Icefields and Jasper – A Cool Place!

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Many of our friends have been telling us about current the heat wave where we live in South Carolina. I’m not trying to make anyone jealous, and I know I’m probably going to jinx our situation my saying this, but we have been waking up with temps in the high 30’s and enjoying afternoons in the 70’s for the past couple of weeks. Not only has the temperature been cool, but so has the scenery – breathtakingly cool.

Our View of The Columbia Icefields From Our Campsite at the Icefields Centre

We left off on our last blog heading north from Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. Our first stop  for a two night stay was at the Columbia Icefield Centre right on the Icefields Parkway. Cool is a good descriptor for much of the area, but “COLD” more accurately describes the ice field itself. It is picturesque in a unique way. Though is lacks the actual color of much of the surrounding areas, you can feel the color and the temperature in varying shades of white, blue, gray, and black. The view out of our motorhome window from our $17.00 per night site was priceless. We awoke looking over the Northface, Android, AA, and Athabasca Glaciers. With all of the tours underway, the Icefields Visitor Centre itself had the feel of an international airport.

Yellow Heather

After touring the Icefields Visitor Centre we took a drive south in our CRV to visit some of the sites we bypassed while driving the LTV earlier in the morning. We visited Bow Lake, and Bow Falls overlook. We also hiked up Box Summit on a path where we walked through a forest of Christmas trees – some spruce, but mostly fraser firs. The aroma was delightful. We also passed by tiny beautiful bell shaped mountain flowers in patches of white, pink, and yellow called heathers. At the top of the hike we were rewarded by looking over Peyto Glacier and Lake.  It was beautiful.

Clemson Proud – On the Athabasca Glacier – Ice Explorer in Background

While there, Anna and I were able to travel out onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier in a very large all-terrain Ice Explorer, driven by Jessica, a geological engineer. She was very knowledgable about the glacial history, and current geological conditions. Anna loved asking questions and getting information that whet her former science teaching appetite. Athabasca is approximately 9,800 feet above sea level and has an average thickness of 750 feet. It is receding at a rate of approximately 16 feet per year.  Anna and I were the first two people to walk on the glacier the morning we were there. We were on the glacier for approximately 30 minutes, but with a temperature around 35 degrees and the wind blowing 20-40mph, 30 minutes was plenty. Still pretty chilly wearing 4 layers of clothing.

View of waterfalls in valley below Skywalk

After our tour in the Ice Explorer we traveled just a few minutes north to the Glacier Skywalk, a man-made circular glass walkway that hangs out over the edge of a mountain allowing unparalleled views to both the valley below and the glacial fields to the south.  The view was pretty cool, but the radio assisted audio tour along the entrance to the walkway was just as interesting. The only item missing from this site was a bathroom… do you know what I mean? The only access to the skywalk is by tourbus, so I kind of had to wait on the bus to pick us up.  No trees to hide behind here!

 

Sunwapta Falls

After a quick lunch in the motorhome, we were off again to areas north of the Icefields Centre. We made a brief stop at Tangle Falls located right next to the parkway. Further north on the parkway were Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. They each had unique characteristics, but all had their beauty in common. The power of water peaks my interest, yet I often find that many of the smaller falls with diverse water paths often are prettier to me than the long dropping falls that crash with thunder and fill a valley with misty spray, and I find that photographs of high waterfalls with long skinny drops are just boring.

Elk near Jasper

Later in the day we drove further north on a reconnaissance mission into Jasper to find our campground (Whistlers) for the next portion of our trip. We found it, weren’t crazy about it, and agreed to examine our options for an alternate location. We saw a nice size elk still in velvet as we were leaving Jasper. The following day we moved the motorhome from the Icefields Centre to Whistlers. We ate pizza at a local restaurant and then spent the next few hours at a laundromat  in the basement of the same building. The laundromat was also a coffee shop. No better way to spend a vacation day!

Coyote stealing elk meat from grizzlies

We moved our LTV from Whistlers campground to Wapiti Campground the following morning. It was a good decision. Having power and not having to trudge through gray powdery dirt every time you enter the motorhome is always a plus. We had to return to the laundry to wash a few items we didn’t have the day before. While there, we met a nice family (The Garners) from Raleigh, NC while there. Their son who is an engineering major at NC State told us about a Grizzly and cubs he had seen near Old Fort Point Road eating an elk. We headed to Old Fort Point Road after lunch, but the Grizzlies were gone. Their was a coyote at the location stealing some of the elk meat. A park ranger was nearby and informed us that the bears had left a couple hours earlier.  The elk, which drowned, had been a source of food for the grizzlies for almost a week. She didn’t think the bears would return, but we saw a large hip and leg of the elk still off shore and didn’t think the grizzlies would abandon that much food.  We made the decision to return the following morning.

Juvenile Bald Eagle in Jasper

We traveled past Old Fort Point to Maligne Lake Road for a boat tour of Lake Maligne we scheduled for early that evening. While traveling to the boat we spotted a large juvenile bald headed eagle in a nest. We noticed one adult in the nest and one in a nearby tree, but we had to make it to the boat and didn’t have time to stop. The ninety minute cruise took us out to Spirit Island. As soon as we returned from the cruise we headed back to the eagle site. The adult eagles were gone. The juvenile cried and cried for them, but they didn’t return. He was exercising his wings quite a bit and at one point hovered above the nest for a good bit. While there we met a great couple, Rene and Mark from Tennessee. They were both retired police officers and Mark is now a photographer. It turned out that they were at the grizzly site two hours before us. He had a head-on photo of the momma grizzly in full stride running at the coyote when it came toward the bear cubs. Incredible photo… wish it was mine! 

 

Grizzly and Cub in Athabasca River

His bear photo enticed me just that much more to hang in there the following day with the grizzlies. Anna and I headed toward the elk site on the Athabasca River first thing the next morning… and there they were. I could see the momma grizzly and two cubs as we crossed a bridge before we arrived at the site. It was a little early in the day and only a couple of other people were nearby. We watched the mother grizzly and her two cubs for several hours.  They ate, slept, played, and then ate some more. It was obvious that the cubs were getting a few eating pointers from their mom. The bears dragged elk remains from the river onto the bank. Watching their powerful claws ripping the elk apart, and seeing their large powerful jaws stripping and crunching bones provided me with a lesson to respect the distance between grizzlies and people (especially me). The cubs were cute, but still killing machines. Park rangers came by and looked at my photos. They told me that very few park visitors ever witness what we did. Most visitors are lucky to see a grizzly walking somewhere in a wooded area. We learned that the day we photographed the bears was day nine of the elk buffet. The bears didn’t return after that day.

Pyramid Mountain and Lake

There was much more to the Jasper area than the bears and the eagle. The town was quaint and inviting. For us, it was much nicer than crowded Banff, and amenity poor Lake Louise. The scenery around Jasper was amazing.  The lakes and the mountains kept us engaged when outside of the townsite.  There are trains that run adjacent to the downtown area at all times, but they were never bothersome. It would be easy to become lost in the beauty of the area – at least until the reality of winter set in. Negative 30 degrees fahrenheit for more than a month would probably convince me to head for warmer weather. The locals say it’s cold, but is not all that bad because it is a dry cold. One lady at the money exchange told us her eyes froze last winter. I’m thinking… not for me. I would love to come back to this area in the fall, maybe early September one year.  It would be gorgeous here, but I really don’t want to miss anymore Clemson football. And here we are… our trek north has ended. Jasper is the U-turn in our trip to Canada. From here we head back south through Banff and Cochrane in Alberta, and then eastward to Saskatchewan and Grasslands National Park.

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