Clouds were massing by the time we boarded the bus for our sightseeing tour of Jasper, and I was a bit disappointed. When you only have a day in a place that's known for its spectacular scenery, you want sunshine. But I needn't have worried. Our tour guide Fred was enthusiastic and up-beat and hopeful that we'd see at least one bear along the way.
He seemed very knowledgeable about the local wildlife, so I asked him about the ravens.
"They weren't looking for breakfast. They were just protecting their territory. They're not hunters. They're scavengers, like hyenas. But you do want to watch out for elk," he added. "Their calves are being born about now, and if an elk thinks her calf is in danger, she'll attack. And that's no joke. An angry elk can kill a wolf with her hooves. Even a bear won't take on a Mama elk."
We stopped at Athabasca Falls. Athabasca is a Cree word for "plants along the riverbank, one after the next". Xingxing frolicked joyously on his leash and I kept an eye out for mama elks. We went on to Maligne Canyon, a series of waterfalls created as the Maligne River passes through a series of deep, narrow gorges. The waterfalls freeze during the winter months, presenting an amazing spectacle for anyone willing to brave the sub-zero temperatures. Xingxing was having a ball, smelling all the smells and occasionally lifting a leg where no dog had gone before. I was still watching for elk. Everyone else was taking photographs.
Fred was sure we'd see a bear on the way to Medicine Lake, which is a glacial lake that fills up with ice and snow melt-water each spring. During the summer months the water gradually vanishes down a series of rock faults at the bottom of the lake. Ancient native Americans didn't know about the rock faults and considered the disappearance of the lake's waters magical. Whether or not the water can also cure illness is an open question, but beneath the overcast sky it was broodingly beautiful. Xingxing saw something that looked like a rabbit, but we didn't see any bear. However, we did encounter swarms of the biggest mosquitos I have ever seen. They were like little helicopters! There had been a plague of mosquitos, Fred told us, and all the shops in Jasper (not that there were very many of them) had sold out of mosquito repellent.
Our final stop was at Maligne Lake. Maligne is French. It means, malign. Apparently a French missionary traversing the area decided that he wanted to cross the river, despite the warnings of his Indian guides. So he waded in, and he and his pack animals were swept away. He didn't drown, but he lost all his stuff. Seriously pissed off, he blamed the lake which he dubbed, Maligne. Don't know if he had a dog, or not. Probably not.
Here, we embarked on a boat ride to Spirit Island. For a few minutes it looked as if it might be clearing. The sun was peeking in and out behind the clouds, and the effects were fantastic. During the moments of sunlight, the water was an amazing turquoise color -- which comes from the glaciated, powdered minerals in the water which refract the light. Spirit Island itself has a prosaic backstory: Years ago, someone entered a photograph of it in a Kodak competition and won -- and everyone who saw the photograph wanted to see the island, which became a major tourist attraction. Canadian history is like that: Things just seem to happen by accident.
We took lots of detours on the way back to Jasper, passing roadside clumps of a particular berry bush that bears apparently find irresistible. Undaunted, Fred was determined to show us a bear. We did see an elk, and lots of deer. Alas! no bear.Maybe they'd already eaten all the berries. But I felt bad for Fred. He tried so hard.