Jasper National Park

    After our slightly disappointing exploration of Banff, we were told that Jasper is Banff on steroids, and without all the people….so we were stoked to be moving to our next destination in Jasper National Park.  Before we even got to the border of the park, we saw a whole mess of big-horned sheep at the side of the road….just minding their own business!!  Just as we drove across the boundary into the park, a big wolf trotted across the road and off into the meadow with prey about the size of our pug in its mouth……Sweet Jesus!!

    The mountains are massive and majestic and explode out of the earth towards the heavens in such a splendour of natural beauty and power, that it is easy for me to get a little misty eyed while exploring…..There are bright turquoise lakes everywhere and most of them are just above the freezing mark, even in the heat of the summer, because they are mostly glacial melt lakes.  There are a few warmer lakes in the park that are either from snow melt or spring-fed….but DAMN, they’re cold too!!  No swimming was to happen while we were in Jasper!!  We registered for our site at the gate house and proceeded to our new home for four days…..well, really for two days and then we would have to move to a different site in the park….we had booked with only three weeks of notice, so I think we were lucky to get in at all, and plus, we’re sorta pros at this camping thing, so a move is no big deal to us!!

    Paul’s cousin Jen and her husband Colin met us at Jasper after a gruelling eight hour drive from Fort MacMurray and we caught up around the campfire with some cocktails and good times.  Colin and Jennifer had been to Jasper a few times before, so they were able to show us around and recommend some great things to do.  Any trip that you take in the area is an absolutely beautiful and scenic drive; weaving around lakes and valleys while climbing thousands of feet into the mountainous terrain….only to find another vibrant turquoise lake plopped right in the middle of the bowls of mountains……thousands of feet above sea level, trapped on the mountainside.  We drove about 100km to the Columbia Ice Fields to check out the Athabasca glacier.  The glacier looks rather unremarkable from afar…..but HOLY COW!!  We took a bus ride to the beginning of the glacier and from there, we boarded a gigantic 6x6 ice crawling machine called a TerraBus that actually takes you right onto the glacial ice……talk about feeling small…..the glacier is way bigger and deeper than you can even fathom when you are standing on it, and in comparison to the entire ice field above it, it’s like standing on the head of a pin.  As it turns out, there are 24 of these TerraBusses in the world, 23 of them run between April and September in Jasper National Park, and the only other machine on the earth is in the Antarctic!!  Quite the experience!!  Even though the outside temperature was about 20 degrees or so, the glacier has so much effect of the weather there, that earlier the same morning, two feet of snow had fallen in the area, and it was evident as it melted off the roofs of the buildings.  The wind coming off the glacier is freezing also and I was well bundled up…..although there were a few people in flip flops and shorts…….they didn’t stay outside on the glacier for very long!!  

    We headed into the town of Jasper the next day to check out the town and see the sights and get some information regarding the whitewater rafting trip that we would be taking.  Jasper is beautiful….it’s this little protected town, nestled in the base of mountains and surrounded by the most beautiful scenery you can imagine…..Throughout the town and park there are elk and deer everywhere!!  They are reasonably tame, but still very much wild animals.  There are warnings everywhere telling you to keep your distance and not to approach the wild animals……but some brave/stupid tourists heed no such warnings….we watched some try and get close enough to pet a big-horned sheep……JEEZUS!! 

Later, we took a drive out to Maligne Lake, a huge glacial lake in the park, and did the only proper thing that a newfie family should do on an outing to a lake……Went for a row!!  We all rented a row boat and did just that!!  Of course we snuck aboard a few bubbly’s for the trip and had quite a time out there!!  Drunken newfies at it again!!

    Our evenings were filled with huge campfires and great dinners!!  You have to buy a fire permit for $8.00/day at the park, which is a bit of a money grab, however, the wood to burn is included, and you better believe that we burned our share of firewood!!  We cooked all of our meat over the fire, and it was fantastic!!  In fact, since Jasper, we’ve cooked over an open fire every day!!  We ate like kings for the four nights we were together!!

