Jasper, Alberta

I told her “Every step I take that direction, it’s the furthest North I’ve ever been. And I couldn’t seem to stop taking steps.” Each one held the same promise, the same attractiveness as the one before it. Two steps before, the one of such achievement and destiny at the time, was no longer worth anything, wasn’t even remembered.

I’m not entirely sure that the whole premise was even true — Iceland may well be further north than Jasper — but I was certainly at the northernmost point of my summer tour, and the public library was the furthest north I had made it on the city map, so it seemed like a possibility anyway. I told her, the librarian, and she didn’t seem to think much about it one way or the other. She just gave me a mandatory shrug and a smile that said “Yeah, that’s sure neat.” Of course I didn’t really care much either — that’s the whole reason I stopped taking steps. It just felt funny, taking one step at a time and thinking it meant something. To see the distance I covered, maybe fifteen feet in all, I couldn’t really pretend that it mattered.

Not that that was the highlight of my day, either — nay, I walked on a glacier for chrissakes — but I just never know quite where to start these things. And once I get started, I never quite know when to shut up. I think I should shut up.

I walked on a glacier! Well, it wasn’t so amazing really; if I could have had a decent conversation with the thing, I might have a story, but since it is technically a deaf-mute, I had to settle with stomping on its toe. It was the Athabasca Glacier, part of the massive Columbia Icefields, the largest in the Canadian Rockies. Visibly shrinking throughout the 20th century, the glacier’s previous borders are marked with wooden signs bearing the dates (1918, 1924, 1946, 1992). I wondered if letting people walk all over them had any effect on the rate they shrink, but it seemed like a smart-assed question, so I find anyone to ask. I stood in front of the 1992 board and looked out 30 meters to the current edge of the glacier and said, “Slightly worse than the George Bush legacy, here were looking at eleven years of recession.” The Germans didn’t get it, so I thought about the Fawlty Towers when they weren’t supposed to mention the war to the visiting Germans (hors d’oeuvres, hors d’oeuvres, orders, which must be obeyed at all times), and had a good laugh.

I did lots of other things too — lots of ten, twenty minute hikes back into the thick evergreen forests to some natural landmark, some wonder of the wilderness. Peyto Lake, certainly vying for the most beautiful sight I’ve seen on this trip (when I looked through my pictures today, I said, “Oh my, I was there!?”), is an iridescently glowing, a soft pale blue, a blue that will get me to go anywhere in the world. (When I saw the blue of Shipwreck Cove on Zakynthos Island in Greece, I vowed to go — and I did. The same is true of Crater Lake, Oregon, and I’m on my way.) The tint of the lake changes throughout the season as the proportion of glacial silt increases with the snowmelt from summer to fall. The only downside to the experience is that the overlook and parking lot were crowded, packed with tourists — there was even a separate parking lot for tour buses. This may well have been one of my highest spots of the trip at 6,803 feet (I haven’t been paying attention lately since my map software doesn’t work in Canada).

I made several other stops at waterfalls and, to be honest, I’m starting to get burned out on them. They’re ubiquitous here — they have to be. It’s the only way that water is going to get off of those towering ice caps to the ice-cold rivers below. They have to fall. At one time they were looked at with awe, even those small, dirty roadside ones were worthy of a stop. But I stopped at a ridiculously impressive one today, one that smacked into walls, did a full 360° spin, and then moved on. The result was a series of bowling ball molds, potholes 40-feet in diameter, and almost boredom on my behalf. I’m worried of burning out (no chance, I’ll assure you).

Many of these scenic lookouts looked out onto glaciers, lots of them, many bright as day, others obscured into the mountainside by a thick layer of dirt and rock. The most famous, the Crowfoot Glacier, (now only two-toed since the lowest one broke off years ago, a result of the receding ice), hangs from a cliff face several miles away. It’s about the closest look one can reasonably get, the result being a misconception of the glacier’s size. One of the roadside interpretive exhibits showed a drawing of the glacier towering over the Banff Springs hotel, which I posted pictures of yesterday. It’s a huge thing, the glacier.

