Jasper in winter: Maligne Canyon and other non-skiing activities

If I was standing in this spot in about a month's time, I'd be dead. More accurately, I wouldn't be standing at all - I'd have been swept away by a raging torrent, far too powerful to swim against.

Instead, I'm standing on ice, looking up at a spectacular wall of water. Thankfully that huge mass of water suspended in the air is frozen solid.

I'm taking a walk up Maligne Canyon, a scenic spot in Jasper National Park, Canada, which is one of the region's most popular winter tourist attractions (particularly for people who don't ski, like myself).

It's my first time visiting Canada in winter and the cold is something of a shock. On our first day in Jasper it's minus 21 degrees Celsius. It's unseasonably cold for this time of year (March) but warms up to a relatively comfortable minus six during my visit to the canyon.

Our guide, Kane (from NSW - one of the many Aussies you find working in tourism in Canada), gets us ready for our hike by providing us with cleats to attach to our shoes. We'll be walking across slick ice as we make our way up the canyon and regular snow boots are not going to cut it (no pun intended).

From an Australian's perspective, there's something otherworldly about this place. In a country where we barely get any snow, entering an environment where it's so cold the waterfalls freeze is entirely alien.

The waterfalls hang in dramatic shapes - some more than a metre thick, like icing on a wedding cake, others long and thin, like some deadly spear brandished by an unseen yeti. Some absorb the minerals of the rocks over which they pass, giving them a greenish hue and adding to that alien appearance.

Midway up the canyon, beneath one of the largest waterfalls, we come across a couple of ice climbers. They're making their way up the waterfall, using ice picks and sharp cleats to hack out hand- and toe-holds as they make their way up the structure.

With each kick or strike of the pick, large chunks of ice fall out of the waterfall. It looks hairy, but Kane tells us that, despite the fragile appearance, the curtain-like waterfalls are surprisingly solid.

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Nevertheless, the ice climbers, and our group, are all wearing helmets just in case a chunk of ice does break loose.

I arrived in Jasper from Vancouver by rail, taking an overnight train through the Rockies after heading straight to the station from the city's airport early in the morning.

It's an excellent way to start the trip. Instead of hanging around waiting for a Vancouver hotel room to be available for check-in at 2pm, by 10am I'm on board a Via Rail carriage, with my own cabin featuring bunk beds and a private toilet. It means in my jetlagged state I'm able to rest during the day, sleep soundly overnight and wake the next morning to find myself passing through the majestic landscape of the Rockies.

Jasper is a small town, with fewer than 5000 residents, surrounded by mountains and thick forest. Elk wander the outskirts in small groups, digging through the snow to nibble on the grass beneath.

They're an indication that, even in winter, there is plenty of wildlife here. The bears may be hibernating, but majestic elk, cute deer, big-horn sheep and - if you're lucky - moose and wolves can still be seen.

Apart from the last two, we see the other animals on a half-day wildlife tour that takes us on a scenic drive along the edges of Maligne Lake, a narrow, 22-kilometre long body of water about 40 minutes' drive from Jasper.

Big-horn sheep can often be found in the middle of the road, licking salt from its surface. We watch as several leap down from the adjacent hills, moving with incredible speed and grace down the steep, rocky surface.

The sure-footed sheep come to mind later that day as I struggle with the slippery surface of Maligne Canyon - parts of the river have already begun to melt, creating slushy patches. I'm thankful for the cleats though at some points water laps over the edges of my boots. Somehow my socks stay dry.

We make our way to a point where the canyon becomes impassable - a smooth, round layer of ice prevents us going any further without strapping on climbing gear. So, instead, we make our way cautiously back and climb into our bus for the ride back to our accommodation at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

The lodge started life as what was probably one of the world's first "glamping'" sites - in 1915, 10 tents were set up here on the shores of Beaufort Lake complete with wooden floors and walls. These were replaced by log cabins in 1921, some of which are still in use today (with all the mod cons, of course).

It turns out walking the canyon, in heavy winter gear in low temperatures, is quite the appetite-builder. We head to the Emerald Lodge next to the lobby. It's filled with a lively crowd enjoying the performance of a singer-guitarist in the corner. I order a burger and poutine (chips with cheese curds and gravy) and tuck in.

Not the healthiest meal I admit but, in this cold climate, there's nothing like a bit of warm comfort food.

Trip Notes

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

jasper.travel

FLY

Air Canada has non-stop flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver. See aircanada.com

From Vancouver, Via Rail runs overnight trains to Jasper. See viarail.ca

STAY

Rooms at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge start from $C310. See fairmont.com/jasper

VISIT

Maligne Adventures offers a variety of winter tours and activities in Jasper, including wildlife tours and Maligne Canyon guided walks. See maligneadventures.com

Jasper Food Tours runs walking tours of the town, with stops at several local restaurants and cafes. See jasperfoodtours.com

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Tourism Jasper and Via Rail.

See also: One of the world's biggest waterfalls only got discovered this century

See also: Petrified This incredible waterfall is like no other

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