Dec. 15, 2010 - Issue #791: NYE Guide 2010
‘This wicked crossing’
Maligne River ice walk offers a winter-only exploration
Although ice cleats designed to grip ice and prevent slipping are attached to the bottom of my boots, I'm not entirely convinced that I won't fall backwards as I take cautious steps up a slightly inclined path.
Perhaps my fear echoes the kind that explorer and Jesuit missionary Jean-Pierre de Smet felt when he tried to cross the lower Maligne River in the mid-1800s. He had better reason, however. In an attempt to cross the river, he was washed away.
"[De Smet] wasn't killed," assures Trevor Lescard, General Manager of Overlander Trekking and Tours, one of the companies that offer Maligne Canyon ice walks. "He was actually washed down the river for about a mile, and because of his experience, he wrote in his journal 'Cette traverse maligne' or 'this evil or wicked crossing.'"
If we were to return in the summer and try to retrace our steps through the canyon, says Craig McCarthy, our guide for this afternoon tour, we would soon realize we couldn't. Although there are hiking trails along the edge of the canyon, hikers cannot enter the bottom of the canyon in the summertime where there is between one to three metres of rapid-flowing water.
It is during the winter that most visitors come to Maligne Canyon for the guided three-hour tour which takes them along the bottom of a canyon—towering over 30 metres—and into an ice cave. The ice walk is offered three times a day (morning, afternoon and evening) until early April.
According to Lescard, about 1000 people take the ice walk each year. With Overlander Trekking and Tours, people taking the ice walk can be picked up by van from various hotels in Jasper and driven to the main office to be fitted for waterproof boots and ice cleats. It's 12 kilometres by van from the meeting point to Maligne Canyon. The hike itself is two hours long and covers a distance of four km back and forth.
"The great thing about the Maligne Canyon ice walk is we basically have zero impact on the actual park," says Lescard. With two-thirds of the trip taking place on the frozen riverbed, any erosion from people walking on river rocks as well as any trace of footprints are washed away by the fast-flowing current of water in the summer. In addition, water allows new silts to be deposited. The ice surrounding the Maligne Canyon, Lescard points out, is a renewable resource that comes back each year depending on air temperature.
"The water source is actually glacial water, so the water comes from an ice field further up the valley," says Lescard. "Potentially, as that ice shrinks, there could be less and less water coming through but we're talking about probably many, many years."
Not only does the ice form in various shapes, it also comes in various colours. Lescard explains that blue ice is denser and contains fewer trapped air pockets while ice that appears greyer has many trapped air bubbles that scatter light.
Making our way down to the frozen riverbed, the ice we're standing on ranges anywhere from 10 centimetres to one metre thick. In the deepest part of the canyon, the ice can be as thick as three and a half metres.
Before entering the ice cave, McCarthy suggests we roll up our pants. It's good advice; the slush outside the cave transforms into a pool of water that nearly reaches the top of our boots.
Inside the cave, we see ice climbers working their way up a frozen waterfall called Angel Falls. "Ice climbing is actually easier than rock climbing," McCarthy says, noting that ice climbers can create their own steps while rock climbers have to search for existing anchors. For those looking for a more difficult climb, there is a steeper waterfall next to Angel Falls appropriately named the Queen.
We walk past the rock climbers. By the time we reach the turn-around point of the tour, a dome-like part of the cave called the Cathedral, we've noticed that the temperature has dropped. Lescard says that the deepest part of the cave is typically 5 C lower than the outside of the cave and likens it to being in a refrigerator.
We take a slightly different route going back, walking further along the canyon floor and going down a short, narrow slide made of rock. The slide doesn't so much require one to slide, but to squeeze through it. Below, the riverbed continues to alternate between ice, slush and pools of water, reflecting the coming of spring. V
On the web: overlandertrekking.com
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