    Our final day in Jasper together found us on our whitewater rafting adventure!!  Paul and I had whitewater rafted the Ottawa river a bunch of times when we were in our early twenties, which was intense and really scary to me!  On these younger trips, we got tossed out of the raft a few times, we all had scrapes and were bleeding, I had to get rescued after floating down a hydraulic that held me under the water…….Totally terrifying!!  So that’s what I expected, but this trip was not to be like the early days of the Ottawa river…..thank goodness!!  This trip was a family friendly trip that was more scenic than anything else.  It’s a whole different ball game out here as far as the water temperature goes.  The raft guides are good at reminding you that the reason that the water in the Athabasca River is so cold, is that 18 hours ago, it was frozen to the side of the Athabasca glacier that we had visited a few days before!!  The water was about six degrees celcius…..and a wet suit is an absolute must!!  Unfortunately, we didn’t get a very good view of the mountains that day because of the smoke from the wildfires burning in Alberta, BC and Montana, but we had been among incredible natural beauty for several days now, and it was no big deal….the river and surrounding terrain are beautiful in themselves.

    We had to say goodbye to Colin and Jen after a fantastic four days together, and they headed out on their long drive around 11:00am.   Paul and I had since decided over the course of the previous four days, that we were not yet ready to leave Jasper.  We attempted to prolong our stay at the campground we were in, but no such luck, and no surprise either.  However, the attendant did tell us that there is an open lot for RV’s in the park, and that it is a ‘first come, first served’ situation, so we headed over there in hopes of extending our stay in the park.  Hooray!!  They had lots of room for us, so we booked in for another four nights.  Now this site was a whole lot less scenic and private than our previous, and was quite literally, a paved parking lot with power outlets for rigs.  However, it was surrounded by a great, big, open bowl of green space and access to all kinds of fantastic trails.  I should mention that Jasper has an extensive network of organized hiking and biking trails that are amazing!!….more on that in a bit though…..Despite the open nature of the lot, there is so much wildlife around that on several occasions, elk walked into the yard, just grazing and wandering around.  Once, a huge double eight-point elk buck walked in after two young does came into the bowl…..he was sniffing the air, and scuffing his hooves and shaking his rack…….we had been warned that as much as you should be afraid of the grizzlies around, you should be equally afraid of a male elk in the rut, and they were just coming into the season, so everyone watching the display was very cautious of how far away they were from the big buck and how close they were to their trucks/trailers!

    Paul and I took our bikes into town on one of the trails in the area and cruised all around for half the day on our bikes…..so far nothing has brought me back to childhood as much as riding my bicycle has.  The trail was generally smooth, most of it is limestone gravel and there were not too many difficult inclines on this particular trail.  It was so much fun! So fun, in fact, that we thought “Hey! Let’s step it up tomorrow and go on a harder bike ride!”.  The trails are graded like a ski hill, green for easy, blue for moderate and black for ‘oh f@%k, what have I done’ or ‘hard’ as the athletes call it……Anyway, Paul and I had a hiking map that we had gotten from the info booth in town, so we selected a blue, or moderate, trail to check out on our bikes the next day.  We would have to ride our bikes a few kilometres to get to the trail head, and then the trail would end at the top end of Jasper, and we would have to ride our bikes home from town, another 4-5 kilometres, so all in all, we would ride for a little over 20km…..nothing to people who ride regularly, but big news to me.  Let me just quickly preface something here, as a kid, Paul, along with his own brother Daniel and my brother Mike, was an avid mountain bike enthusiast…..they would ride all damn day up hills and for some reason enjoy doing it….sick, I know.  Paul still has a fancy mountain bike, with all kinds of aftermarket upgrades, suspension, gears, forks, blah, blah, blah….. and I have a 5-speed Schwinn beach cruiser…..with no kind of suspension and the gears are broken……so essentially I have a 1-speed Schwinn cruiser, but it has a nice comfy seat for my ample bottom!!  

