Having grown up on the East Coast (or “back East,” as Canadians say), I’m easily impressed when it comes to mountains. Show me a rocky peak, crystal-clear mountain lake or snow-capped anything and I’ll stop and stare. But Jasper, Alberta, is a whole other story. Tucked inside a national park in the Canadian Rockies, the town is circled by a wall of jagged mountain. Caribbean-blue glacial lakes dot the valleys and the silt-grey Athabasca River, highway for generations of fur traders, runs through it all. I explored Jasper recently for the Vancouver Sun.
An Alpine Shangri-La Minus the Crowds
By Remy Scalza for the Vancouver Sun
(For the newspaper version of the article, click here: Alpine Shangri-La)
With 300 black bears and 200 grizzlies calling western Canada’s Jasper National Park home, running into one isn’t as much a possibility as a fait acomplit. But even from the reassuring safety of a car, the first encounter can be a jolt.
The particular black bear beside my passenger window right now is man-sized: six feet long, probably 300 pounds. Cuddly – in a way – except for the long, curving incisor peeking out his open mouth. He raises his head, waves his nose in the air and looks my direction.
For Chuck Cantlie – naturalist, 29-year Jasper resident and no stranger to these encounters – this is a teaching moment. Calmly, he guides me through Bear Safety 101. “A bear can turn on you in a heartbeat and outrun a racehorse,” he says. Outside, our subject is close enough now to admire his muscled linebacker’s neck and hear his paws thrashing through the wiry grass beside the highway. “Rule number one is don’t run.”
The Rocky Mountains – which stretch in a ragged band of serrated peaks from New Mexico up into Western Canada – are a stubbornly wild place. And one of the wildest spots happens to be just across the British Columbia border in central Alberta. In the mountain town of Jasper, geography and history have conspired to preserve what comes close to an alpine Shangri-La: peaks and glacial lakes to rival the best of the Rockies, minus – for now – the crowds.
The town (pop. 4,500) is situated within 11,000-square-kilometre Jasper National Park, a wilderness bigger than Cape Breton Island cut through with just a handful of paved roads and railways. “Less than three percent of the park is road accessible,” says Cantlie, scanning the median for more wildlife as we barrel down the highway and onto main street. “There are places out there that are almost impossible to get to.”
A century ago, planners – in wise deference to the awesome scenery – put a tight noose on development in Jasper. A handsome train station – the field-stone-and-timber vestige of a bygone railroad boom – sits in the center of town. A few streets of shops, hotels and prim cottages radiate out. Beyond that, it’s pretty much all mountains. Prudent growth has ensured there’s no shortage of rooms with a view or creature comforts, including the regal old Jasper Park Lodge on the outskirts of town. But elk jams are still more common on main street than traffic jams, and the big draw in Jasper remains the Rockies themselves.
“It’s what we don’t have that makes us special,” says Brian Rode, an aptly named 53-year-old mountain bike enthusiast who came to Jasper 35 years ago as a ski instructor and never left. “We don’t have the commercialism. Nothing’s in your face.” This morning, we cycle the half-mile from the center of town to a bike trail that starts just behind the schoolhouse – its playing fields fenced off against marauding caribou and deer. With the sun warming the hills and sending up the smell of pine, we climb steeply along a mountain bench, through aspen groves and past grazing elk who stare but don’t bother to move.
At a break in the trees, the whole valley comes into view. Far below, the silver water of the Athabasca River – highway for generations of fur traders – braids through dense pine forest on its way to the Arctic. Here and there, the emerald glean of a glacial lake catches the sun. And all around, in every direction, the jagged black teeth of the Rockies cut up the horizon.
“You feel like you own the place,” says Rode. “It’s so accessible, but there’s almost no one out here.” We get back on the bikes and whip down trails full of gnarled roots and loose stone, spilling out to a lake whose turquoise water looks siphoned from the Caribbean. In fine postcard form, the triangular face of Pyramid Mountain rises behind, its 9,000-foot, snow-streaked peak reflected into the shimmering water.
Minutes later – down a series of switchbacks, on into town and through a wooden gate – we’re back in Rode’s backyard. He pulls off his mirrored biking glasses and pops the metal tab on a can of Kokanee. “I like to think of Jasper as a black hole,” he says. “It sucks you up, in a good way.”
From his deck, the faint clang and rumble of a freight train passing through town can be heard. Back in 1911, the Grand Trunk Railway pushed through Jasper on its way to the Pacific, turning what was a fur-trading outpost into a modest mountain depot and bringing in the first wave of park visitors. Today, the railroad remains one of Jasper’s biggest employers, offering a kind of blue-collar bulwark against the rising tide of tourism.
Down at the railyard, idling freight trains gleam in the late afternoon sun, open tops rounded with coal and wheat bound for the coast. Admiring the scene is Jeff Wilson, a retired train engineer who logged 36 years with Canada’s national railway and now guides treks for the Jasper Adventure Centre. “For now, Jasper’s still a community, not a resort. The challenge is finding the balance between development and preservation,” he says. Nearly on cue, a double-decker passenger train eases into the station, off-loading a few hundred retirees on a sightseeing expedition through the Rockies.
Within a precarious radius of town are the kind of superlative sites that may indeed spell trouble for Jasper in the near future. There’s world’s second-largest glacial lake (Maligne Lake), 23 kilometres long and a radiant cobalt blue. There’s Canada’s biggest icefield (Columbia Icefield), 325 square kilometres of glaciers and otherworldy ice-scapes. Not to mention natural hot springs and scenic highways teeming with wildlife and photo-ops.
The price of overexposure is only too clear for residents. Wilson’s mood darkens when I mention the B-word: Banff. Another national park town with an achingly pretty backdrop, Banff – 290 kilometres southeast – has gone the route of Rocky Mountain playground, courting international visitors with high-end boutiques and resorts. “You walk down the street on a sunny day and its wall to wall people,” Wilson says. Even worse: “They have a mall.”
For the moment, however, Jasper remains wild and mall-less. In fact, you don’t have to wander far from town to feel the majesty of the Rockies, or the menace. I cross the tracks, cross the worn and cracked asphalt of the Trans-Canada highway and – almost instantly – am alone in the woods. The trail climbs, skirting the remains of a riverside trading post and mounting hills crisscrossed with animal tracks.
It’s when I’m deep in the mountains, a good hour from the trailhead in country thick with quaking aspen and wildflowers, that my mind drifts back to the bear safety lessons. It sounded so easy in the car. On the trail is a different story. I drill through my escape plan in the event of an encounter. Stay calm. Back away slowly. Don’t panic.
I’m struggling to remember what to do if the bear charges – whether playing dead or fighting back offers the best defense against a half-ton omnivore – when, suddenly, the question isn’t academic any longer. A splash of brown fur shows through the trees. I stop, take a tentative step back, then another, staring hard into the brush. I make out the twitch of a tail, turn of a head and then the surprised glare from a grazing elk.
She gives me a once over, ducks her head and resumes munching. I backpeddle slowly, spooked enough to turn around and set off at a good pace for town. The sun has dipped behind the western mountains; a cool breeze has picked up. Somewhere out there in Jasper National Park 200 grizzlies and 300 black bears are nosing around for dinner.