WAYSIDE WONDERS IN JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Story and photos by Margaret Deefholts,
Syndicated to VanNet: Surrey Now, Coquitlam Now and Vancouver's 24 Hours Newspapers
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He’s a big guy, he’s in the middle of the road, and he isn’t going to budge, regardless of the size of our vehicle. We pull over and I lean out of the window to focus my camera and, as if in response, he looks up For a moment we lock gazes, and then with a careless toss of his flaring antlers the bull moose settles back to the job at hand—licking melted ice and salt residue off the road surface.
A second vehicle pulls up and a group of young Aussies jump out. One of them glances at us and mutters, “Beaudy!” Camera in hand he goes into a crouching approach. The moose ignores the Australian until he is about fifteen feet away, and then looks up again. My companion, Brenda Currie, sucks in her breath. “That’s an 800-pound animal out there,” she whispers, “and they move awfully fast.” But she needn’t have worried. The moose’s expression is soulful rather than truculent. He lifts his beard-tufted jowls and stands majestically erect—obviously a pro at posing for camera-toting tourists. When the Australian has madly clicked off half a dozen shots, and the rest of the group a little further back have also done their share of shutter-work, the moose does an about turn and trots away, disappearing unhurriedly into the thicket of evergreen trees bordering the road.
The bull moose isn’t the only wild life we’ve seen this afternoon on our drive through Jasper National Park. Nor is he the only one who is supplementing his intake of sodium chloride along the road. We come to an abrupt halt while a flock of big-horned sheep sprawl across both lanes of the main highway through the Park. They are magnificent shaggy-coated animals with horns that curl like thick ringlets by their jaws. They too are unperturbed by the presence of excited humans and the Gieger-counter click of cameras. It is mid-November and, with the rutting season over, the animals are less jittery. In fact some of them are downright relaxed. We pause by a grove of evergreens, where about fifty female elk are reposing between the trees. The males are elsewhere, presumably at their own ‘stag’ party, but the ladies, and some adolescent males with spindly juvenile antlers, are lounging around like picnickers on a summer afternoon.
Not quite so relaxed are a pair of coyotes who weave like shadows between the trees. Brenda says that a week earlier she’d spotted a two wolves slinking on the fringe of a group of white-tailed deer, but today they elude us. So do the black bears and grizzlies that have now hunkered down into hibernation.
Jasper town seems to have done likewise. In November the summer crowds have all evaporated, and winter visitors have yet to step into their skis. Some restaurants and shops have lights glittering in their windows, but the sidewalks host only a few local pedestrians clutching grocery bags. The town’s little stone bruin mascot standing alongside the railway platform, bereft of camera-clicking admirers, looks forlorn.
Continuing our search for wild life , we drive beyond the town perimeters, along a lonely road coiling its way through evergreen forests. Stark-ribbed mountain ranges soar against a cloud-bruised sky. We climb up to an altitude of 1500 metres, and pause to stretch our legs on the shores of Medicine Lake. Indian legends imbue the waters with miraculous healing properties, but today they are submerged under a crust of ice, veined by thin ink-blue streams. It begins to snow, the flakes fine as castor sugar. The silence around us is absolute. Other than a lone eagle wheeling across the far margin of the lake, there is a stillness, which for a city slicker like myself, borders on the mystical.
No less awesome, although in an entirely different way, is Maligne Canyon. Looking into its depths, I am drawn into a world that has existed for 350 million years. It has evolved over that time into a tortuous winding fissure, which at its deepest plunges 51 metres below its lip.
We walk along the edge, peering down along a corridor of limestone rock, chiseled into fantastical caves, outcrops and hollows. The weather is still relatively mild, but in a month’s time, the waters feeding into the gorge will have frozen solid , providing Jasper with one of the world’s most spectacular winter hiking trails. “If you think looking down into the ravine is breathtaking,” says Brenda, as I focus my camera, “you should see what it’s like down there walking along the floor, looking up. It’s a fairy-tale world of ice sculptures and frozen waterfalls hanging like crystal chandeliers. It’s gorgeous!” She catches my smile at her unintentional pun. “Yes, it’s a gorgeous gorge!” she laughs. “You’ll just have to come back and see it.”
She’s right—and so I will.
Beyond the Beaten Path (a division of Curries Guiding) runs full, half day and customized tours year round. For more information visit their web-site at http://www.jasperoutdooradventure.com