For no particular reason, I’m going to jump back in time to my morning in Lake Louise Village. I woke up at 9:30 and my whole room was empty. The three beds that once contained bodies were now occupied by a naked pillow and a neatly folded blanket. The building was quiet beyond belief. Nothing was moving outside. I was worried I didn’t get the evacuation notice or something. Nothing was moving. I hoped my watch wasn’t broken and it was really noon already, but it was ticking, 9:31. I took a shower and checked out at ten without much ado. I only had five bucks in Canadian cash and none of the ATMs in town took a Visa debit card, so I settled for a coffee and a strawberry long john for breakfast (delicious: a long john donut, split down the middle and filled with vanilla and strawberry crème, topped with four sliced strawberries). I stocked up at the gas station with a package of two double cheeseburgers — the kind you just microwave or eat cold — a bag of Bugles, two packages of granola bars, and two pop bottles. It looked like I was planning for a picnic-for-two. But no, just a growing boy.

Without a proper cooler, I invented one in pure MacGyver fashion that you will go a long way to better. I had a small cardboard box, which I’ve been using to carry the tourist brochures, two plastic bags, a beach towel, and the cold produce. Without getting into the details — in order to maintain the value of my pending patent — I will not reveal the precise order of the materials, but it worked half-way well for keeping my food cool until 3:30, when I finally got around to eating them.

I had been looking at all the roadside pull-offs for a good place to stop and have my picnic, but I wasn’t hungry for the first handful — not until the glacier walk, around 2 p.m., did I start to feel the first pangs of hunger. From then on I would have to sacrifice one thing or another in picking a place: either there were too many people, the scenery wasn’t that great, there was no place to sit, too close to the highway, whatever. Eventually, around 3:30 and starving, I found a perfect place, void of people and with just the perfect amount of scenery. I had my picnic, cooling the Cherry Coke in the stream with a rock on top. It was a nice moment.

A funny thing happened right after that: I was driving along, still headed north, many miles out from Jasper when I decided I was ready to move on, to leave the mountains, to go some place new. I was still taken and fascinated with the beauty (and waterfalls!) of these parks, and the mountains kept getting rockier and sharper and more and more grizzled with every corner (and they just kept coming!), but in that moment, I was ready. I wasn’t wishy-washy about it at all. I was ready. So I pushed on, faster, towards Jasper.

About a mile from Jasper and approaching 5 o’clock, I stopped at one of the National Park campgrounds, the Wapiti campground, and took a tent site for $22 Canadian. There are plenty of hostels about, but I can’t pass up this weather. The nights get cold, very cold, and I just could about die from smiling, I love them so much. I love bundling up heavy in my sleeping bag and comforter, tight and self-sufficient, the cold air always in my face and just inches from the rest of my body. There’s a quality about cozily sleeping in the bitter cold that is unmatchable for me.

So I got my site, pitched my tent and moved on into Jasper to find the library. I was pleasantly surprised with the town, expecting something more trashy and touristy — my only impression comes from the papers I printed off the ‘net that say, “Unlike Banff, which exudes wealth and comfort, Jasper is a rough-and-ready, workaday sort of place.” It seemed very nice to me, a comfortable “upper-middle” sort of place. I did my furthest-north-ever charade and then spent my time at the library (having to find an ATM first, since the library charged $5/hr. and I was still cashless).

I’m back at my campsite now and very anxious to get to bed. I’m not tired a bit, not really, but I’m just very excited to get back to my tent and the stars and the biting cold. I haven’t gone yet, even though it’s pushing towards 10:30 (and the mosquitoes are pushing me to madness) because it’s not yet dark. The sun doesn’t even begin to set until just before ten, and then it takes the better part of an hour for that fact to sink in to the rest of the sky. But it’s certainly fading that direction and my bed will welcome me very soon.

Tomorrow I’m leaving the mountains. I’ll be back, of course, in a couple weeks, but much further south in Colorado on my final stretch homeward. Tomorrow I’m taking the scenic Yellowhead Highway to Kamloops, some 250 miles down the road. I’ll probably make it in plenty of time to start my way towards Vancouver, but I’m not sure of which route to take just yet.

A little update on my camera-situation: A week ago I reported that it was acting up, the autofocus wouldn’t work unless I turned it off and on several times (which quickly wore down the battery). Well for the past four days it has worked flawlessly every time I’ve started it up, so for that I’m thankful. It’s got a little over three weeks to go and hopefully it’ll make it.

I’ve also added, in the spirit of my high altitude, a box in the left-column to track my highest elevation and lowest elevation points, labeled with “Elevation Extremes”.



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