For our first day in Jasper, we wanted to drive out to see Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake. “Maligne” is the French word for “evil” or “wicked,” so named because the river tossed a French priest from his horse many years ago. It’s pronounced in the French way – “Ma-LEEN” instead of “Ma-LINE.”
I actually booked a guided tour for this part, with the Jasper Tour Company. It’s basically a one-man show – Joe Urie, who is a Jasper local, has a 15 passenger van and takes small groups out on various driving tours. I can’t say enough good things about Joe – he was so personable and had great stories and really made the whole area come alive for us. He knew where to best spot all the wildlife, and he knew the history of the area (for example, unusually high water from three years ago had had lasting effects in places), and best of all, as a Jasper local, he had lots of insider info on what it’s like to live in a National Park and the politics of preservation. Fascinating.
Joe picked us up at our hotel and first drove us out to Maligne Canyon, which is a canyon of soft rock that has been carved out by (of course!) running glacier water. It was GORGEOUS. Joe new lots about the history of the area, and was able to show us video of what it is like in winter; he also knew exactly where to spot fossils that were embedded in the rocks along the path.
I could have spent all day there, seriously.
Next we drove out past Medicine Lake. This is a lake that is glacier fed – but the porous bedrock underneath the lake means that in the springtime, the lake is full of water, but by fall, the water has magically drained away (and feeds into the canyon, some 20 km away).
Here we learned that we were quite lucky in that a major forest fire had surrounded the lake just a couple of weeks before our arrival, and in fact the road to the lake had only been reopened for a week. It gave Joe a chance to give us a fascinating talk about how fire renews the forest and is actually required in nature (this one in particular was naturally started with lightning). The burn marks along the forest, running along the side of the lake, were amazing – ugly but beautiful too. The coolest part was seeing how the fire had burned some trees, but not others, leaving pockets of green behind for no apparent reason. Nature at work – incredible.
From there we drove on to Maligne Lake, which is another lake surrounded by mountains but seriously, is so, so beautiful. Maligne Lake is famous for a very small island about halfway down its 14 km length, called Spirit Island (actually more like Spirit Peninsula, as low water levels meant it was actually connected to the mainland while we were there, something that happens often). Spirit Island is famous because a photo of it won a Kodak Kodachrome photography contest back in the 30s, and as a result was blown up to billboard size and hung in Grand Central Station in New York City. That started a sudden flood of New Yorkers coming to Jasper in search of the mysterious Spirit Island.
We hopped on a boat tour (the only place motorized boats are allowed in the region) and cruised out to see the famous island, and the views were dazzling. Seriously dazzling. Right when we arrived at Spirit Island, there was a deer casually grazing on the peninsula – perfection.
Even though this is a popular tourist destination, it was very quiet on the lake – lots of people in canoes, lots of quiet campers on the edges, only one or two motorboats out at any given time – and so it felt very peaceful and calming. It’s a definite must do, even if you’re not normally a touristy kind of person. This is the kind of place that makes you think about moving to Alberta.