Land acknowledgment: Jasper National Park suffered the effects of another large forest fire this summer. We waited to return until we knew it was safe for us to do so. We as a society now know that the Indigenous fire keepers of the past kept the forests of the mountains healthy and strong. But the cultural burns they cultivated were made illegal on “public land”, and their communities were forced from their homes and their traditional territories to make space for White people to experience “wilderness”. Ignoring Indigenous wisom, combined with the impacts of climate change means we have been seeing larger, hotter and more frequent fires in these lands. The National Park Service has only recently started to welcome back the Indigenous peoples who have called this land home since time immemorial. Traditional ways of thinking and ways of being that might seem like new ways to some of us, make our land, our non-human kin, and our communities stronger.
INTRODUCTION AND HISTORY
Dan, Lucas & I have been doing some form of this trip since 2016. Jasper in November has become a lovely family tradition. The specifics change, but the core stays the same: cabin at Bear Hill Lodge, hike on Saturday. The impetus came from a trip that Dan & I took in 2014 to a different set of cabins (now called Miette Mountain Cabins). But really, the inspiration for these trips came 30+ years ago thanks to my maternal grandparents, who took my sister and I to Jasper each Thanksgiving. We stayed in a cabin, did a lot of hiking and exploring, played games, and ate a turkey dinner at a restaurant in town. It was a beautiful tradition they built for me, that I am grateful to be able to continue with my family.
OUR BASIC ITINERARY FOR THE WEEKEND
I wrote about this more indepth in 2020 (read that blog here), but here is the basic itinerary set up for our trip.
Day One is travel day. It works best for us when Dan & I take the day off to pack and prepare, then pick up Lucas from school and head straight out of town. This gets us out of Edmonton around 4:00pm, into Edson for dinner, and into Jasper between 8:00 and 9:00 pm. The less dark, winter, late night driving I have to do in the mountains, the better. In my younger, wilder days, I used to be able to make the drive in much less time, but I stopped speeding years ago. We get there when we get there, as safely as possible.
Day Two is the only full day we have, so we sleep in and take our time. Ha! Honestly, this trip is equal parts “gruelling” hike to lazy bones chill fest. Breakfast is made in our cabin, usually eggs for me and Dan, and toast and fruit for Lucas. Truthfully, Lucas is not a breakfast person, so I let him choose what he wants to nibble on to give him some energy for the trek ahead. We always make lunch to eat on the trail, then bundle up and head out the door. This year we left the cabin around 11am.
Next up, the hike! See the next section for the write up.
Finally, back to our cabin for some more relaxing before dinner. We alternately nap, read, and play Switch for an hour or so until we’re ready to eat dinner. Over the years this part has taken a few forms. In the early days, I would bring food to cook, to make use of the full kitchen. The past few years we have been ordering pizza takeout or delivery. And this year we decided to go into town and eat at the Korean restaurant. After dinner we do more relaxing. Or “chill-axing” as Dan calls it, to make me cringe.
Day Three. We have to get up slightly earlier on Sunday, as it’s check out day. Breakfast in our cabin, followed by packing the car. After a final sweep of the rooms, we are on our way. I like to stay in Jasper for as long as possible because it makes me feel nourished to be in this place. Some years we have headed to a more “touristy” part of the park that is close by – Maligne Canyon, Pyramid Lake, Athabasca Falls for example. This year, we walked through town, and poked our heads into some of the (lame) souvenir shops. Then got snacks and drinks at The Other Paw, an excellent bakery-cafe with two locations in downtown Jasper.
HIKE COORDINATOR FOR MY FAMILY
If readers are looking for some hot tips about hiking in Jasper, I am afraid this post might not be it. My only strict requirement for selecting a trail on these trips is its accessibilty from the front door of our cabin. I’m not looking for grand peaks, and we’re not chasing waterfalls. The purpose is to be together in the snow, moving through the National Park.
That being said, I still have to be mindful of some basic trail selection tips. This year we found that heavy snowfall in some areas eclipsed the trail and we had to wade through the snow. That was less than appealing for Lucas and his fabric boots. This also meant that the trail effectively disappeared, and we had to take to the road. Also less appealing, but thankfully there was not a lot of vehicle traffic to contend with. It is difficult to know the trail conditions ahead of time, so we take it slow and easy and prepare for whatever detours we need or want to take. This is where the generalized goal for the hike comes in handy. I’m rarely disappointed if things don’t work out according to plan, because there was no plan!
