Saturday, 7 March 2015

Maligne Canyon -- 30 Years and Counting

On the January 30th weekend, I organized my 30th annual Department of Computing Science winter retreat to Jasper in the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was a wonderful trip – great company, spectacular scenery, invigorating winter sports, relaxing pools, and, for some, (expensive) shopping.

Jasper in the summer is gorgeous, and the Icefields Parkway that connects Banff to Jasper is considered one of the most scenic drives in the word. I became infatuated with the winter side of Jasper when I visited the town in January 1985 and had my first experience going to the bottom of Maligne Canyon. Having moved to Alberta from Toronto just over a year before, it was a moving experience to behold the beauty of nature in a setting that, quite frankly, does not exist in Ontario (they even call Blue Mountain a mountain – what a joke!). I was hooked, so for the following winter I decided to organize a Department of Computing Science trip to Jasper, ostensibly as a "ski trip". For me personally, the skiing was secondary to a visit to the spectacular Maligne Canyon. At the time, I had no inkling that the trip would catch on and still be going strong after 30 years.

In the spring and summer, Maligne Canyon is the home of a raging river. The water is 50 meters below the ground as it flows through the canyon; all you can do is stand on a bridge and look down at the torrent of water battering its way through the narrow passageway. But in the winter, the river is frozen and it is easy to get down to it and walk on its frozen surface.

Maligne Canyon is part of a long underground cave system. In fact, the Canyon may have once been a cave whose roof fell in. In the spring and summer, melting causes the river to rise as a massive amount of water tries to force its way through the narrow corridor. However, below the riverbed are large caverns. In the winter, there is little water in the river and it drains into the cavern. Hence, in some winters all the water disappears under ground leaving a dry river bed. If there is water flowing, you can easily find places where the water seeps through cracks and disappears into the ground. In the summer it is the reverse; you can find places where the water is spurting out of the ground, the consequence of the underground caverns being full.

A Maligne Canyon trek consists of going to the north end of the Canyon where the walls are the lowest, climbing down onto the river's frozen surface, and then walking back into the Canyon. Along the way you will find frozen and active waterfalls, impressive ice carvings (the artistic side of Nature), large rooms carved out by thousands of years of erosion, and even the odd fossil. At one place you can crawl on your belly into part of the underground caverns.

Jasper in the summer and the winter is a magical place. Most people visit the Rocky Mountains in the summer, and those who come in the winter usually do so for the skiing. Maligne Canyon is spectacular all year round. In the winter one must go to the bottom to see its inner beauty. In the summer from the top you can look down incredulously at inaccessibility of the winter places that you visited.

I have been to the bottom of Maligne Canyon every year since 1985, oftentimes more than once per year. Perhaps my annual winter retreat will hit the 50 year mark. Stay tuned!
Looking down 50 meters into the Canyon. In the summer, the canyon is filled with the water of a raging water. In the winter, the water disappears into the underground caverns, leaving the bottom of the gorge walkable in most places.
A dozen intrepid adventurers ready to start the Maligne Canyon trek.
The “Shower Curtain” waterfall. Some years the mist from the flowing water freezes, creating a thin curtain of translucent ice that covers the entire waterfall (hence the name). Not so this year.
The river surface freezes, and then the water underneath the ice drains way into the caverns below. This creates a cavity, allowing one to crawl underneath the ice and onto the actual riverbed. Here an adventurer is emerging from underneath the ice.
At the bottom of one of the frozen waterfalls.
The foot of the Queen of Maligne waterfall. An intrepid soul (not from our group) is preparing to climb up the face of the waterfall.

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