began forming 365 million years ago, carved out of mammoth limestone deposits. As part of an elaborate underground drainage system known as Maligne Valley Karst it’s considered one of the most extensive subterranean limestone cave systems in the world.
Winding further down the trail towards the canyon floor, Bradford stops periodically to offer spiels on the wildlife, history and geology of the region. It can be hard to concentrate.
Sometimes it’s a bald eagle peering down at us from a tree, another time, a couple ice climbing a 40-metre high frozen waterfall; something that would draw gasps of awe in most places; here it’s just something going on in the background.
When we arrive at the frozen Maligne riverbed – the floor of the canyon during winter – Bradford chips at sections of the ice with his axe to provide footholds as we inch forward.
Though we’re wearing heavy-duty waterproof boots fitted with crampons, it’s a precarious business and we have to move slowly and deliberately to avoid looking like a bear on roller skates.
Once on more solid ground, I’m finally able to appreciate the majesty of Maligne Canyon. Towering limestone walls carved smooth by churning water curve like waves ahead of 35-metre icefalls cascading from the upper canyon walls. Parts of the ice are pristine white, others a cool blue or pale green.
Taking all this in while navigating the path can be tricky; it’s a sight to behold and I nearly clash helmets with the guy in front of me several times.
Further down, more ice climbers are tackling another frozen waterfall from the canyon floor. As one guy swings his axes methodically into the ice 20 metres up, his friend offers a few scant words of guidance, enveloped by enough rope to render his torso invisible.
This is intrinsically the culture in Jasper; people come here to experience adventure, nature in its rawest forms and get out of their comfort zones. Though the town can become incredibly busy during summer months, there’s a lot to be said for a winter visit when the crowds diminish, and the landscape is at its most dramatic.
Time passes quickly as we weave through the natural ice labyrinth of stalactites gazing at one natural wonder after the next. All too soon we’re picking our way back down the river to begin the brief hike back out.
“Jasper National Park truly is the jewel of the Canadian Rockies,” Bradford says when I ask how he’s managed to barely miss a winter here in nearly half a century.
“This is the only place in North America that you can experience such a wonderful, unique landscape during winter; a maze of ice sculptures in the largest underground limestone cave system in the world. It’s very special to me.”
Sundog Tours offer fully guided excursions of Maligne Canyon departing three times daily. Waterproof boots can be provided. Tours from $CA69 adult, $CA34.50 children (6-12). See www.sundogtours.com
Qantas flies direct to LA with ongoing connections to Edmonton. See Qantas.com
Pyramid Lake Resort offers alpine chalet style lodging on the shores of Pyramid Lake. All 62 guest rooms come with fireplace and views of the Canadian Rockies. The resort is about 10 minutes’ drive from Jasper town centre with rooms starting from $CA148 per night.
Guy Wilkinson travelled as a guest of Tourism Jasper.