Facebook Twitter

Jasper — Canadian national park turns 100

SHARE Jasper — Canadian national park turns 100

JASPER, Alberta — In the early 1900s, the Athabasca and Miette valleys in central Alberta, Canada, remained mostly untamed — still the territory of trappers, mountaineers, outfitters and a few settlers.

As it did in so many other places, the railroad changed all that — or maybe we should say the railroad and the area's own natural beauty. In those early days of passenger travel, the railroad promoted itself by creating destination parks for visitors. The government would set aside the land, and the railroads would build lodges — and the people would come to visit.

Railroad survey crews had been working in the upper Athabaska Valley since the late 1880s as part of a proposal by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to build Canada's second transcontinental railroad — a line that would run from New Brunswick to British Columbia and would cross the Rockies at Yellowhead Pass.

In 1885, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad's line had brought attention and prosperity to parks created at Banff and Yoho, so the government began looking for a similar project farther north.

On Sept. 14, 1907, Canadian Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver signed Jasper Forest Park into being. It became Canada's fifth national park — and its largest, covering an area of more than 4,200 square miles. The name came from a mountain man named Jasper Hawse, who had operated a fur-trading post for the Northwest Company in the early 1800s.

The railroad finally reached what is now the town of Jasper in 1911, and visitors came right behind it.

All year Jasper National Park has been celebrating its centennial, ever since kicking things off with a Snow-Ball in February. Ongoing summer activities have called attention to the history, culture, wildlife and other aspects of the park environment.

They will wrap things up with a big shebang the weekend of Sept. 14, with re-enactments, birthday cake, an art show, golf tournament, cultural activities presented by aboriginal groups, a chance to meet-and-greet national park personnel and much more, says Gloria Brady, director of tourism and marketing for the national park.

It will be one fine celebration, she says. "We're unusual as a national park in that we have a community within the park, so we have a lot of partners to help with the celebration." Groups such as the Jasper Municipality, Friends of Jasper and the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives are sponsoring centennial events, some of which will continue through the rest of the year.

But it's fitting that the actual anniversary day is in September, says Brady. "September is one of our most beautiful months." It usually hasn't cooled off too much, she says, but there can be a hint of fall and fall color in the air. School is back in session, so most places aren't quite as busy. Wildlife is still around in many of the prime viewing locations.

The chance to see wildlife roaming in its natural habitat is one of the wonderful things Jasper offers, says Brady. The park is home to both grizzly and black bears. There are mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Moose, elk and deer all roam throughout the park. Woodland caribou are an endangered species in western Canada and carefully protected in Jasper. "Our campsite interpretive programs focus on the caribou a lot," says Brady, but they talk about other wildlife, environmental conservation and enjoying the park, as well.

"As a nation, we've become so urbanized that a visit to these protected areas is both foreign and fascinating. It gives people a chance to connect to the landscape — if they do nothing more than stop and watch the clouds pass by overhead," says Brady.

Jasper has a bit of a slower pace than Banff. "There's a more laid-back feel. Plus, it's a broad valley, so if you are not used to mountains, they don't seem quite as intimidating," says Brady. "But they're still beautiful."

One thing that impresses her about Jasper is that "the human history is so young. We're really not that far from being the frontier. My father-in-law moved here to work on the parkway when the town was mostly tents."

Archaeological sites have also shown that the presence of native tribes and wanderers doesn't go back all that far, she says. "There was not a lot of aboriginal use of the area."

But once people came, they fell in love with the place. That's another thing Brady loves about it. "People here have such a passion for the place. They have a real depth of feeling for the place — and they enjoy showing it to visitors."

There's a lot to see.

In the town itself, a good starting place is the Jasper Park Information Centre National Historic Site. This landmark was built in 1914 and is considered one of the finest examples of "rustic architecture" in Canada's mountain parks.

The Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives contains permanent exhibits on Jasper's history and "migrating" exhibits of art, history and culture. The railway station features a locomotive from earlier years.

If it's lakes you want, they abound. Pyramid Lake and Patricia Lake, offering beaches, fishing, boating, hiking and biking, are about a 15-minute drive northeast. Lakes Annette, Edith and Beauvert are about 10 minutes away on the other side of town. They're popular for swimming and wading in the summer.

Old Fort Point offers a nice view of the town and the Athabasca River — even if no one knows what the "old fort" actually was — a mountain-man trading post is the common guess.

For a nice overview, you can take the Jasper Tramway up Whistler's Mountain. There's a restaurant at the top, if you want to dine in a true alpine setting. A boardwalk and longer hiking trails provide a chance to see more of the area. The tram's about a 10-minute drive from downtown and is open from April to October.

Farther away from town are lots more opportunities for not only viewing scenery but for hiking and biking, if you are so inclined.

If you're fascinated by falling water, check out the Athabasca Falls and the Sunwapta Falls; both are along the Icefields Parkway that comes from Banff.

Athabasca Falls, which has been carving a gorge through the Rocky Mountains for thousands of years, drops from a height of about 70 feet and has the most powerful flow found in the Rocky Mountain parks. The Sunwapta Falls takes its name from the Stoney Nation word for "turbulent river." It's an apt name, especially at this point, where it plummets over the cliffs into a deep canyon. You can see just how deep from a footbridge.

If you want to get a closer view of mountains, take the road to Mount Edith Cavell, named for a World War I nurse who was executed in Brussels after it fell to the Germans for helping Allied prisoners of war escape. The road to the base of the mountain was completed in 1924 (and is unsuitable for large trailers and RVs).

Miette Hot Springs, which has a temperature of about 140 degrees F., is the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian parks. It is about an hour from Jasper, off the road to Edmonton. In addition to the hot pools, there's a cool pool, hiking trails and other accommodations.

Another popular side trip is the journey to Maligne Lake. The road through the narrow canyon passes Medicine Lake, once thought by native tribes to be inhabited by spirits because its level varies radically, sometimes even drying up altogether. Now we know that is caused by a combination of underground drainage systems and the spring runoff, but one reason the Rocky Mountain Parks were designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations is this lake, one of the largest "sinking" lakes in the Western Hemisphere.

Further on is the long and narrow Maligne Lake, the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. Boat tours are offered on the 14-mile-long lake; the area is popular with hikers in the summer and cross country skiers in the winter.

Maligne Lake was once called Sore-Foot Lake, due to the effort it took to get there — before the roads came along. But when early explorer and frontierswoman Mary Schaffer followed a Stoney tribesman's map to the lake in 1908, she wrote, "There burst upon us the finest view any of us had ever beheld in the Rockies."

Maybe so, but in this rugged, wild, beautiful area you will find views that will catch your breath and tingle your spine practically everywhere you look. And you will thank the Canadians for taking such good care of them these past 100 years.

If you go ...

• For more information on Jasper visit www.pc.gc.ca/jasper or www.jaspercanadianrockies.com or call 780-852-6150.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com