    So out we headed the next day, well prepared, ate a good breakfast, good pre-hydration, sunscreen, bug-spray, bear spray on belt, buck knife on belt, all ready to go!!  Getting to the trail head was no problem at all, so off we went on our first few km to get warm for the trail.  We got to the trail, which began reasonably rugged and there were several other couples hiking along the same route, which makes me nervous, because along with having a bike not fit for the task, I am also a pretty terrible bicycle rider.  I had already almost taken out a lovely older British couple on a previous ride the day before….almost!!  We rode past the other people without incident and the trail took an aggressive route upwards…..for forever……For the next few hours, I alternated between riding down kidney-rupturing, shoulder-jarring, bumpy, steep downhills and pushing my cruiser up rockslides and what seemed to be a never-ended incline towards the sky……Just when I thought we were as far up as we could get, we had to rumble down the path and up yet again, even higher into the trails…….At one particular point of the adventure, I was sure that I had pushed myself as far as I possible could, and I hung my body over my bike in the middle of a rocky, uphill slide and cried…..literally sobbed, thinking I might die here on this hill.  I trudged up finally to the very top where Paul was waiting for me, for god only knows how long at this point, only to hear someone breathing heavily behind me.  Much to my wondering eyes should appear…..but two Danish mountain bikers…..still riding…if you can imagine….still PEDALLING at the top of the mountain, where I was now lying in the dirt waiting for death to come.  They stopped and chatted for a minute….with Paul…..I was dying remember!?!  They exchanged pleasantries about how fun the next downhill would be after this long, horrendous, stupid climb we had all just done. I should also mention here, that Paul is having the time of his life…..I can see him turn back occasionally after an especially nasty downhill, grinning ear to ear, just loving this, only to see me staring daggers at him!!  The one young guy sort of pointed gently at my bike and saw how pooped I was and said politely, “You know, that bike isn’t really meant for this type of riding”, I agreed, to which he then said “On the plus side, this is the very hardest trail”, I just thought that he was mistaken, due to the language barrier, as Paul and I had a hiking map that said this trail was only moderate.  The young Dane then relinquished the mountain biking guide, which, unbeknownst to us, was different than the hiking trail guide, and graded everything differently based on the fact you’d be on a two-wheeled death trap…….This was in fact, a black diamond trail, the hardest one in the park, clearly a challenge for these studs all outfitted with the proper equipment, and here I was on a rusty, one-speed beach cruiser…..also my front fender was hanging off at this point too……turns out, the hardware isn’t meant for rattling down hills!!  

    The tough stuff petered out shortly after this and we began our long decline out of the mountains towards Jasper town, and towards home.  I was truthfully so exhausted, that it took until the next day to even appreciate the effort we had made, but in retrospect, it was awesome, and I didn’t die, so I guess I would do it again……just not too soon!!   That evening, we took the 60km drive out to the Miette hot springs on the outskirts of the park to soak in the hot water.  I anticipated that you could just sit in these carved out mountain basins of hot water, but that is not the case.  You actually go into a facility where there are four pools of different temperatures, 40 degrees, 37 degrees, 19 degrees and 15 degrees.  The two hot pools are filled with water from the hot springs, and the two cold pools are filled with water from a nearby snow melt creek, so you can go back and forth warming up and cooling off.  It was absolutely fantastic, we were in the pools from 9:00pm until they closed at 11:00pm…….what a way to end a wild day……needless to say, we slept like the dead that night!!

    On our final day in Jasper, we headed into town once more to handle the domestic tasks of camping life……grocery re-up and laundry!!  Jasper is an absolutely beautiful town, and the same is true of their laundromat!!  The laundromat has about 50 machines in it, there are leather chairs all around the place, wifi, cell phone chargers, hot showers, and a cafe bar that serves delicious coffee and sticky treats…..What a place!!  The most interesting thing about this place, is that there are people from all walks of life here…..it seems nobody lives in Jasper permanently, people are just moving through …..I heard more languages being spoken in the Jasper laundromat than I did at Brampton Civic Hospital…..and that’s a lot of languages!!  One more thing that unites us all in humanity……dirty laundry!   

    That evening, Paul and I had a big, warm campfire in one of the little enclaves off in the woods at the communal campsite.  As dusk came upon the park, several elk does and their young wandered into the bowl to graze……there were 13 elk in the bowl and they stayed in the park all night…..We headed to bed late after our campfire, and the young elk were all bedded down in the grasses around the park……In the morning, Paul rolled over in his bed and glanced out the window…..the elk were still bedded down in the park sleeping!!  By the time we got up, they were long gone, but I imagine an elk starts its day WAY before the Payne family does!!  

    Our next stop along the way would find us crossing borders again and moving into our westernmost province…..the land of milk and honey…..British Columbia!!  Our next stop would be Stoner, B.C., just south of Prince George……Paul’s mother had a life-long girlfriend that lived out here with her husband, and they owned a campground that we would be heading to for the next little bit, so we packed up in jig time and got moving down the road once again…..Geez…we’re getting pretty good at this adventure thing!!