Hiking Maligne Canyon in Alberta

I always have a hard time shopping for presents for my husband. He is the kind of guy that when he needs something, he simply goes and gets it and puts whatever item he has bought to practical use. He doesn't even like receiving presents. So gift-giving is tricky with that man. Especially gift-giving for his birthday, which comes so close after Christmas.

For Joey's birthday, we go on adventures instead of opening gifts!

A few years ago, I decided I'd start giving him 'experiences' rather than physical items. And it has worked out for the best for both of us! His birthday is one of my favourite times of the year, because I know we'll be doing something very fun together. In the past, we've flown a helicopter over the Rocky Mountains, danced the night away in a raucous piano bar at the Fantasyland Hotel in West Edmonton Mall, and gone dog-sledding with a baby. This year, we spent a weekend in beautiful Jasper National Park going snowshoeing and hiking in Maligne Canyon.

Now, when I say hiking in Maligne Canyon, I literally mean inside the canyon itself. In the winter, the water levels drop drastically inside the roaring river canyon, which is a class 5 rafting experience were you to raft within the actual canyon section. In the winter, you can hike deep down within the canyon basin where normally rushing water would engulf you. This is a very cool fact, but this isn't what makes a stroll through Maligne Canyon's winter wonderland special.

Spectacular ice formations in Maligne Canyon make this a special place.

Hiking the canyon in winter is apparently open to everyone, although it is strongly recommended to attend as part of a tour group for safety purposes. Parks Canada ensures that the guides who bring you through Maligne Canyon are well-versed in first aid, safety procedures, and whatever else they need to bring you in and out of the canyon in one piece. When we went last weekend, there were tons of people crawling all over the canyon without guides, but I do agree that there are certain safety issues you should be aware of before venturing out on your own.

Our tour company was Pure Outdoors, and they did a great job.

We booked our tour with Pure Outdoors in Jasper, which offered a three hour tour at a very reasonable price. Included in the price was our guide and tour, transportation to and from the canyon, and ice cleat rentals for our snow boots so that we could traverse the slippery interior of the canyon without falling. The bus picked us up at our hotel, took us to Pure Outdoors where we were fitted for our cleats, and then off we went to Maligne Canyon with a small group of about 15 people.

Fifth Bridge, where the hike to Maligne Canyon begins.

We began the tour at Fifth Bridge, which is located just beyond the parking lot. The bridge spans the narrow Maligne River, and leads up towards the canyon entrance. Once past the bridge, you find a map that shows you the network of trails and bridges surrounding Maligne Canyon. Our guide, Chris, showed us the route we were planning on taking, and led us further on the path and down towards the water's edge.

Our guide, Chris, shows us the way to the canyon on the map.

We stopped for a moment to learn a little about the geography of Maligne Canyon and its surrounding area. Huge portions of Maligne River stay unfrozen all winter long because they are being continuously fed by run-off with a balmy temperature of +5 degrees. This temperate water comes from Medicine Lake, which is called the "disappearing lake" because each winter it seems to vanish into nothing, only to return in the spring.

Medicine Lake's vanishing water is what makes Maligne Canyon so amazing. The water from the lake seeps into the underground tunnel and cave systems, leaching downwards and traveling about 15 kilometres to reach Maligne River, where it trickles in and prevents the river from freezing. It also trickles into the canyon, freezing along its walls into stunningly beautiful ice sculptures and frozen wonders.

Maligne River stays unfrozen because of Medicine Lake.

At a point just beyond the unfrozen river, but before we entered the canyon itself, we stopped to marvel at the small but extremely pretty Bridal Veil Falls. This little waterfall was given its name because of the way the water spans out delicately over a triangular area, resembling a bride's flowing veil.

Bridal Veil Falls - small but pretty!

And then, just a short hike beyond Bridal Veil Falls, we entered Maligne Canyon. It only took a moment before we began to see some gorgeous examples of nature's art. Frozen logs, shrouded in flowing ice, resembled hooded monks wearing traditional robes. Blades of tall grass hung over the edge of the canyon rim, weighed down by fringes of icicles longer than my arm. There were so many tiny but marvellous natural ice phenomena, it is impossible to describe them all. (Be sure to watch the video at the end, since I tried to get clips of most of them.)

So many fascinating ice formations!

There are three big frozen waterfalls inside Maligne Canyon: the Angel, the Queen, and the Knight. We saw ice climbers traversing the Angel and the Queen, which was quite impressive. (The Knight is too dangerous to climb, as it features an open hole at the base which leads to the river. One fall gets you sucked into the river and drug under all of the ice in the canyon, where your body would be lucky to emerge on the other side.)

An ice climber halfway up a frozen waterfall.

If you choose to go to Maligne Canyon without a guide, please be respectful and aware of the ice climbers. As they climb up, they are using ice-picks, toe-picks, and other climbing gear to grip the ice. As they hack into the ice, or pull their tools out of the ice, chunks go flying.

Joey tries to lift an icicle that has broken off a waterfall.

Even small pieces of the heavy, dense ice weigh a lot, and can cause significant damage were they to smoke you in the head. Never walk under an ice climber: stick to the opposite side of the canyon wall, wait until it is safe to move, and keep your wits about you.

This might be the closest I ever get to ice climbing.

The climbers were also very polite, and descended from their climb a little early for us so that we could explore under the frozen waterfall. There wasn't much of a 'cave' behind the waterfall, but seeing the ice from a different perspective was gorgeous. All of the different shades, combined with the light filtering through the ice, were spectacular.

Underneath and behind a frozen waterfall - so pretty!

And it wasn't only the ice formations that were breath-taking. The canyon itself is a sight unto itself. The limestone walls have been smoothed and formed over time into rippling waves, undulating along the gorge gracefully. When you look up, way way up, you see a ribbon of blue sky lined with trees through the swirling lip of the canyon.

The canyon walls were incredible to see.

At one point in the canyon there is a sharp turn where the river has cut a deep section from the canyon wall. It is nicknamed "the Cathedral". Last year when the river was high, several large pieces of debris got stuck inside the Cathedral, leaving behind what looks like a giant eagle's nest. We were able to climb up into the nest and enjoy an elevated view of the Cathedral, which was very neat.

Standing on the 'nest' in the Cathedral.

Our hike of the canyon ended at the Knight. We couldn't go any further due to that gaping hole I described earlier. None of us felt like getting sucked into the river never to return. At that point, we turned around and headed back the way we came, where our guide Chris enthusiastically volunteered to take photos of everyone in front of all the majestic ice formations.

We emerged from the canyon happy and amazed. I have never appreciated ice more than I did that day. Chris led us back to Fifth Bridge via the "High Trail", a trail that overlooks the lower path, the canyon and falls, Maligne River, and provides hikers with a fantastic view of the valley and Pyramid Mountain. He taught us about juniper berries, which are used to flavour gin (but provide no alcohol value so don't go around eating them for a buzz).

The view from the "High Trail".

We returned to the bus, shed our ice cleats, and headed back to Jasper. It was a great way to celebrate my husband's birthday, and a wonderful reminder of how beautiful winter in Canada can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment