Rock, Water, Ice, Sky, Fir Trees

15 September 2022 — The basics. Rock + water + ice + sky + fir trees. The elements of our journey from Banff to Jasper, and then from Jasper to Prince George.

Almost to Prince George. You’ll see.

Banff – Jasper

Lake Minnewanka, with all those elements in play, plus freedom to scuba dive.

Dams twice raised the level of this glacial lake, once in 1912 & again in 1941. This created additional hydro-power as desired, but in the process first submerged the indigenous community on the original shores and subsequently the first dam and bridge pilings as well. I can imagine the attraction of hovering over all this drowned history, but still find it somehow disrespectful.

Bow Lake next, again all those elements. (Minus scuba diving.)

And oh, that sky.

Again and again, fir trees against folds of rock, against the sky.

Also again and again, water falling across rock, through trees.


Joining many others, we ride specialized vehicles up onto Athabasca Glacier, on the Columbia Icefield. I was last here 39 years ago, when the glacier was larger and the human presence much smaller. Parks Canada suggests the ice is receding some 5 metres a year, while aggressive new management of the site now shuttles very large numbers of people up and down again in rapid succession. (Note I am not suggesting the latter causes the former; just saying that they co-exist and I don’t like either.)

This photo therefore, while un-retouched, is also misleading. Had I spun on my heel, I would have shown you the mob scene at my back.

Back at the Discovery Centre I queue for coffee. It gives me time to contemplate this sign on the countertop — one I am to see it frequently, over the next few days. Very literally a sign of our times.

Let us agree that kindness is, or should be, as elemental as rock/water/ice/sky/fir trees.

Back to our own little van, on to Athabasca Falls.

Lots of rock. Lots of, specifically, Gog quartzite rock, the hardest rock in this region’s geology. It means that when the Athabasca Valley Glacier inched over this cliff during the last glaciation, the rock was not pulverized.


it broke off in great chunks.

I love this. I am mesmerized.

We then follow the Athabasca River, on to Jasper.

We may be stopping for the night, but the river has barely begun. It rises on the Icefield and then makes its way north for some 1,538 km. Over that long journey, its waters empty first into Lake Athabasca, then into Great Slave Lake in the NWT, on into the Mackenzie River and, finally, into the Arctic Ocean.

Jasper-Prince George

A civilized start, 9-ish in the morning, with female elk grazing at the highway sign…

and a smoke-hazed sun rising above the mountains. (No worse than haze. The town is safe.)

We take a cruise on Maligne Lake. Not a mob scene! A modest boat for our modest number — though there is nothing at all modest about the world that surrounds us.

We hear about the French missionary who didn’t believe the indigenous people’s warning that a water crossing in this system was treacherous. When, mid-crossing, the priest lost all his possessions and nearly his life, he proclaimed these waters to be truly evil, truly malignant.

The name stuck.

You may well have seen a variation of the next photo, which I take when we stop at a point that allows us to approach Spirit Island on-shore. (It is in fact a peninsula except for a few high-water weeks a year.) This site was a two-month Kodak publicity poster in Grand Central Station in 1960, an iPad promotion photo in 2014, and on and on around the world, now whirling on social media as well.

Here you are, my very own 2022 version.

I like Maligne Lake a lot but, predictably for me, given that I’m a fool for rock, I like Maligne Canyon even more.

Look at it!

We follow a short trail, just over 2 klicks. It is mostly downhill, but with plenty of pay-attention-to-your-feet moments along the way. When not watching our feet, we yet again look down into the canyon, and yet again engage with rock, water, fir trees and sky.

Back into British Columbia.

Somewhere near that provincial boundary, we have also crossed the Triple Continental Divide. From a point on the south slope of Snow Dome, part of the Columbia Icefield, waters flow west to the Pacific, east to the Atlantic and (witness the Athabasca River) north to the Arctic Ocean.

We are not at any of those end points.

We are next at the Parks Canada visitor centre on Mount Robson. As it turns out, this is the only time on our trip that we will see a moose — and here a whole succession of them hang on the wall facing the toilets.

“Are you as big as a moose?” asks the poster.

Turns out I am, in moose height, about 6 months old (153-168 cm).

Outdoors, I admire as much of the Mount Robson complex as clouds allow us to see — and discover that this shiny picnic grounds spiral is neither a sculpture not the side wall of a children’s slide.

It is a climbing wall, where people heading up the mountain can test their skills.

We are not heading up the mountain. We are driving to Prince George.

While still some 120 km east of Prince George, we stop to walk the boardwalk in British Columbia’s newest park, the Ancient Forest / Chun T’oh Whudujut Provincial Park. It protects a small portion of the world’s only inland temperate rainforest, signage tells us, and the boardwalk leads us past thousand-year-old western red cedars.

We have left the world of hard-edged beauty, and re-entered a world where rock is softened with the textures of moss and lichen.

Tonight, Prince George. Tomorrow, Prince Rupert and the Pacific Ocean.


    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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