We started from our cabin and headed south into town. I was aiming for a trail – 12A – that would take us along the Athabasca River down to Wapiti Campground. This appeared to be a more popular route out of town, as there were a lot of footprints to follow. This became important when we “lost” the trail a few times. I was not going by a map or app, simply watching for trail markers along the way and heading in what I knew was the general direction of the campground. We wandered throug two vacation cabin properties, which is always fun in the winter when no one is around! The Athabasca River is really neat this time of year. It’s there, but a lot of it is covered in huge chunks of snow and ice. We followed it all the way to Wapiti, where we cut into the trees and into the campground. Another cool place to see in the winter with no one around.
I wanted to check out Whistlers Campground as well, which is on the opposite side of the highway from Wapiti, and back toward town. So we hiked the highway for about a kilometre. Not as fun as being in the trees, but it shaved some time off our trek. Whistlers has undergone renovations over the past few years, so you can see most of the campground from within it. And a perfect view of Whistlers and Pyramid Mountains, two iconic views in Jasper. We poked around here for a bit, but we were already at the 10km mark, Lucas was tired and had wet feet, and we still had to make it all the way back to town. So we popped out of the campground and back on to the highway. Boring, but fast. Again, the park isn’t super busy this time of year, so there wasn’t a lot of vehicle traffic to watch out for. I feel like the trails just outside the townsite don’t get enough love from the tourists. We passed a cool bike park, and walked alongside a train, which is an accidental tradition for us on these trips as well. Our cabins are located on the north side of town, so we walked through the commercial section and picked out our dinner location – Kimchi House. All told, our hike was 15.5km and we were on the trails for 4.5 hours.
If you’re looking for a tip for winter hiking in Jasper National Park, I guess I have a few:
- Keep your plan loose and general. One year I really wanted to head up into the trails behind town, but the trailhead was so slippery we couldn’t actually get up there. Also, weather can change fast in the mountains, especially if you are in a higher altitude. A change of plans might become a necessity for safety reasons too.
- Come as prepared as possible within your ability. This might look like poles and snowshoes if you have access to that gear.
- Plan for your least advanced hiker. For us, that’s Lucas. There was only one section he struggled on – he took a tumble off the trail down an incline – and while I wasn’t super concerned for his safety, I know that he was no longer having fun in that moment.
- There is some benefit to sticking to the popular trails in the winter, because that way you know it will be marked in some way, even if that’s just the footprints of the people who came before.
- Hiking on a paved trail, or an “easy” traill is still hiking. Anyone who tells you otherwise is gatekeeping the outdoors and I just don’t have time for that nonsense.
MOM GUILT AND THE FUTURE OF THIS TRIP
I have a 17 year old son on the precipice of the rest of his life. Just like when he was transitioning out of babyhood, I will have many “lasts” to grapple with this year.
Almost the moment we stepped foot into our cabin after the hike, Lucas told us he doesn’t want to come next year. I have a feeling that a lot of that statement was influened by the snow in his boots, but he also got me thinking. He will be 18 next November, and finished school. He will be required to make other choices of how he wants to spend his time – work, post-secondary – so why would this family vacation be any different? It was always my intent to make this a vacation about fun and rest for all of us, but I missed the signs that Lucas was outgrowing it. That his tastes were moving on. Do I pivot and try to tailor next year’s vacation to his changing ways? Or do I keep doing what I have always done, and hope he sees the value of this time together. Whatever happens, my rational mind knows that it will be fine and good whatever he chooses. My Mom mind however, feels a tonne of guilt. I don’t have any answers today. But I will increase my communication with him around this trip and any others I plan. So that we can continue our traditions, even if they have to be tweaked a bit.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
It looks like I’ve blogged only a few of these family tradition trips: 2019 & 2020. This trip that Dan & I took in 2014 the one that started it all. My family has been traveling to Jasper National Park since before I was born. And I have been documenting my trips in many ways, for many years. You can find all of my Jasper-related posts on my old blog here.
I have learned a lot over the years about the dark colonial history of our Parks system, and am always open to sharing what I’ve found. Please know that this is difficult subject, so prepare yourself accordingly, but White folks and settlers, we need to rise to this challenge.
“Canada’s National Parks are Colonial Crime Scenes” by Robert Jago (The Walrus, 2020)
“Rethinking the colonial Mentality of Our National Parks” by Jimmy Thomson (The Walrus, 2019)
“The Shady Past of Parks Canada: Forced out, indigenous people are making a comeback” by Graeme Hamilton (National Post, 2017)
“Nations of Jasper welcomed back to the Park” (Fitzhugh, 2012)
“Hunting in Jasper – Reconciling the National Park Idea by Kevin van Tighem (Alberta Views, 2018)
“Five National Parks that honour First Nations” by Hans Tammemagi (Tyee, 2012)
“From Parks to Prisons: Decolonization is the responsibility of people of colour too” by Shama Rangwala (The Star, 2019)