Although it’s the end of March and the calendar says spring, it’s still very much a winter wonderland in Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park. We’re here over the Easter weekend to do the not-to-be-missed should you ever be in Jasper in winter – Maligne Canyon Icewalk.
We’ve booked a tour with Maligne Adventures – and though I’m not normally a tour person this one turns out to be incredibly worthwhile; without a tour you’d likely miss the caves (a highlight) and an understanding of what makes the Maligne Canyon Icewalk so special – and in fact unique in North America.
Our group of eight starts off in Jasper by donning knee high waterproof boots. We’re also handed a pair of ice cleats which we’ll put on once we arrive at Maligne Canyon, only about a 10 minute drive from Jasper.
We start the icewalk by walking across a new bridge, put in place after high waters last summer undermined the integrity of a long standing bridge.
And then Chris our guide – starts with the question – Why doesn’t this section of the Maligne River ever freeze? Fortunately we have a kid in the group who is happy to throw out answers. A few adults make suggestions too.
But no one gets the right answer.
Here’s the long answer.
Maligne Canyon lies in what is known as karst terrain, characterized by an extensive underground system of caves and fissures formed in limestone rock. The water in the Maligne River that you see flowing through Maligne Canyon comes in part from nearby Medicine Lake. The water supplying Medicine Lake itself is a combination of glacier melt (80%), snow melt (15%) and rainwater (5%). Medicine Lake drains like a bathtub – at the bottom – and through a network of caves and fissures some of the water reaches the Maligne River. They know this because scientists put a harmless dye in Medicine Lake which in the summer reached the Maligne River in 12 hours. But when the temperatures drop, the Maligne River flow is curtailed and the dye in the winter takes 88 hours to flow underground from Medicine Lake to the Maligne River. Also interesting is that some stretches of the river which are fed by these springs never freeze because the water is coming out of the ground at about 4 degrees Celsius (39F).
In summer, the river level is much higher as evidenced by the line of moss showing the high water mark – well above head height. Through the winter, the river level continues to drop and one can see long stretches of stranded ice well above the river bottom. This ice can be quite thick and can create long bridges that are strong enough to be walked upon.
The Maligne Canyon Icewalk turns out to be much more than just a hike.
Chris leads us into a cave – one that he’s explored to a point most mortals wouldn’t consider – more than 300 metres in from where we squatted. I’m not a cave lover but I have to say once inside it was pretty cool looking out through a layer of ice.
On weekends chances are you’ll see ice climbers too; they’re always fun to watch.
Our last adventure in Maligne Canyon took us through a hole behind the frozen waterfall the climbers were on. It was an otherworldly view looking out through layers of ice. To get out we could easily slip through the hole we came in – but it was a lot more fun to slide down an icy ramp.
The entire Maligne Canyon Icewalk from start to finish in Jasper took three hours. It’s easy and it’s a family friendly activity. The youngster on our trip said the highlight for her was going inside the cave.
Reserve well in advance if you plan to go on a weekend. The company we went with offered three tours a day – including an evening tour. The price is $55 for adults and $27.50 for children. It was worth every penny.
Have you ever done the Maligne Canyon Icewalk?